Considered “the Pierce-Arrow of the American building industry,” the outdated practices of arch construction evolved to produce an organically compelling defeat of gravity in an age where manufacturing and automation were still inferior. Today we might find a better car in which to compare the works of R. Guastavino Company that spawned from this heritage, but then again, the Pierce-Arrow was a magnificently beautiful and well-crafted automobile. It’s curved lines and soft edges screamed not only luxury and class, but style, grace and speed; an expression of desirable adjectives for a lifestyle you didn’t have, articulated through a composition of material that generated its expressive form. Actually no, there is no better comparison today than the Pierce-Arrow. The Guastavino’s crafted this very same idea in the built environment, but they held a secret (well, a collection of patents anyway) – a method of building which allowed them to give such feelings of luxury and class to the general public.
But the innovation here extends beyond the opulent aesthetics the Guastavino’s created for the masses. It was migratory and legal in the way that it improved upon an age-old system that would later bear their name in a country not their own. As I’ve mentioned before (and will likely mention again, and again), innovation is not invention. The “Guastavino System” for erecting tile vaults was not invented by the Guastavino’s. It was inherited from the Mediterranean region of Spanish Catalonia (which in turn was inherited from the late Gothic and Renaissance stone arch), adopted by Rafael Guastavino and brought to America in the late 1800’s along with his young son, ahem…Rafael (which is perhaps not the best example of ingenuity), and despite their apprehension, patented as their own innovation.
The real innovation was not the work of one man and his son, it was the work of many men, carried on and improved upon by each of their sons; generation to generation, country to country. Material was the both the heritage and the catalyst for their innovation. Terracotta tile was used in a way that increased both structural and economic efficiency. Unlike the tile vaults bulky ancestor the stone vault, structural efficiency was achieved as the vault became thinner. Unlike the wedge-shaped voussoirs held in place by the flying buttresses of the stone vault, the self-supporting tile system was composed of very thin layers, usually no more than three, laid flat along the curve of the vault. Unlike mortar being used and a joint between stone voussoirs, tile was laminated in a sort of “blanket” of mortar, the layers of which arranged in a way that would “break” the joints of the adjacent layers, giving strength to the whole from the part. The Guastavino’s called this system “Cohesive Construction”. I liken it to mass innovation.