Guastavino: Innovations in Tile Vaulting of the Twentieth Century

The question was asked: Is brick construction obsolete?

Municiple Building, NY

Municiple Building, NY. Courtesy of http://imjustwalkin.com/2012/04/12/

There are so many masonry buildings in the fabric of our cities that I have trouble accepting that brick is obsolete.  Within the last 150 years, the Guastavinos show us refinements to the fireproofing and building methods of modular construction. In Minnesota we have a few of the thousand examples of their handiwork: St. Mark’s Church, Minneapolis Museum of Art, St. Paul Union Depot, and the Minnesota State Capitol Building, to name a few.

The work of the Guastavinos made tile vaulting a viable option for spanning and was comparable to steel in its capabilities by weight. The innovation relied on geometry and a new form of mortar and tile where the mortar made up about 50% of the vault. The combination made their tiling system almost act like concrete. The efficiency of materials used in their system is comparable to our standards of sustainability today.

The challenges in introducing a modular building unit in modern construction are time, cost, and skilled laborers.  But these buildings have lasted and continue to be used in our current culture. As long as we are continuing to use and restore even the existing buildings, I would argue that brick construction is not obsolete. When renovating the St. Paul Union Depot (with tiling by the Guastavinos) the restoration required the knowledge and skill to address the brick. As long as these skills are in demand, we will need people who know these systems, and they cannot be obsolete.

These images are of the St. Paul Union Depot as it progressed through renovation.
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