The Valencian architect who reinvented the design and urban style of New York more than a century ago

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the future of Raphael Guastavino in 1881 he painted ugly. Ugly. Let’s see: at the gates of 40 had just landed in the USa country that he did not know, in which a language was spoken that he did not master and in which he had no one who was not even aware of his talent for architecture.

To make matters worse, he was traveling with three young people in his care, including his own nine-year-old son. In his pocket he had around 40,000 dollars, true, enough to spend a season; but even that wasn’t good at all. At least some of the money had come from a fraud which greatly complicated any prospect of a return to his native Spain.

In short, few would have given a penny for him in 1881. And curiously, carambola of life, when he died in North Carolina in 1908 his obituary appeared in the pages of New York Times. And not in any way. They presented it as “the architect of New York”the architect of some of the most beautiful and recognizable structures in the city.

How was that possible? How could he become “the architect of New York”? How did an old student of the Escola Especial de Mestres d’Obres come to stir up urban planning in the Big Apple? Basically thanks to his mastery of the “catalan volta” and making his own, polishing and exploiting a well-known technique in the Mediterranean for centuries: the tiled vault.

Make the Americas through performance

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The origins de Guastavino are far from the bustling streets of nineteenth-century New York. He was born in Valencia, in 1842, into a family that carried the trade of large construction in their veins. At 19 he had already moved to Barcelona to begin his studies as a master builder and in 1866, even before having the title, we find him practicing the profession and making a name for himself.

In Catalan lands he left his mark —among other buildings— in the Batlló textile factory or the La Massa Theater. It wasn’t bad balance; but in the 1880s he decided to change the airs of the Mediterranean for those of the Atlantic and make the americas. He paid for the passage by drawing on his talent for construction: he exchanged the tiles for promissory notes and with the same skill with which he assembled vaults and arches he wove a pyramid scheme from which he took a good pinch.

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The New York in which Guastavino landed was a cosmopolitan city, effervescent and full of opportunities; but with a handicap: there was a stranger. Little did it matter. The Valencian was good at architecture, but he was not good at marketing either. To make clear what he was capable of, he built a vault in a vacant lot and then, before the incredulous eyes of architects and journalists, set it on fire to show that he was capable of withstanding the flames.

Eccentricity? No. Similar architectural performance, a kind of failure to the American, was calculated to the millimeter. Just a few years earlier, the fires that had devastated Chicago Y Boston in the early 1970s they had shown the weaknesses of wooden frames and the need for more resistant structures… Exactly what Guastavino proposed.

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Whether his demonstration worked or not, the truth is that they ended up commissioning the vaults of the Boston Public Library, a golden opportunity that he knew how to take advantage of. It was the starting gun. Its light, resistant brick vaults and with an unmistakable aesthetic were liked and the parcels were succeeding each other throughout the country, especially in that New York to which New York Times I would end up associating it for posterity.

It is estimated that of a thousand works that make up the Guastavino catalogue, an extensive list with pieces distributed throughout the US, Mexico or India, around 360 —needs the The country— are concentrated on the streets of the Big Apple. The size and scope of that legacy was also fed by his son, who inherited his trade from the patriarch, the good eye for architecture and business and… something equally important, especially when approaching his catalog : the name and surname.

The art of the Guastavinos is present in the grand central stationthe access of Carnegie Hallthe oyster-bar, City Hall Stationin it bronx zoothe cathedral of Saint John the Divinethe chapel of saint paulthe immigration registry office located in Ellis Island or the bridge queensboro.

Other of his creations, like the ones that father and son left in the Tiffanys garage, had worse luck and they did not stand the test of time and ended up under the pickaxe. Interestingly, one of his creations, that of the Penn Stationencouraged the movement to preserve the national heritage.

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Over the years, Guastavino’s fame and prestige grew so much that he received commissions for the main universities in the country and magnates such as the Rockefellers. His business acumen also led him to build a company with which he dedicated himself to make bricks and tiles which he later used in his vaults and arches, the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, with which father and son registered dozens of patents. Even today there is talk of the “Guastavino system”.

“The architects of America owe him a debt of gratitude not only for having been a reliable and conscientious builder but for having made possible new possibilities in the field of architectural design”, reflected in 1901 Peter B. Wight, one of the greats American architects who worked in the Big Apple and Chicago between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Not a bad legacy for the intrepid immigrant who landed in the US in 1881.

And of which only in recent years we have started to claim his memory.

Images Leonard J. DeFrancisci, Learn From. Build More (Flickr), Warren LeMay (Flickr)

the future of Raphael Guastavino in 1881 he painted ugly. Ugly. Let’s see: at the gates of 40 had just…

the future of Raphael Guastavino in 1881 he painted ugly. Ugly. Let’s see: at the gates of 40 had just…

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