Querido Amancio, organized on the occasion of our new Amancio Williams fonds, featured a public reading of personal letters during which participants—Emilio Ambasz, Florencia Álvarez, Giovanna Borasi, Fernando Diez, Kenneth Frampton, Mario Gandelsonas, Juan Herreros, Martin Huberman, Cayetana Mercé, Inés Moisset, Ciro Najle, Ana Rascovsky, Claudio Williams, and Claudio Vekstein—commented on the legacy of Amancio Williams. We will be publishing all of their letters in the coming weeks.
Emilio Ambasz shared the following:
Some notes on a mental correspondence I have maintained throughout the last twenty-five years with Delfina Williams about Amancio’s work
Your eight children have asked me to write a prologue to a book of Amancio’s work. I am very touched. Perhaps they have accepted me as their ninth sibling. As an only child, my longing for extended brotherhood has been finally fulfilled.
I think you have never known it, but when I was fifteen years old, and still in high school, I came to the realization that one can only learn the craft of poetry from poets and I developed a plan to work for Amancio through a friend who, already in Amancio’s studio, spoke to him about me. I came to interview with Amancio one afternoon—by that time I was already all of sixteen years—and he invited me to join his studio. In order to better attend to this new responsibility, I switched my attendance in high school to night classes and went to Amancio’s studio during the day.
So began the first warm breath of Spring.
My dear Delfina,
I hope the book reprints some of the beautiful words said about Amancio’s work by Le Corbusier, Max Bill, Mies van der Rohe, and other great artists. I have recently read those over. I am not surprised they have always been fascinated by Amancio’s work. To them, he was like Argentina, also a child of Europe; like Argentina, he was the one they envisioned enacting Europe’s utopian dreams. What had been dreamt in Europe was to be given strong poetic embodiment in a virgin place, where memories could only be recalled in libraries. It was the cleanest piece of paper and the largest unspoiled natural surface left. So far away a place that Europe could call it its mental dwelling of last resort. It has been noted that Amancio’s father, Alberto Williams, introduced European modern music to Argentina. His was the result of a very refined process of assimilation and transformation. It came unto the Argentine house through the main door, but when heard in its patios and gardens, it felt as if it were humming from the earth. Alberto’s garden was a manmade one; Amancio’s garden was also manmade, but one whereby arte y officio, a great gardener takes seeds from other confines, obtaining roses miraculously very much of his own place.
Amancio was always fascinated, or, should I rather say, bewitched, by the pursuit of escaping earth’s gravity. First, as a young man in the late 1930s, when he was an aviator; and then when he started inventing architectural prototypes as flowers linked to the earth by the thinnest stems—their roots in memories and their bodies high above the ground. This archetypical pursuit might to some superficially resemble that of Le Corbusier’s, but Europe’s land had been scarred by the march of history and lifting the building above was Le Corbusier’s only way to establish a new datum. Amancio’s land was pure and man had to ask permission to set foot on it. To hover high above the ground was the respectful thing to do; to let the land and building remain true to themselves, uncorrupted by context. I know you must be thinking that this note is unscholarly and embarrassingly too personal; and SO it IS; you are right. However, having tried to write this so many times, I feel that this is my most faithful and loving way to do it. I’ll write to you again soon.
As I look at the panorama of this century’s Latin American art and architecture, Amancio shines as one of its greatest artists. He strongly practiced his belief that architecture must contribute to human happiness; that for an architect not to search for alternative solutions to the present was unethical; that for architects to revel in historical and/or simple-minded methodological references was to skirt their responsibility. He always believed in creating and inventing master examples. He constantly searched for the irreducible solution, believing that if an architectural problem could be reduced to its essential, its answer would stun evil and proclaim God’s kingdom. He searched for prototypical pilot concepts. They were to be as unselfconsciously simple as many a child’s answers. After all, what could be more obvious than to put Buenos Aires’s airport on the water of the Rio de la Plata where it would not have created urban and traffic conflicts, where it could have been easily erected by barges effortlessly bringing materials to the site, where it would stand out in poetic contrast with the river’s long brown horizon, which Amancio’s planes were to stitch to the blue sky.
It must be said in his defence that Amancio never spoke in romantic terms; he always explained his projects with a sometimes overbearing abundance of technical details. These were always right, even in their most extreme cases. I have always suspected that by analyzing the pragmatics of his projects to such an exhaustive degree, Amancio made it possible for his explanations to become an intellectual superstructure, a shell under which dwelt the poetic core.
