Celebrating the Life and Work of Guastavino at Recent Cultural Screenings, Discussions


I have dedicated a major portion of my career to studying the life and work of Rafael Guastavino. Recently I was honored to play a part of two screenings of El Architecto De Nueva York, the award-winning documentary in which I appeared with Kent Diebolt and John Ochsendorf as well as our Spanish colleagues Camilla Miletto, Arturo Zaragosa and Fernando Vegas. In the film we guided viewers through iconic examples of his work in New York City such as Grand Central Terminal, the Guastavino Oyster Bar, Ellis Island and more.  This documentary won a Gold Dolphin at the 2016 Cannes Festival and a New York Festival World’s Best TV & Films section Biographies. The director was Eva Vizcarra.

On October 23, I moderated a round table following the documentary screening at the Instituto Cervantes NYC (http://nyork.cervantes.es/FichasCultura/Ficha116680_27_1.htm)

The participants of the round table were:

  • Jaume Soler, an acoustician with more than 20 years of experience designing theaters and concert halls around the world. He studied telecommunications engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and he is currently an associate principal at the engineering firm Arup. Jaume’s first contact with the work of Rafael Guastavino was in a small town near Barcelona, while studying the acoustics of La Massa theatre in Vilassar de Dalt about 18 years ago. However, it was not until he moved to New York, in 2001, that he grasped the breadth and impact of Guastavino’s work. Jaume has worked and conducted acoustical surveys of several Guastavino projects since then.
  • Miguel Quismondo received his degree in architecture from the Polytechnic School in Madrid and developed his career in the United Sates. Over the past decade Miguel has worked for Olnick Spanu on the design, construction and management of Casa Mia, the Olnick Spanu Art Program, and the Magazzino Italian Art. He holds Master’s degrees in Real Estate Development from Columbia University and Construction Management from NYU. Miguel’s work has been issued in la Biennale di Venezia, Architectural Record, A+U, Casabella, ABC, El País and El Mundo among other publications.

We discussed the following topics:

  1. We usually talk about Guastavino as an individual but in fact there were two: Rafael Guastavino Moreno & Rafael Guastavino Expósito (RGM and RGE). Who were these two men and what is a Guastavino vault? Referred to as “Palaces for the People”, Guastavino vaults involve a technique known as timbrel vaulting: utilizing layers of interlocking small, flat tiles, plaster, and mortar.  This technique has been described as inexpensive, fireproof, light, fast to build, having almost infinite aesthetic possibilities, and was installed by the Guastavinos in more than 1000 buildings in 11 countries.
  1. Keys of their success: both Guastavinos used in their own way traditional architecture as an inspiration for innovation. One example is the technical progress that RGE introduced in acoustics along with Wallace Clement Sabine. Jaume explained to the group why RGE’s contribution was so important in this field:
  • The two materials used in Guastavino vaults (Rundorf and Akustolit) significantly impacted fields such as theatric and other performing arts.
  • “Whispering gallery” sound effects were not designed intentionally but are an artifact of architectural design.
  1. William Jordy was the first to include the Guastavinos in a History of Architecture publication in 1972. This is unfair for two men that are considered two of the most important architects/constructors. Considering their amazing contribution in different fields they are not as known as they should be. Surprisingly, we still don’t study the Guastavinos and their innovations in architectural and engineering academic curricula.
  1. RGM often compared music to architecture, saying that both need not only the creator or the artist but equal importantly the craftmanship of the hands of who is actually building or playing the music. That kind of craftsmanship today would be difficult and expensive.
  1. Each one of us chose a favorite Guastavino building and explained the election. Mine was the demolished Penn Station. Based on my research and historic photos, that building is one of my favorite for many reasons. As the architect, educator and critic Vincent Scully compared the demolished Penn Station to the current one:

One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat. 

Then on November 9, I introduced the screening at the Observatorio del Instituto Cervantes en Harvard University (Link to the event: https://college.harvard.edu/documentary-screening-and-discussion-rafael-guastavino-el-arquitecto-de-nueva-york)

I let the audience know that they were about to see the only documentary ever filmed about the Guastavinos, two Spanish architects/constructors responsible for designing and building iconic spaces in more than 1000 buildings in the world. Of these, there are around 156 Guastavino buildings in Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I also read the words of Professor George Collins, from Columbia University, who rescued the incomplete but extensive archives of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company from destruction:


After the screening I answered some questions and analyzed the following topics:

  1. Keys for their success:
    • RGM registered the patent of what he called “cohesive construction” as a fireproof system. The timbrel vault was inspired in the traditional Spanish construction system of the bóveda tabicada o catalana. He used traditional architecture as an inspiration for innovation.In total, the Guastavino’s held 24 US Patents.
    • Inexpensive: no form, fast to build. The main dome of Saint John the Divine (the largest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere) was built in just 3 months.
    • Almost infinite aesthetic possibilities. Fusion of industry, art and craft. They were beautiful.
  1. Legacy, anonymity, demolitions:
    • Collins registered a total of 1113 structures
    • USA: 1066 / Canada: 21 / Cuba, Holland, India, Mexico, Panama, Spain, Trinidad, UK: 26.  In New York City: 363; in Massachusetts : 156.
    • Their peak year of production was 1909 with 39 buildings in construction.
    • In Manhattan approximately 12% have been completely demolished. During the early 1960’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s consulting engineers did not fully understand the structural behavior of the Guastavino vaults in wings E and H, so they decided to demolish them and replace them with a steel beam girder system.
  1. Decline of Guastavino Vaulting
    • New aesthetic styles started to reject curvilinear surfaces in favor of the flat planes. Post-war changes in construction technology also began focusing on more industrial or manufactured, rather than hand-made approaches.
    • Rise of engineering: the company used to serve both as a structural engineer and constructor, but new codes forced the company to work under other structural engineers, many who didn’t understand the system and forced the company to over-build the structures.
    • Rise of reinforced concrete and thin shells: in 1913 German engineers built a concrete dome spanning 200’ (61 m) which, for the first time in 2000 years surpassed the Pantheon. In 1934 the Hayden planetarium in NYC was built with a concrete dome spanning 81’ (24m) and 3 inches thick (7.5cm). The American Concrete Institute promoted concrete as less expensive. In 1954 MIT organized an event on concrete shells and the Guastavino Company sent a representative to find out the price per square foot: $3. At that moment, due to rising labor cost, a Guastavino vault was $7 sqft.
    • RGE sold the company in 1950 and died in 1962. The last project is Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, GA, 1961
  1. Something to think about: How is it possible that the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company could supervise so many ongoing construction sites simultaneously?

