PLAN 77: Article
Guastavino Vaulting: The Art Of Structural Tile

A New Book from John Ochsendorf

A new book from SA+P’s John Ochsendorf traces the development of the Rafael Guastavino family, a father/son team of immigrants whose ingenious ‘Tile Arch System’ enabled architects to create dramatic domed ceilings in such major landmarks as Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, the Biltmore Estate, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Registry Hall at Ellis Island and many major university buildings.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Guastavinos were responsible for designing tile vaults in nearly a thousand buildings around the world, vaults that are among the most daring masonry structures of all time, but the firm's accomplishments have remained relatively unknown to the public, primarily because the Guastavinos served only as contractors on the projects.

Ochsendorf is on a mission to change that. His new book, Guastavino Vaulting – lavishly illustrated with color photographs by Michael Freeman – traces the development of the remarkable construction technology from its Mediterranean roots to its highest achievements in the United States.

It features archival images, drawings and beautiful color photography showcasing the most spectacular of the vaulted spaces; an extensive appendix lists the addresses of all known extant Guastavino vaults, over six hundred masterpieces small and large.

In November, Ochsendorf presented his book on Guastavino vaults beneath actual Guastavino vaults in the Boston Public Library, noting that there are seven types of vaulting in the library and that these were the first of Guastavino’s vaults in which the tiles were left exposed, rather than plastered over, introducing a new element of the decorative to their work. He also noted that the Guastavino vaults could be built with no formwork for support, a technology actually developed in North Africa that can be found throughout the Mediterranean. But wherever it’s found, he said, it is claimed by the locals as their own.

In addition to his book and lectures, Ochsendorf has initiated the Guastavino Project at MIT, dedicated to documenting and preserving the Guastavino vaults, many of which have been destroyed. And Guastavino scholars in the United States are now planning a major exhibition in 2012 that will bring together scholars from around the world. To learn more:

John Ochsendorf is an associate professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture, specializing in the history and technology of historic structures. He was the first engineer to be awarded a Rome Prize (2007) and the first structural engineer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (2008).