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 in the New York City area

 

A View from a First Timer’s APT Annual Conference

In October, 2017, the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT) and the National Trust for Canada held CAPITALizing on HERITAGE: COMMUNITY, GOVERNMENT and SAVOIR-FAIRE in Ottawa. The joint conference showcased 190 speakers and over 40 exhibitors. With roughly 1,100 attendees and more than 20 countries represented, the four-day event became the largest heritage conference ever held in Canada. CAPITALizing on HERITAGE was my first APT Annual Conference, and fueled by a shameful amount of readily available coffee I made my way around paper sessions, banquets, and plenary discussions. Compared to regional APT symposia, the programming was diverse and immense with focuses ranging from the archeological unearthing and documentation of Nova Scotia’s built heritage to an exploration of Ontario’s northern wilderness in search of the rugged landscapes immortalized in paintings by the Group of Seven.

The trusty phone app.

Seven paper tracks covered topics as diverse as cultural landscapes, non-destructive testing, heritage advocacy, the economics of preservation, engineering, and sustainability. With my trusty phone app and program book in hand, I raced around the conference level to catch specific presentations, curating a personal agenda that offered talks on architectural diagnostics and documentation as well as those that were distinctly Canadian like heritage values and the rights of Canada’s First Nations people. Thanks in large part to programming arranged by the National Trust for Canada, the duality of Ottawa’s existence as both a modern capital city and the unceded ancestral territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe was never lost on those who attended the conference. This constant reminder sparked conversations that are simply not being discussed in the United States.

For every learning opportunity CAPITALizing on HERITAGE offered there was an occasion to network and reconnect. It became apparent that the social aspect of the event alone was worth the registration. In Ottawa, I attended the first meeting of the Technical Committee for Materials, talked shop with a former employer, shared a bottle of wine with new contacts, and was introduced to several leading authorities in preservation. I was happy to catch up with familiar faces from previous APT symposia as well. For someone who is relatively new to the field and APT, the Annual Conference offered an unparalleled opportunity to network.

Between the paper sessions, banquets and cocktail hours, CAPITALizing on HERITAGE was nearly overwhelming. Fortunately breaks in programming provided time to get out and explore downtown Ottawa. Whether it was views of Parliament Hill perched high above the confluence of three rivers or beaver tails in ByWard Market (fried dough smothered in butter and maple syrup did not disappoint), Ottawa delivered. The city proved to be an ideal venue for a joint conference with an emphasis on the built environment and interpretations of its cultural significance. With my first Annual Conference behind me I am looking forward to celebrating APT’S 50th Anniversary at Points of Departure next year in Buffalo. (I happen to be on the planning committee and so far it looks like it’s going to be an amazing event!)

 

 

 

Join the Fight for NY Scaffolding Reform November 8th


Next Wednesday, November 8, join Kent Diebolt as he attends the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York (LRANY) at their annual meeting where the fight for scaffold reform is still going strong. If you can’t attend, we urge to to consider joining LRANY and ensuring your voice is heard.

The Issue

New York Labor Law sections 240/241, commonly called the “Scaffold Law”, holds contractors and property owners absolutely liable for any elevation related injuries sustained by a worker, regardless of the worker’s own negligence.  New York is the only state in the nation which still has such a law.

The Solution

LRANY supports the elimination of the Scaffold Law’s absolute liability standard and the implementation of a comparative liability standard, in which a worker’s own negligence, intoxication, or refusal to use safety equipment may be admitted as evidence in court. This would stimulate job creation, improve workplace safety, and reduce the burden on the state and its taxpayers.

For more information: LRANY

Read about Congressman John Faso’s efforts

Dutch Reformed Church Earns Structural Investigation Project of the Year Award

 

Vertical Access and Ryan Biggs | Clark Davis were presented this month with a Structural Engineering Project of the Year Award in the studies/investigation category for our Dutch Reformed Church Structural Investigation project by the American Society of Civil Engineers Structural Engineering Institute’s Mohawk Hudson Chapter. This was an exciting project for us and we were glad to be a part of the team!

