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2013 News Releases



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

Written by:

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, and not because of the tension capacity of the materials.”

Building the replica

The library exhibit features a half-scale model of a Guastavino vault designed by Soane, Okaine, and Suk Lee (a graduate student in architecture) and built by Soane, Okaine, Castaños and masons from the International Masonry Institute, as well as local masons. A video of its construction can be viewed online at

“We were teaching them Guastavino, and they were teaching us masonry,” Soane said, noting that he, Okaine, and Castaños plan to help build a replica for the exhibit’s appearance in Washington as well. “I feel strongly that in order to be a successful structural engineer, you have to build. It is a remarkable feeling to take a pile of materials and build something you can stand on the next day.”

The students’ model replicates one of the vaults visitors can see in the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, which was constructed in 1895. The building features Boston’s best examples of Guastavino vaulting, including the ceiling of the main entry hall as well as the vaulted arcade that surrounds the building’s courtyard. MIT’s Maseeh Hall, which was built in 1901 and restored in 2011 through the generosity of CEE alumnus Fariborz Maseeh Sc.D. ’90, also features a vaulted Guastavino ceiling in the lobby.

“We wanted to demonstrate the Guastavino technology by re-creating a vault,” said Ochsendorf, who supervised the project team. “We viewed this as a great opportunity to bring together professional masons and craftsmen with architects and engineers and to try to better understand how these vaults were built and to create new vaults for the future.”

Lee did all the renderings for the replica, while Soane and Okaine calculated the forces inside the vault and designed the steel support structure. Castaños also worked on some computational aspects of the vaulting during her internship at ETH Zurich last summer. The team began construction with steel ties and a wooden framework, then laid down layers of thin ceramic tiles in a vault shape, gluing them together with quick-drying plaster of Paris.

“The real magic begins when we start using plaster of Paris,” Soane said. “The plaster of Paris dries fast enough that you can butter up the sides of the tile, hold it there for 20-30 seconds, and it’ll stay.”

To test their methods, the team spent two weeks building a test vault in the courtyard of the MIT Museum last summer.

“You’d think something made of ceramic tiles would crumble when you hit it with a sledgehammer, but it’s so strong,” Soane said. “There’s no reason a building can’t be both beautiful and efficient.”

Comparing Guastavino’s work to that of modern architectural giant Frank Gehry, who designed MIT’s Stata Center, Soane noted, “In the Stata Center, only a small fraction of the materials are useful, or used well. The shortest distance between two points is a line, and they used a squiggle. The Guastavino vaults are better looking and are built to last.”

CEE senior Nicky Soane works on the Guastavino vault replica at the Boston Public Library as mason Steve Bolognese looks on. Photo / Simon Okaine