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CEE students build model Guastavino vault for exhibit

The students' vaulted ceiling replica is part of a touring exhibit now at the Boston Public Library.
Civil engineering senior Nicky Soane works on the Guastavino vault replica at the Boston Public Library as mason Steve Bolognese looks on.
Civil engineering senior Nicky Soane works on the Guastavino vault replica at the Boston Public Library as mason Steve Bolognese looks on.
Photo: Simon Okaine

Museum-goers around the country may gain new insight into the work of visionary designer Rafael Guastavino thanks in part to three undergraduates from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) — senior Nicky Soane, sophomore Simon Okaine and junior Carmen Castaños — who constructed a half-scale replica of the designer's vaulted ceiling for a touring exhibit.

Known for creating beautiful vaulted ceilings in such landmark buildings as the Boston Public Library and Grand Central Terminal in New York City, Guastavino is the focus of “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces,” an exhibit by MIT professor John Ochsendorf that is on display now through Feb. 24 at the Boston Public Library. The exhibit will travel to the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. (March 16-Sept. 2), and then to the Museum of the City of New York in early 2014.

The library exhibit features a smaller scale model of a Guastavino vaulted ceiling, which was designed by Soane, Okaine and Suk Lee, a graduate student in architecture. The model was built by Soane, Okaine and Castaños, along with local masons and masons from the International Masonry Institute.

“We were teaching them Guastavino, and they were teaching us masonry,” Soane says of working with the masons, noting that he, Okaine and Castaños plan to help build another replica for the exhibit’s appearance in D.C. The students constructed their model for the exhibit as part of an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project.

“I feel strongly that in order to be a successful structural engineer, you have to build," Soane adds. "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 library's McKim Building, constructed in 1895. The building is known to feature Boston’s best examples of Guastavino vaulting — which refers to the designer's technique for constructing vaulted ceilings — including the ceiling of the main entry hall and the vaulted arcade that surrounds the building’s courtyard.

Ochsendorf both conceived and curated the exhibit, which includes historical artifacts, manuscripts and photographs of buildings constructed by the Guastavino Company, a construction company Guastavino founded in the late 19th century. “Many architects and engineers today marvel at the construction of Guastavino vaults, but few really understand how they were put together,” says Ochsendorf, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and architecture.

“The Guastavino Project interested me because it involved both history and engineering," Ochsendorf says. "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 the designer used is lighter and less expensive than traditional stone vaulting and 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 … [t]ile vaults survive because the form is correct, and not because of the tension capacity of the materials.”

MIT’s Maseeh Hall, built in 1901 and restored in 2011 through the generosity of CEE alumnus Fariborz Maseeh ScD ’90, also features a vaulted Guastavino ceiling in the lobby.

Read the complete article.

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