Visiting Our Past: Local architect ​Guastavino recalled

Rob Neufeld
The Asheville Citizen-Times

Name a famous architect besides Frank Lloyd Wright.

A top 10 to know might include Rafael Guastavino, a Catalan prodigy who revived a regional bricklaying technique and turned it into a worldwide wonder. An exhibit celebrating his work - “Palaces For The People: Guastavino And America’s Great Public Spaces”- is at Swannanoa Valley Museum through Dec. 1.

Guastavino called his revolutionary technique “cohesive construction.” Utilizing ceramic tiles and Portland cement, Guastavino vaulted walls with unsupported domes, creating distinctive tile patterns that we might call the Guastavino effect.

Except that it’s not just an effect; it’s also an amazingly economical solution to structural and safety-related problems.

Two of Guastavino’s masterpieces are in our region: vaults and ceilings at the Biltmore Estate, and the architectural landmark Basilica of St. Lawrence , completed in 1908 as Guastavino fell ill and died, leaving the finishing to his son Rafael Guastavino III.

The Basilica was the last monument to a distinguished body of work that began in 1881 with the Massa Theater near Barcelona, Spain.

For the last 13 years of his life, Guastavino lived with his wife, Francesca, on a 1,000-acre estate that is now part of Christmount.

Christmount has lent some of its Guastavino artifacts to the national traveling exhibit at the Swannanoa Valley Museum (669-9566). Guastavino’s home place is on a driving tour distributed at the museum (to learn more, call (828-419-0730).

Path of a genius

After having cemented his reputation with a giant factory building in Barcelona at age 24 in 1868, Guastavino visited a grotto, Cola de Caballo (“Horse Tail”) on a client’s estate. The name refers to the shape of the falls that descends into a bowl, full of stalactites and lidded by an “immense natural vault supported by walls of the same nature,” Guastavino related in a lecture.

“The thought entered my head,” Guastavino noted, that “this colossal space was covered by a single piece … and was constructed with no centers or scaffolding … I was convinced that we can learn a great deal from this immense book called Nature.”

The inspiration coincided with changes in the building industry — steel beams, improved mortar and the need for fireproofing — and built upon a vaulting tradition pretty much confined to Guastavino’s native region.

Vaulting with tiles had its origins in Egypt, Rome and Byzantium, but then went dormant, surviving only in Valencia, Spain, Guastavino’s native region. It had been considered a bricklayer’s shortcut, used in rural homes and farm buildings.

In the late 1300s, the style seemed ready for the big time. In 1382, Peter IV, King of Aragon, sent his architects to Valencia to learn about the “very profitable, very lightweight, and very low cost” method of vaulting using plaster and brick.

But then half a millennium passed without popularization, until, in France, Comte d’Espie, a retired army officer, began championing and writing about cohesive construction. He built many buildings using it. When one of his ribless vaults collapsed on the job, he blamed it on low-quality plaster.

D’Espie’s “primary interest in the construction technique,” John Ochsendorf notes in his book, “Guastavino Vaulting,” “rested in its ‘incombustible’ or fireproof nature.” This, along with the method’s structural and cost-saving value, led the Battló brothers to commission Guastavino to design and build their new Barcelona factory.

The Battló factory took up four blocks, rose five stories and, according to the Barcelona daily paper, produced “a beautiful effect through the combination of stone masonry and brick.”

It also introduced pioneering ventilation and lighting features and took only two years to complete.

Guastavino was a genius, which went along with problematic character traits — workaholic intensity, bad money management and an impresario’s love of ladies.

From Spain to America

As a youth, he’d been on track to become a virtuoso violinist, but then he got to know an elderly relative, the Inspector of Public Works, who breathed architecture, and Guastavino gravitated to this art form.

Rafael’s dad, Rafael Sr., was a cabinet maker and father of 14. When young Rafael reached adult age, his dad sent him to live with a rich, bachelor uncle in Barcelona, where Rafael got a clerk’s job in an architectural firm and attended architecture school. Already, Guastavino’s inventive mind was boiling over.

He was very interested in tile vaulting and complained “that there were no textbooks of value to him on the subject,” George Collins writes in his foreword to Rafael Guastavino IV’s family history, “An Architect and His Son.”

