Soaring Ideas

Soaring Ideas

Interior of the Boston Public Library.
Michael Freeman

Places for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces
National Building Museum
401 F Street NW
Washington, D.C.
Through January 20, 2014

Constant innovation, revolutionary technology, shrewd marketing, and a risk-taking founder. No, the current exhibition at the National Building Museum is not about a 21st century tech start-up. It’s about the Guastavino Company (1881–1962), which, over a century ago, revolutionized American architectural design and construction.

Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces features the work of the Spanish immigrant Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842–1908) and the family  firm that he created. The exhibition looks at the history of the firm from the perspectives of “immigration history, architectural innovation, and the cultural conditions that led to the creation of hundreds of America’s great public spaces.”

The Smithsonian Institution (left). The Biltmore Estate (center). Rafael Guastavino Sr. (right).
Michael Freeman / Courtesy National Building Museum

Guastavino Sr. capitalized on the urban construction boom in the United States by adapting centuries-old Spanish building methods and patenting a new system that enabled the construction of supporting arches that were lightweight, fireproof, and inexpensive. His son Rafael Guastavino Jr. (1872–1950), an equally skilled inventor, kept the company at the forefront of the construction industry in the early 20th century with the development of acoustical ceramics and the design of larger, lighter domes.

New York City Hall Subway Station.
Michael Freeman

The exhibition highlights the intersection of this technology with aesthetics. The Guastavino Company controlled the fabrication process of their signature tiles, supervising craftsmen in the shaping and firing of tiles that were used to create vaults patterned in colorful geometric designs. Original Guastavino Company patents and drawings are on view, many on loan from Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. And a beautiful half-scale tiled vault inspired by the Guastavinos’ work at the Boston Public Library (1889–90) allows visitors to see the patented “cohesive construction” technique—multiple layers of ceramic tiles bonded with thick mortar.

St. Paul’s Chapel (left). Vaulted Dome (right).
Michael Freeman

The Guastavinos were not only innovators and artists, they were also entrepreneurs who knew how to make a profit, create hype, and built partnerships with some of the greatest American architects. Despite his limited English, Guastavino Sr. enthusiastically lectured and gave hands-on demonstrations to sell his products and promote his new construction system. The company took out advertisements in trade journals and made headlines in widely read newspapers and magazines. The New York Herald reported on the heavenly construction of the vault at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1909): “Young Architect Upsets All Theories of Engineers and Erects Vast Structure.”

Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar (left). The Vanderbilt Hotel (right).
Michael Freeman

The greatest marketing materials, however, were the buildings themselves—new civic spaces that reflected the nation’s ideas and aspirations. The master builders worked with Heinz and LaFarge at City Hall Subway Station, New York City (1903), Richard Morris Hunt at the Biltmore Estate (1895), Warren and Wetmore at the Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar, New York City (1912), and architect Bertram Goodhue and mosaic artist Hildreth Meière at the Nebraska State Capitol (1922–1932). Large-scale, commissioned photography by Michael Freeman captures these expansive yet intimate spaces.

The Guastavino Company is a case study for modern entrepreneurs looking to disrupt the construction industry today (ahem, 3D printing companies). The exhibition and accompanying interactive searchable map, a work in progress that will feature nearly 600 extant Guastavino buildings, will help reintroduce the work of this somewhat forgotten company to a grateful public.