Our role on the project included:

  • Documenting checks, levels and other representative and notable conditions at the roof trusses with digital photographs hyperlinked to annotated condition drawings with quantities provided for each condition using TPAS®.
  • Taking direct measurements of truss members to characterize the trusses and develop sketches of existing connection details.
  • Helping to determine the cause of movement observed at the roof framing.

More on this project

Mike Russell Earns SPRAT Level II Certification

Mike Russell, EIT, has earned his Level II Certification from the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT).  A Level II certified individual is responsible for physically conducting rope access operations and/or safety evaluations of rope access operations, including maintenance of associated access equipment and performs all Rope Access Lead Technician duties as assigned in the employer’s rope access work program.  To become a SPRAT-certified technician, Mike was required to attend a certification session and pass a written test, verbal test, and a hands-on physical performance based test assessed by a SPRAT-certified Evaluator, in addition to logging 500 hours on the job as a SPRAT Level I certified professional.

Mike joined Vertical Access in 2016 bringing with him over six years of experience working in the construction industry, both commercial and residential, specifically relating to project management, sustainable building practices, and restoration in residential and maritime environments.

He began restoring boats for the City of Charleston (South Carolina) Maritime Foundation while pursuing a degree in Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston.  Following his switch to the field of engineering, Mike joined a residential construction firm located on the Connecticut shoreline that specialized in the restoration and rehabilitation of barns and historic homes.  From there he went on to join Whiting-Turner, a national contracting firm where he worked as a project engineer on large scale commercial projects before joining Vertical Access in the summer of 2016.

Announcing the TPAS 2017 Release Webinar

TPAS 2017 is here! Join TPAS LLC and Vertical Access for a live, interactive webinar on October 11 at 1pm EDT to learn about the new 2017 features as well as the basics of the Tablet PC Annotation System. Vertical Access uses TPAS for direct-to-digital surveys, saving time in the field and in the office.

Visit the TPAS Blog for more information about the 2017 release and webinar, or click here to register.

Congressman John Faso Joins Effort to Reform New York State Scaffold Law

Congressman John Faso announced on Tuesday the introduction of innovative, new legislation entitled the “Infrastructure Expansion Act,” which would relieve some of the negative effects of New York State’s Scaffold Law by imposing a liability standard of comparative negligence on all construction projects that receive federal financial assistance. This legislation is directly intended to reduce the cost of new construction – both public and private – which is subsidized using federal funds.  The proposal would ensure that any project using federal dollars is not subject to New York law mandating “absolute liability” on the building owners and contractors.

Listen to the WCNY interview below, and read the full press release here.

September 19, 2017: Rep. John Faso and Mike Elmendorf

 

For more about the Scaffold Law Reform, visit www.scaffoldlaw.org

 

Reviving Hospitals and Asylums for the 21st Century

Abandoned hospitals and asylums may be a horror film cliche, but the statistics on vacant, threatened, and demolished institutional complexes are all too real. Search “abandoned asylum” and the first hit is an article on the popular website Atlas Obscura: “18 Abandoned Psychiatric Hospitals, and Why They Were Left Behind.” Of the hundreds of asylums built in the U.S. during the 19th and early 20th centuries, most became underused or vacant during the deinstitutionalization movement of mid-20th century. Some have been repurposed, but many more await revitalization.

Partial demolition of the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Library of Congress, call number HABS NY,31-WELFI,6–2

Psychiatric hospitals are challenging to reuse. Many of them are physical reminders of tragic chapters in the history of mental health treatment, and often include patient burials on the site. Some contain buildings that have been vacant for decades, subject to neglect and vandalism.

But there are many reasons why hospitals and asylums are historically significant and should be preserved. First and foremost, they are places of memory for understanding and recording the histories of the thousands of individuals who lived and died on their grounds. Former hospitals also serve as a record of the changing attitudes about institutionalization and treatment of mental illness in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. And, many are recognized as works by master designers and as examples of the prevailing architectural styles of their times. Tuberculosis sanatoriums, smallpox hospitals, and soldiers’ homes are among other institutional building types sharing some of the same challenges and opportunities for adaptive use as asylums.

