CEE students build replica of Guastavino vaulted ceiling at Boston Public Library

January 23, 2013

by Kathryn O’Neill
Civil & Environmental Engineering Correspondent

Museum-goers around the country will gain new insight into the work of visionary designer Rafael Guastavino thanks in part to the work of three undergraduates from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering — senior Nicky Soane, sophomore Simon Okaine and junior Carmen Castaños — who worked on the exhibit as a UROP project.

Known for the extraordinarily beautiful vaulted ceilings he created in such landmark buildings as the Boston Public Library, Ellis Island’s Registry Hall and Grand Central Terminal in New York, N.Y., Guastavino is the focus of “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces,” an exhibit by Professor John Ochsendorf that is on view now through Feb. 24 at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The exhibit will then travel to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., (March 16-Sept. 2) and to the Museum of the City of New York in early 2014.

“Many architects and engineers today marvel at the construction of Guastavino vaults, but few really understand how they were put together,” said Ochsendorf, professor of civil and environmental engineering and architecture. Ochsendorf both conceived and curated the exhibit, which includes historical artifacts, manuscripts and photographs of buildings constructed by the Guastavino Company.

“The Guastavino Project interested me because it involved both history and engineering,” Okaine said. “I was really intrigued by the fact that such sophistication could be achieved without the computational capabilities we have now.”

Guastavino vaulting became popular in the United States at the turn of the century because the thin tile vaulting is lighter and less expensive than traditional stone vaulting but has an extremely high load capacity due to its form. The tiles are also fireproof and can be arranged decoratively and left exposed.

As Ochsendorf notes in his book Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), “Because of their lighter weight, tile vaults have lower horizontal thrusts than conventional stone masonry, but they do exert thrust on their supports. …Tile vaults survive because the form is correct, an