Lastly, I read a quote by John Ochsendorf:

The way that the Guastavino Company built with the hands as much as the head, blurring boundaries between craft and tradition and modern technology, is something that both designers and builders can learn from.

Here I am after the Harvard screening showing a timeline we developed that follows the projects and main events in the Guastavinos’ lives.


A short version of the film (56 minutes), in Spanish, can be seen in: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/imprescindibles/imprescindibles-arquitecto-nueva-york-rafael-guastavino/3571098/

For more on our experience with Guastavino consulting, go here.

You may also be interested in viewing this map of many of the the Guastavino buildings.


Berta’s World Travel Journal

I am back in the New York City office after 5 months traveling. In April I flew to Spain, where I spent some weeks visiting family and traveling through ancient cities such Avila, Salamanca or Ciudad Rodrigo in my way to Portugal, a country that I love for several reasons, being its wonderful people and their amazing food two of the main ones. Also, the cultural and architectural heritage of the country is awesome and kept as a secret treasure … Coimbra, Santa Maria da Feira, Aveiro, Porto … are amazing cities that I never get tired of visiting. There, you can close your eyes and feel transported to the old times at the same time that you enjoy a wonderful Porto wine hearing fado music and eating a plate of breathtaking bacalhau al bras (a dish with cod, potatoes, eggs and black olives).


I reentered Spain through Galicia, from where I headed to León; I spent some days visiting Leon city and its Gothic Cathedral: a thirteen century temple, also called The House of Light. It was built on the site of previous Roman baths of the 2nd century which, 800 years later, King Ordoño II converted into a palace. I also had the chance to visit Logroño and its gothic-baroque Cathedral, recently beautifully renovated. If you go to Logroño, you can’t miss Laurel Street with its Rioja wine, mosto and tapas, another well kept secret from the north of Spain.

Before the arrival of the summer I flew to Thailand and traveled through the north visiting ancient villages such as Sukotai. From Chang Mai I crossed the border with Laos by boat and arrived in Luang Prabang. The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main part of the city consists of four principal roads located on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. From there, we took a boat upstream the Mekong River and then the Ou River, with the aim of arriving to Nong Kiao and Mon Ngoy, small villages nested in the middle of tropical forested mountains, the later with no electricity nor road traffic. I contacted some masons and craftsmen of the area with the purpose of understanding the vernacular traditional architecture based in wood, straw and ceramics.

After one week in Lao, I flew back to Bangkok in order to take a flight to Myanmar, the most amazing country I have ever visited. My travel through Myanmar started in Yangoon, the capital, with its rich colonial architecture, its street vendors and its life; everything surrounded with warm decay. After some days I headed to Bagan; from the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the highest time of kingdom, between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 13000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2230 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.

I had the chance to visit some restoration sites and learn the techniques of restoration, which are no much different from the techniques used years ago. The two basic materials used are brick and mortar. I also visited the second largest city in the country, Mandalay, and the area of the Inke Lake, an otherworldly place with its floating markets, fishermen, villages and gardens; a society on the water. Then I directed my steps to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with its world known Petronas Towers. The mix of tradition and different cultures makes KL and its architecture a very interesting city worth of visiting. Aside of Kuala Lumpur I crossed all the west coast of the peninsula from north to south stopping in the islands of Perenthian, Kappas and Tioman, before entering to Singapore.  Singapore is a city where the most futuristic buildings and the vastest extension of shopping malls I have ever seen merge with the east Asia tradition such as churches, hawkers (food courts), pagodas, Hindu temples, and mosques.

Once back in Europe I took a break in Spain with my family and then I traveled trough the west coast of France, where you could taste the wonderful French food, enjoy nature, middle age villages, sea and excellent climbing. Bourdeaux, Pays de la Loire, La Bretagne, Normandie, Saint Emilion, Paris… but the most striking place was, without doubt, Le Mont Saint-Michel, MtStMichelan island full filled of middle age buildings with the castle-church crowning the top of the mountain. The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Years ago you could not reach the island but in low tide, even though it was very dangerous because of the quicksand surrounding the area. That is the reason why this place was so difficult to assault.

Among the numerous historical sites I have discovered I would highlight Yangon, the magic of Shwedagon pagoda and the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, University of Coimbra, Oporto city center and Mont Saint-Michel. The best part without doubt has been sharing my trips, time and life with family and friends.

Since I came back to New York and returning to Vertical Access I have had the chance to participate in very interesting and challenging projects such as the former MetLife Tower on Madison Square, the Ritz tower in New York, and the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in Washington DC, among others. I am very happy to be back and share what I have learned.