The Richardson OImsted Complex in 1965. Photo by Jack E. Boucher. Library of Congress, call number HABS NY,15-BUF,9-1

These complexes also contain durable building stock representing a significant amount of embodied energy. Many of the sprawling campuses were designed to be self-sufficient farms, so they have plenty of room for sensitive infill or new construction to meet accessibility standards and modern needs. Hospitals across the U.S. have been repurposed for contemporary healthcare uses, education, and housing. Buildings on the campus of the Richardson Olmsted Complex (formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane and now a National Historic Landmark) have been reborn as Hotel Henry and the Lipsey Buffalo Architecture Center, while other buildings have been stabilized for future renovation. The campus recently hosted enLIGHTen, an outdoor concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with a custom-designed light show projected onto the H.H. Richardson-designed main building.

Binghamton’s “Castle on the Hill”
By Kfbill08 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11013391

Closer to our home office in Ithaca, the former New York State Inebriate Asylum in Binghamton (now also known as the “Castle on the Hill”) is a National Historic Landmark awaiting rehabilitation. It was chartered in 1854 as the first facility in the U.S. to treat alcoholism as a medical illness, but was converted to a mental hospital in the 1870s. Plans were announced in 2008 for SUNY Upstate Medical University to revitalize the complex, but the project was abandoned during the recession. In 2015, Binghamton University took over stewardship of the property, and exterior work is expected to begin in early 2018.

Vertical Access on site at the St. Elizabeths West Campus, U.S. General Services Administration. Photo by Vertical Access.

Another large campus currently undergoing long-term revitalization is the 346-acre St. Elizabeths in Washington, D.C. (also a National Historic Landmark), where Vertical Access recently completed a smokestack investigation working with Atkinson-Noland & Associates and Goody Clancy. The multi-phase project includes repurposing some existing buildings, mothballing others, and adding new construction in order to house the United States Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852-2017 is on exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C through January 15, 2018.

 

Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island: Restoration of the Child’s Restaurant

In her Applicator cover story, “The Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island and the Seaside Park,” Architect Diane Kaese highlights the redevelopment and restoration effort at the former Child’s Restaurant. For Vertical Access Preservation Technician Patrick Capruso it was a thrill to see photographs of the finished façades. As a former finisher at Boston Valley Terra Cotta, Patrick helped to sculpt a number of the 752 terra cotta units replicated for the building.

As Kaese explains, ornamental elements of the maritime motif originally modeled by Sculptor Max Keck and produced by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company were meticulously reproduced using undercutting techniques to accentuate shadows and hide the ¼” joints required for seamless assembly.

According to Patrick, shaping these elaborate snails, ships, and seashells was both difficult and immensely rewarding.

Congratulations to Diane Kaese, Boston Valley Terra Cotta, and the rest of the project team on a job well done!

Berta de Miguel Earns Her Ph.D

Berta de Miguel has earned her Ph.D in Preservation of Architectural Heritage from Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Valencia, Spain. She joined VA as in intern in 2011, initially focusing on our continued research into the works of the Guastavino Company in New York City.

A SPRAT Level I technician, she currently participates in Vertical Access field projects and preservation conferences.

 

Berta is our Metropolitan New York branch office manager and is a NYC Department of Buildings CD-5 Filing Representative. She co-instructed a graduate level course, “Restoration of Historic Buildings: Discovery, Design, Execution”, at Manhattan College in New York City in Spring of 2013.

Berta also participated in the award-winning biographical documentary, El Architecto de Nueva York, a celebration of the lives and careers of the Rafael Guastavinos, father and son, developers of the Guastavino vault architectural construction technique.

For six years prior to joining the VA team, Berta was a project manager of building restoration projects at Edycon, one of the top ten architectural conservation and historic preservation firms in Spain. She was responsible for managing multiple projects with large teams simultaneously, in addition to the preparation of reports to clients and institutions. Berta’s professional background also includes two years studying architectural preservation in Cuba and Belgium. She has been the restoration site project manager on more than twenty landmarks, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Catedral de Teruel (12th century), the National Landmark Castle of Sagunto (Roman origin), and the San Martin Church of Valencia (14th century).

Congratulations Berta!