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The greatest architect you've never heard of

Have you seen the arched vaults at the Boston Public Library or Plymouth Rock? Rafael Guastavino designed them.

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By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / February 26, 2011

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American architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would often leave empty spaces in their blueprints and simply write, “Guastavino here.’’ They had faith that Rafael Guastavino would create elegant, highly functional spaces to grace their buildings. Today, few of us know who he was.

“Rafael Guastavino was one of the greatest American architects you’ve never heard of,’’ says John Ochsendorf, 36, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and architecture at MIT. A 2008 MacArthur Fellow, Ochsendorf is an expert on the work and life of Guastavino, who did some of his most notable work in Boston.

Guastavino — part architect, part engineer — was particularly famous for his beautifully crafted, structurally powerful, tiled arched vaults. Once you identify some — the magnificent arched vaults inside the entrance to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the portico covering Plymouth Rock, the Oyster Bar inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal — you’ll start seeing them all over, says Ochsendorf, whose new book is titled “Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile.’’

Despite his renown, Guastavino remains largely unknown. He died in 1908, and his son, also Rafael, completed many more projects in the years that followed. But unlike other architects and builders, the name Guastavino never appeared on the structures.

“Their work appeared in more than 1,000 buildings in 41 states — libraries, museums, state capitols, banks, universities, churches, synagogues — some of our most beloved landmarks,’’ Ochsendorf said. “More than anyone else in America, this one family made these spaces possible.’’

A true ‘genius’ Ochsendorf has long been fascinated by historic building methods and engineering. A witty, soft-spoken man, he fondly recalls his childhood in the tiny West Virginia town of Elkins, and comes up with phrases like “Get out of town!’’ He hadn’t thought much about college when a friend offered him his application to Cornell. He sent it in and was accepted. It was there that the breadth of his intellect became apparent. Ochsendorf majored in engineering but was drawn to structural preservation and archeology as well.

He did his undergraduate thesis studying the history and technology of Inca suspension bridges and received his PhD at the University of Cambridge in England. Now in his ninth year at MIT, Ochsendorf teaches classes in basic structural design, green buildings, and a seminar on historic structures. He is as comfortable talking about the cracks in Rome’s Pantheon as he is about the Guastavino vaults in the Nebraska State Capitol.

Edward Allen, a former faculty member in MIT’s School of Architecture who taught a class on structures with Ochsendorf a few years ago, has seen his rise first-hand.

“John has a fantastic mind, has great interest in the phenomena of the world and really likes people. He’s also an extraordinarily good teacher,’’ says Allen, a practicing architect. “By his own words, he was something of a hick when he came out of Elkins, and now he’s an international star academic.’’

Ochsendorf first learned of Guastavino in 2000 as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid. He was working in an architectural office where staffers were assembling an exhibit on Guastavino. Soon he was hooked, and has spent the past six years researching and writing “Guastavino Vaulting.’’ When Ochsendorf learned that he’d won, at 34, a 2008 MacArthur “genius grant,’’ he couldn’t have been more pleased: some of the $500,000 award has gone to pay for research expenses and photographs used in the book.

He was, predictably, dumbfounded by the news. “I spent much of the call trying to talk him out of it,’’ Ochsendorf says, deadpan, about the person who informed him of his MacArthur win. “I kept saying, you’ve got the wrong guy.

“I’ve always wanted to live the kind of life where winning the lottery wouldn’t change what you’re doing,’’ he muses. “I made that claim for years, never expecting to win the lottery.’’

Tiled vaults It was in Boston that Guastavino made his mark. His first major project in this country was at the Boston Public Library, where he built his signature arched vaults inside the main entrance. It was a mere eight years after he arrived in New York City from his native Spain in 1881.

What Guastavino brought with him was a 500-year-old building system created by the Moors, who conquered and held most of the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years. Their process involved interlocking thin terracotta tiles secured in mortar and set in a herringbone pattern to form a thin skin that followed the curve of a roof. His tiled vaults are typically a mere 4 inches thick but extraordinarily strong and fireproof.

Guastavino met with Charles McKim, a partner in McKim, Mead, and White, the prestigious architectural firm building the BPL. He got the job and, as Ochsendorf noted while touring the space with a reporter recently, built a significant amount of the library with his structural system, including the stunning set of vaults above the main entrance of the building.

Guastavino’s career took off immediately. To be associated with McKim’s firm gave him incomparable credibility, and soon architects in droves wanted him. In 1889, he formed the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company and 11 years later started a factory in Woburn that produced custom tiles of the sort needed for his elaborate designs.

The architect had already patented his process as “Tile Arch System’’ in 1885 and, together with his son, would eventually hold 24 different patents. Most notably, his son teamed up in 1911 with Wallace Sabine, a Harvard physicist, with whom he developed porous, soundproof tiles that improved acoustics. These tiles were used in the Rockefeller family’s Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Guastavino built his vaults in some of the most famous buildings in the country. Besides Grand Central, his towering arches rose above New York’s original Pennsylvania Station. He also rebuilt in fireproof tile the wooden dome of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia after a fire in 1895 severely damaged the building. Closer to home, Guastavino vaults can be found in Harvard’s Widener Library, the Massachusetts State House extension, Horticultural Hall, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and the Boston University Cloister, among many others.

Lifelong project After touring the BPL, Ochsendorf visited the Forsyth Institute on the Fenway, founded in 1910 as a dental infirmary for disadvantaged children. It houses some of the Guastavino family’s best work. There Ochsendorf pointed out the children’s waiting room — a large, magical space whose ceiling is covered with a shallow Guastavino barrel vault in pale green glazed tiles.

The Guastavino company began a gradual decline after 1930 that ended in its closure 32 years later. Its tile process was labor intensive and pricey. The use of reinforced concrete was also growing, as was the angular International Style of architecture.

But Guastavino will rise again. Funding permitting, an exhibit of his work is scheduled to open at the BPL in late 2012 and then travel to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and finally the Museum of the City of New York.

And though his book is finished, Ochsendorf isn’t finished with Guastavino. (Family life keeps him busy too: He lives with his wife, Anne Carney, and two toddlers on campus as a dorm master of 120 students.) Ochsendorf has identified about 75 buildings in Greater Boston with Guastavino work in them. He and his students have used everything from Google city street maps to archival drawings and walking the pavement to identify them, and he has a standing offer to buy lunch for any of them who finds an undiscovered Gaustavino building.

Ochsendorf will never be free of the man. “We’ll never know all of his work, which is also in Mexico and other countries,’’ he says. “His buildings are being torn down every year. We need to document what’s there. This is a lifelong project, much to the regret of my wife.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com