While experimenting with cemented tilework in the 1860s and ’70s, Guastavino “extensively used these vaults for small spans in his work” and “almost alone recognized (the) potential of cohesive masonry for spanning greater areas.”

In 1881, Guastavino came to America with $40,000 in his purse. His decade leading up to this move had been very productive and turbulent. He and his first wife, Pilar, had three boys; separated; had a fourth boy, Rafael III; and finally split, Pilar taking the older boys to Argentina, and Rafael taking 9-year-old Junior with him.

Unable to read English, Guastavino nonetheless got commissions, including one to design and provide the ceilings and vaults for the Boston Public Library, the principal architect of which, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead and White, had orders to make it fireproof.

Guastavino presented a talk on cohesive construction at MIT, but he wasn’t the speaker. His office manager, William Blodgett, read from what Guastavino had written, which, because it had been botched by a typist, caused Blodgett to go quiet during confusions.

“As he read,” Rafael Guastavino IV writes in “An Architect and His Son,” “Blodgett was … aware of what seemed like shadowy movements behind him, and he turned around. There was Rafael demonstrating the sizes of tiles with his hands. He had been on the stage for some time gesturing to Blodgett’s remarks.”

Guastavino must have improved his English for, in 1892, he gave a talk at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago, for which he’d designed the Spanish Pavilion. Architect Richard Morris Hunt was there, which may be the connection that led to Guastavino being engaged to apply his technique to the Biltmore House.

George Washington Vanderbilt, Biltmore’s owner, was very up on technology.

Biltmore House and St. Lawrence

The Vanderbilt job brought Guastavino to these mountains, and he stayed. He bought his Lakey Gap spread in Black Mountain and got started on his dream home, Rhododendron, a Spanish castle made of wood, not stone, because wood and good carpenters were plentiful.

He took up violin playing again and composed original pieces. He produced wines, which he stored in a wine cellar built at the bottom of a series of terraces below his house.

Whenever Guastavino went on a trip — the train in Black Mountain went to New York — Francesca “would hire a carpenter and have him build something small on the place to please her husband on his return,” Guastavino IV relates. He was not pleased.

Rafael III learned his father’s trade and worked in his company as a director. At age 23, he won an Architectural League design contest, and at 26 oversaw the building of a new cohesive tile dome at the University of Virginia. (It replaced Thomas Jefferson’s, which had burned in a fire.)

Rafael III then became frustrated, like his father, at his industry’s shortcomings. He couldn’t get good tile. So he packed up for Black Mountain to make his own in a Guastavino kiln. The kiln has since crumbled, but its tall, attractive chimney still stands.

Guastavino, elder, was working at the time on yet another addition to his estate, a Roman Catholic stone chapel. The drawings have been preserved.

Guastavino’s Catholicism was deep. He recalled the head of Christ that his father had carved. He waited until his estranged wife, Pilar, had died before marrying Francesca in the eyes of the church.

When St. Lawrence Church found itself turning people away as the Catholic population in Asheville increased, Guastavino embraced the opportunity to create a new church and designed everything from the statuary and chapels to the 58-by-82-foot dome.

“In St. Lawrence every part of the building except the stone foundation and brick walls is built of Catalan construction,” Peter Austin writes in “The Work of Rafael Guastavino in Western North Carolina,” published in Robert Brunk’s “May We All Remember Well, Vol. 1.”

“The staircase behind the altar demonstrates what are perhaps the most dramatic Catalan construction techniques. The stair treads are carried by a series of narrow, steeply arched vaults that are built against the inner tower walls, each one launched at a right angle off the outer edge of the previous one.”

St. Lawrence Basilica is a pilgrimage place, and it’s where Guastavino is buried in a crypt opposite the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption. Both the crypt and the chapel feature colored terra cotta tile as decoration, a specialty of Rafael III.

“I would like to see some attention focused on Guastavino’s son as well as on Guastavino,” said Black Mountain resident David Madden, instrumental in getting attracting the Guastavino exhibit to town. Some of Rafael III’s decorative tiles are on exhibit at the Swannanoa Valley Museum. The inheritor of his father’s construction made his own innovations — not only in glazing, but also with path-breaking acoustic tile.

The national exhibit provides large images of the Guastavinos’ contributions.

A glimpse of Guastavino

See the Guastavino exhibit at Swannanoa Valley Museum, story on Page 6B.