Rafael Guastavino & the Tile Arch System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The tile arch system is something you may never have heard of, but you may very well have seen it at some point. In this lesson, we'll check out the history behind this innovative method and see where you can find it today.

Rafael Guastavino

When we're talking about major architectural innovations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we're often discussing advancements in steel and the most modern of techniques, but not today. As the world was becoming more in awe of modern steel construction, Spanish-born American architect Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908) proved that some of the best ideas could still come from the oldest of techniques.

Rafael Guastavino
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Timbrel Vaulting

Before we can get into Guastavino's architectural epiphany, we need to take a step back to the 14th century. Mediterranean craftsmen developed a new construction technique known as timbrel vaulting. Basically, it was a new way to make a long and low arch. Rather than compressing stones, like the Romans did, a timbrel vault was made by placing bricks in an interlocking pattern and setting them with mortar. By itself, a vault like this isn't strong enough to support it's own weight, but if you compile multiple layers of bricks in this way, then it forms something like a skin: strong, flexible, and pliant, but almost as strong as steel-reinforced concrete.

The Tile Arch System

Timbrel vaulting was pretty popular for a while, considering that it let medieval architects built longer and wide vaults then ever before, but then it faded out of vogue. It started to reappear in Catalonian architecture in the 19th century as a symbol of local pride and heritage, became known as Catalan vaulting and was used even by such notable figures as Antoni Gaudí, but was unheard of in the United States. Then Rafael Guastavino moved to the United States around 1880.

Guastavino brought with him a new take on timbrel vaulting. He had modernized it, making it even more efficient by using lightweight terracotta tiles instead of bricks, and fast-setting, modern Portland cement instead of mortar. He called it the cohesive construction system, though history remembers it as the 'tile arch system.'

A tile arch vault in the Oyster Bar of Manhattan
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By using tiles and modern cement instead of bricks and mortar, Guastavino's system was just lighter in weight, but also stronger. In fact, with only 2-3 layers of tiles, he could create arched vaults that were 3-5 times wider than those made with traditional timbrel vaulting. In addition, the tile arch system was much cheaper and lighter than steel-frame or steel-reinforced construction, required fewer materials, and was quicker to build. As a final benefit, tile arch structures were almost completely fireproof, soundproof, and resistant to floods or water damage.

Guastavino's system was strong as reinforced concrete while as cheap and light as wood-frame construction, but it took him (and his son, also named Rafael) some time to convince the American people to use it. To be fair, an arch tile structure doesn't look particularly strong; it's only made of roughly 2-4 inches of tiles and cement. However, Guastavino and his son put lots of effort into demonstrating the strength of their system, finally convincing the public that it was actually as good as it seems.

Impact and Legacy

So, how successful was Rafael Guastavino at implementing his new system? The United States is actually one of the predominant locations timbrel vaulting in the world today, with more than 1,000 examples built by Guastavino and his son across the country. In fact, almost 400 structures in New York City alone have ceilings, vaults, domes, or stairs built by the Guastavinos and their miraculous tiles. These include the City Hall Subway Station (built 1904 and pictured below), the Queensboro Bridge (1909), and the Grand Central Oyster Bar (1913). Other famous examples of Guastavino's technique can be found in the Boston Public Library (1895), the First Church of Christ in Cambridge (1929) and the Nebraska State Capitol Building (1932), also pictured below.

The City Hall Subway Station
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