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Published: February 28, 2013
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National Building Museum Presents Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces

First major exhibition celebrating one of America’s greatest yet least known builders of iconic public spaces

Guastavino Vaulting Subway City Hall


Smithsonian Vaulting by Guastavino


Bridgemarket Vaulting by Guastavino

Photo credits: Main entrance hall of the Boston Public Library with elaborate mosaic tile covering the underside of the Guastavino vault (1889-1891); Guastavino tile dome at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, architect s Hornblower and Marshall (1909); Vaulted arcade below the approach to the Queensboro Bridge now houses a grocery store, New York City, architect Henry Hornbostel (1909). All photos by Michael Freeman.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The exhibition Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces will open at the National Building Museum on March 16, 2013, and run through January 20, 2014.

The Guastavino family’s soaring tile vaults grace many of the nation’s most iconic structures including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nebraska State Capitol. Yet the name, the accomplishments, and the architectural legacy of this single family of first-generation Spanish immigrants are virtually unknown.

Not only did the Guastavinos and their company help build many great American public spaces between 1881 and 1962, they also revolutionized American architectural design and construction. Their patented vaulting techniques made it possible for architects to create the breathtakingly beautiful spaces that represent the nation’s highest ideals and aspirations.

Palaces for the People sheds lights on the story of Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842–1908), arguably the most influential architectural craftsman working in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. An established master builder in Barcelona, Guastavino immigrated to New York with his young son, Rafael Jr. (1872–1950), in 1881. His patented tiling system—based on a centuries-old Spanish building method—enabled the construction of self-supporting arches that were simultaneously lightweight, virtually indestructible, fireproof, and attractive. The construction system interlocked and layered thin clay tiles and quick-setting mortar in highly decorative patterns. Compared to stone or brick vaults which required additional time and materials, Guastavino’s tile vaults were exceptionally economical and highly versatile. Within a few short years, Guastavino’s signature vaulting technique had transformed the American architectural landscape.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the International Masonry Institute (IMI), the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, ZGF Architects LLP, and Spain Arts & Culture, the National Building Museum will present a major gallery exhibition, tours, and lectures dedicated to highlighting Guastavino’s work. The exhibition will include historic drawings, photographs, and objects, along with newly commissioned photographs by London photographer Michael Freeman to help make the art, engineering, and the immigrant story come alive for today’s audiences.

“We’re proud to showcase the work of Rafael Guastavino, whose innovative techniques transformed the fields of architecture and engineering, and whose structures continue to awe their visitors,” said Chase W. Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum.

Palaces for the People was conceived and organized by Professor John Ochsendorf, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A 2008 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Ochsendorf is the author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010.

Palaces for the People tells the story of the Guastavino family and their enormous contributions to American architecture, art, and construction. Their remarkable company was launched with the construction of the Boston Public Library 120 years ago, and it is thrilling to be able to share that story. We are still discovering the full extent of their work, and we hope the exhibition will activate the public in the search for other Guastavino buildings,” said Ochsendorf.

Outstanding examples of Guastavino’s work grace more than 600 buildings in 36 states, including over 25 in the Washington Metropolitan area. The National Museum of Natural History, the Washington National Cathedral, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, and Georgetown University’s Copley Hall, boast Guastavino tile vaults.

One of the highlights of Palaces for the People will be the construction of a half-scale replica of a Boston Public Library ceiling vault, the first major work by Rafael Guastavino. The vault will be constructed by masons from the International Masonry Institute, the International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers, and MIT architecture and engineering students. A short film documents the construction of the vault, and provides a detailed understanding of the technique. In addition, a slideshow will feature an in-depth look at iconic Guastavino buildings from their original drawing through construction to contemporary views.

The exhibition designers are C&G Partners of New York. The exhibition debuted at the Boston Public Library.

Additional information about the exhibition and related programming is available on www.nbm.org.

Admission to the exhibition is $8 for adults, $5 for youth, students, and seniors, and free for National Building Museum members and children under three. Visit www.nbm.org to purchase tickets online.

A press preview of Palaces for the People is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, 2013, from 10 am-Noon.
Chase Rynd, National Building Museum executive director, and John Ochsendorf will discuss the exhibition before a curator-led tour. To RSVP, please contact Emma Filar, 202.272.2448, ext. 3458 or efilar@nbm.org.

The National Endowment for the Humanities offers the prestigious America’s Historical and Cultural Organizations: Planning and Implementation Grants to support museum exhibitions, library-based projects, interpretation of historic places or areas, websites, and other project formats that excite and inform about America’s history and culture.

The School of Architecture + Planning is one of five schools at MIT and comprises five divisions – the Department of Architecture, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Media Lab, the Center for Real Estate and the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology. The Department of Architecture was the first such department in the nation (1865) and became a leader in introducing Modernism to America. Today, it continues a long tradition of individualized instruction, offering programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The department's setting within MIT permits particular depth in such technical areas as computation, new modes of design and production, materials, structure and energy, as well as in the arts, humanities and social studies. To learn more, visit sap.mit.edu.

The National Building Museum is America’s leading cultural institution dedicated to advancing the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives. Through its exhibitions, educational programs, online content, and publications, the Museum has become a vital forum for the exchange of ideas and information about the world we build for ourselves. Public inquiries: 202.272.2448 or visit www.nbm.org. Connect with us on Twitter: @BuildingMuseum and Facebook.

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