Far from Nostalgia
Claudia Shmidt on the letters of Amancio Williams
This text is the transcription of an interview that took place during Claudia Shmidt’s residency at the CCA. Her reading of the Amancio Williams archive is presented in our Octagonal gallery from 12 October 2023 until 21 January 2024.
When you get to see the materials in person, in your hand, it creates an absolute shift in the way of understanding Amancio Williams’ personality and work. When we began to think about this project, I intuitively understood that, through the distance with which I saw Amancio, there was something in his letters that was different from the usual correspondence between architects. And, indeed, I found very remarkable elements, such as the objects he created to send to international magazines with the aim to get his projects published. He assembled a preliminary editorial version of sorts and, in the letters, he explained to the editors how to publish the material: he assigned the line values, he determined the number of images… particularly for his Sala para el espectáculo plástico y el sonido en el espacio [Hall for Plastic Spectacle and Sound in Space], he asked, for instance, that the editors publish the whole acoustic study, which was around ten pages long. And truth be told, in architecture magazines, the focus was mainly on the images.
He produced hand-made folders or envelopes within which he sent these types of documents and the instructions for publication or translation… because he prepared these folders in English, Spanish, and French. The translations were generally done by Delfina Gálvez, his wife, also an architect and collaborator on many projects.
We also found a book that he produced to introduce the Edificio suspendido de oficinas [Suspended office building]. And again, it’s a hand-made book, manually bound, that he mailed to his interlocutors. And here comes the other notable aspect of the correspondence, which is who he sends these objects to: on the one hand, to the most important architecture magazines in the world (at least in his view), basically North American and European; but, on the other hand, he also sent these documents to public figures like Nelson Rockefeller, Hilla Rebay, or the Simon Guggenheim Museum, with the explicit intention to make his work known. That part of Williams’ correspondence is worth highlighting because the production of these letters was a huge endeavour.
There is a very interesting exchange in the early correspondence with Architectural Forum magazine where Williams requests that they publish most of his work. The magazine’s South American correspondent, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, who had visited Argentina, said “Very well, but Forum will redraw the plans”. And Amancio Williams didn’t want that, he didn’t accept it, arguing in one of those letters that the plans would lose “the ingenuousness” of the trace, of the lines. He was highly attentive to that aspect of the dissemination of his work. That’s why trying to reproduce the sequence of the letters, the mailed folders, and their publication, allows us to see the extent of one of the fundamental axes on which he constructed his architectural ideas.
Williams did not only address architectural magazines but he also engaged potential funders—politicians and, especially, prominent cultural figures and foundations who could offer funds. And also, very early on, he sought to publish in mass-distribution magazines like El Hogar, aimed at a middle-class audience. This was in the 1950s, towards the end of Perón’s second term, which was a fundamental period in terms of the consolidation of a middle-classand during which magazines would provide an education of sorts on how to perform middle-class consumption, to activate consumption and therefore the economy. He understood that he had to share his ideas widely and was focused on those media outlets.
His objective behind this great effort of making himself known and of disseminating his ideas on the city was to show new ways of living and the pressing need for housing, meaning its organization in high-density cities, which was the main theme among modern architects and one that will always be at the heart of his thinking and work. And that is very apparent in his letters.
Towards the late 1950s, he began his correspondence with Reginald Malcolmson, a truly extraordinary person with regard to the feedback that he offered for over twenty years on the project that Williams initially called Viviendas en el espacio [Housing in Space], a fairly traditional housing prototype conceived for mass production that followed health criteria and all modernist premises, and that he later renamed La ciudad que necesita la humanidad [The City that Humanity Needs]. This bombastic name will be discussed in the correspondence with Malcolmson, who at a given moment said “first, let’s spread the idea, then we’ll see if the name is fitting; we need to convince people in order to convince politicians so that we can build the city”.
The collection of letters in the archive convey the development of the thinking of an architect who did not publish in the usual media, did not write articles, who was not a critic in the traditional sense… and yet, he developed a corpus of dense and interesting theoretical ideas. Of the correspondence that Amancio kept—with the impressive awareness of the value of everything he produced, and therefore that he kept—what’s left, what we have in the archive, is the drafts: sometimes handwritten letters that Delfina, or his daughter, or someone else in the office typed, oftentimes marked up with corrections, with addendums, that contrast with the response letters. The density of the correspondence allows us to recreate dialogues that, in many instances, transcend a traditionally professional tone and acquire a deep emotional value.
So, on the one hand there’s that big idea about the city, but perhaps the piece he most wanted to build, for which he worked the hardest, was the Sala para el espectáculo plástico y el sonido en el espacio [Room for the Plastic Show and Sound in the Space] that, although he presented it to private entities, he understood that it had to be a municipal hall or something that the government built. This show room would, in a way, synthesize his hope of making much of his work public, available for public use. Williams, in fact, did commissioned work: he built Le Corbusier’s project in the city of La Plata and his parents’ house, he created some works, objects, furniture… but evidently, he sought out a more public condition and greater reach for his architectural work.
There’s a moment in the correspondence with Malcolmson where they discuss that long-term project, La ciudad que necesita la humanidad, and he says “Well, we have to keep going, let’s begin by trying to build small things.” And, among other things, towards the end of the 1970s, Malcolmsom organized a workshop with his students where he finally built a model for this city for which Amancio sent several preliminary sketches and for which he used collages to design and think the project through and how to display it. There’s artistic work that I believe is at the basis of his architectural thinking and that is connected to something he repeats over and over in his letters, which is the idea on purity and the beauty of the form. That’s a phrase that we find as if it were one of his ultimate objectives, one which, of course, we can already find in the Casa sobre el arroyo [House on the River, also known as Bridge House], but it’s a premise of simplicity and formal beauty that he also takes to be part of the type of environment that humanity needs.
One can also find some contradictions in his letters of course, because these are what allow him to, at some point, rethink certain ideas. Several other times he mentions the economic circumstances of his own country, the hardship due to the economic crisis in Argentina, the ups and downs of the different administrations… and he confesses that in some cases it’s difficult to find the money to promote his ideas. I believe we have yet to look more into those theoretical ideas that were behind this strong, demanding, entrepreneurial, and tenacious personality. Still to the end of his days, even when he said that he had sometimes felt isolated, he didn’t give up on trying to include in the agenda the discussion about how it is we should live.
Translation from Spanish by Valentina Sarmiento Cruz