Catalan Architecture in America: Discovering The Work of Rafael Guastavino

Recently a friend told me about a pilgrimage he made to the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina, and his surprise in discovering that the architect was Catalan. As I had never heard of this building nor the architect in question, Rafael Guastavino, I began doing some reading on both subjects; I was amazed to discover that, in fact, I was already very familiar with his work, but not his name. Guastavino brought a very prominent element of Catalan architecture into use in the United States in the 19th century, specifically the use of the Catalan vault, and somehow this fact managed to elude me until now.

Rafael Guastavino i Moreno was born in the city of Valencia which, strictly speaking, is not part of Catalonia proper. It is instead, like the Balearic Islands or the region of Roussillon in Southern France, part of the Països Catalans or “Catalan countries”, i.e. the territory including the Principality of Andorra and those parts of modern-day Spain, France, and Italy where Catalan is widely or predominantly spoken. It is a linguistic legacy of the now-vanished Catalan empire of the Middle Ages.

Having been raised in Valencia and educated in Barcelona, Guastavino was very much a part of the highly eclectic and often idiosyncratic movements in Catalan architecture that characterized the period between 1860 and 1930, when most of the great Catalan buildings that inspire emotions from awe to disgust were constructed. While studying and working in Barcelona, Guastavino was a contemporary of the prominent Catalan architects of the period, including Gaudí, among others. In fact Domènech i Montaner, whose most famous building is probably the sumptuous, over-the-top Palau de la Musica Catalana (a World Heritage Site protected by UNESCO) described Guastavino as an “artist endowed with exceptional talents,” who brought about “revolutionary and advanced architecture belonging to a great artistic movement.”

Guastavino emigrated from Barcelona to New York in 1881, and maintained a long and highly successful career in the United States until his death in 1908. Even after Guastavino’s death, his company continued to build a considerable number of structures throughout the country, under the direction of his son and others, and acquiring numerous patents for its design and engineering methods. The company subsequently closed in 1962, about the time that an understanding and appreciation for classical forms of architecture was replaced by love of the soulless box on a universal scale (a topic for another day.)

It must be said that it is reasonable not to be very familiar with the work of Guastavino in the United States, since this has to do with professional snobbery, as much as anything else. When he arrived in Barcelona Guastavino began to train as what we would consider a building contractor, i.e. someone who can build a structure with or without architectural plans, but who usually finds himself fabricating the designs of architects. The general contractor as a builder may contribute to the development of the design, based on the realities of the job to hand, but he is usually not credited with his part in the realization of the final structure. Although Guastavino also studied architecture – and had he remained in Barcelona I suspect he would probably have risen to prominence as an architect rather than a builder – because he built very few buildings purely of his own design in this country, he was viewed as something of a secondary figure.

An example of how this impacts his notoriety with respect to his status among the general public is probably Guastavino’s first major commission in the United States, the palatial Boston Public Library – which, it must be said, is not too shabby a thing for your first major project. Completed in 1895 and now known as the McKim building, the library is a feast of Beaux-Arts magnificence. The legendary New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, in fact, are the credited architects on the project, and in the scheme of things that is correct: they came up with the overall design of the project which won them the commission. However, Guastavino designed all of the interior vaulting in the space, which features numerous different examples of the types of vaulting he could do; his reputation for this kind of work spread throughout the country, and brought him an enormous number of commissions.

So where can you see the work of the Guastavino company, outside of Boston and Asheville? To paraphrase Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph, if you wish to see Guastavino’s monument, look around you. Among the dozens of major works with which readers may already be familiar are the work to design the interior elements of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Biltmore, the National Archives, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Grand Central Terminal, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and many more structures. In fact, I have gone food shopping in the Bridgemarket located under the Queensboro Bridge in Murray Hill, and admired the structure but had no idea who built it. Again, all of these are not buildings which were wholly designed by Guastavino, but rather structures in which his designs played a significant role. He is not the conductor of the symphony, in these instances, but he is certainly one of the first chairs.

The Basilica of St. Lawrence however, is perhaps a telling example of what might have been, had Guastavino been allowed to work more as an architect than a designer of architectural elements. Completed with the assistance of a fellow architect, after consulting with the local Catholic community, the Basilica is a work of a man in retirement who is homesick; I don’t think that is being too precious about it. Building this gigantic, glorious Spanish church in the middle of rural North Carolina is the work of a very rich man, of course, but also one whom I suspect was wondering what might have been had he stayed in his native land. Those of my readers who find themselves in the Asheville area would do well to visit this building, as I certainly hope to do myself one day to pay tribute to perhaps the most important Catalan architect – or builder, if you prefer – ever to have worked in the United States.

The Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina
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