I have never been able to forget Amancio’s splendid tall office building of 1946, the “skyscraper” suspended from wires. It was a brilliant insight. So impeccably elegant that the only thing I could always see was not the technological bravado, but the blocks of buildings floating as if in mid-air. But, contrary to popular belief, Amancio was of this earth. I remember working with him on a project, an elegant pavilion, and he was concerned about a small detail: how a steel column would rest on and inside a horizontal reinforced concrete slab, close to a swimming pool. In his sketches, Amancio laid out the concrete slab on carefully based foundations. Then, the resting location of each column was represented by a cubic empty cavity, an approximately thirty-centimetre cube. At the bottom of the cubic cavity, he detailed a square piece of thick stainless steel plate, on which the I-beam steel column was to rest. Then, the first thirty centimetres of the steel column were to be wrapped in a copper sheeting, leaving a one-centimetre gap between the copper and the steel column. Afterwards, this one-centimetre interspace was to be filled with molten lead and the remainder of the cavity was to be again filled with a very rich and pure mixture of cement containing powdered marble. When, puzzled, I looked at him, Amancio assured me that this was done to ensure that the steel column wouldn’t rust in contact with the concrete for at least five hundred years. You and I know that Amancio has always been criticized for building very little, but is it such an important argument? Did he not carry his architectural ideas to the most detailed extent possible? Did he not produce hundreds of drawings and construction documents for each project? You and I are witnesses that larger historical and economic forces beyond his power many times played a very strong role in the reasons why Amancio did not get to see many of his projects built. It is said that Amancio did not want to compromise; that is true—more honour to him for that. How could he have compromised when he already knew the ultimate shape of truth as detailed in his many drawings? How could one put a building above ground if it had been soiled by compromise? I sometimes felt that he did it to give us all a master example of moral character and artistic integrity. You and I also know that he was not an easy man —but then who is? We also know that he frightened his clients many times for he was more of a Grand Lord than many of them. He was certainly a Prince working as an architect for enlightened Burghers. How can one say that Amancio didn’t want to see his projects built when you and I have seen Amancio maneuvering to get his buildings built in spite of tremendous odds? You and I remember all of Amancio’s travails to explain to people the public advantages of his ideas. Some people say that Amancio was naive in his methods to get his buildings built. They must know something he did not know, for many of them have seen their buildings built. But, if Amancio can be blamed for any form of naivete, it would have to be placed at the feet of his steadfast belief that beauty and truth can be so self-evident that even Generals and Captains of industry would be touched by it. And he was right because they were touched by it, and they commissioned him projects, and I have seen them touched by them and genuinely trying to build them only to see their plans defeated by socio-political crises or disturbing reversals of family fortunes. If blame can be put on Amancio for anything, it would be for being such a great poet, for working out each detail to such an exquisitely refined level. To blame him for not moving fast enough in circumstances like Argentina’s that required nimble dancing would miss his existential reasons. Perhaps, if he had let you handle some of the worldly affairs, a few of his projects might have gotten off the ground. They would have cast shadows, but would they have been any more real and stronger than they are still today, even in their paper form?
Amancio received all the honours that Argentina could bestow on an artist. However strange and difficult a country it is, it deprived itself of the greatest possible adornment: one of his buildings in the public domain. It invites melancholy to think that many of the buildings that Amancio did get to see built were soon to be dismantled, like the pavilion for Bunge & Born and the setting for the Congreso Mariano. For an unforgettable moment, when I saw the pavilion of Bunge & Born, with Amancio’s finally realized shell promenading among the clouds, I was so moved. It was such a splendid spectacle. I had enacted it mentally all the previous years, but there it was, as full of magic as I had always expected it to be. I was delighted to realize that the work was not more real by being built, it was just real, in yet another domain of reality. When the Congreso Mariano finished and the installations were dismantled, as was its Cross, I witnessed Amancio working very hard to ensure the Cross would be maintained and stored, and he undertook to carry it—almost by himself—all the way to the water. Almost twenty years after the airport, Amancio again sought to connect the sacred to the profane, the earthly to the celestial. The intermediary artifact was to be the Cross as observed from the shore grounds.
We know that great poetry remains strong when it deals with suggestions when it brings about presences that are beyond the materials utilized. How many times have I seen the brown and green clouds reflecting the pampas over the Rio de la Plata letting sun rays come through to shine on the river where the Cross would have been. Like the voice of the payador, I can still bear it, for here, on this river, Juan Tierra was not to be defeated by Progress—the devil incarnate; but in Amancio’s hands be was to be reborn—at peace with progress and again in pursuit of the ideal.
Forgive me if I have failed you and the children. I couldn’t see myself doing a theoretical article. I tried, but it wasn’t any better than many other excellent ones already written about Amancio. Let these few raw, but heartfelt words stand as my testimonial act of gratitude for all the magnificent images he has created. If someone has called him Classical—perhaps a misnomer—it is because his work is so essential, so irreducible, so luminously strong that it transcends materials and construction methods to embody the spirit of architecture. The country was created, it seems like yesterday, but it is only when great artists like Amancio appear that we are able to evoke a notion of dwelling in peace with ourselves. I do not know a greater accomplishment for an architect than to have created such magnificent abodes of the heart that we can find refuge and solace even when we are away from them.
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