“I like houses that are void of furniture and bathed in light. I like houses with laconic walls that open up for the sky and the trees to speak up” – Victoria Ocampo.
In 1928, inspired by Le Corbusier’s rationalist style, Victoria Ocampo entrusted Alejandro Bustillo with the construction of a house in Barrio Parque, following an architectural concept that was innovative for the time.
Bustillo was not comfortable with the project, since he was eminently a French neoclassicist: “Victoria was whimsical and she always got her way. This house looks like a maquette with giraffes, and this is why I didn’t sign for it.”
In the 1920’s there weren’t yet any rationalist buildings in Argentina. The ‘Obelisco’, the Cavanagh and the Gran Rex (PICTURE) theatre were all built in the second half of the 1930’s. When Victoria built her house, Buenos Aires was a city designed in the French classic style.
The construction of the house began in the neighborhood that the architect and landscape artist Carlos Thays had designed as Barrio Parque, in 1912, and quickly became the target of critics from Victoria’s neighbours and friends.
“I was hungry for white, empty walls. It would be a new way of living.”
Le Corbusier wasn’t involved in the project, although he did compliment the house, in 1929, during his only visit to Buenos Aires: “It’s an integral phenomenon. Here’s a formidable unit, a single, compact, homogeneous block. With no faults in its massive foundations (…) She, alone, was decisive in choosing the architecture for this scandalous house (…) I found in V.O.’s house works by Picasso and Léger inscribed within a type of purism that I have rarely seen before”.
The building consists of several volumes stripped of ornament. The walls rise up in a series of planes, quadrangles and cubes from a single circular pillar that extends from the central portal. The sober treatment of the surfaces, with well proportioned spaces, both full and empty; the mastery of natural illumination inside and its fluent relationship with the outside of the house; and the spatial continuity devoid of ornaments, all are traits of its modernity.
In 1930, Sur magazine was founded nearby this house. From the very beginning, Sur became one of the most important literary magazines of its time. Photographer Nicolás Forero registered, in 1931, by the central staircase of the house, the iconic image of the Foundational Board of Directors (PICTURE). This picture features Francisco Romero, Eduardo Bullrich, Guillermo de Torre, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Oliverio Girondo, Eduardo Mallea, Norah Borges, Victoria Ocampo, Enrique Bullrich, Jorge Luis Borges, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Norah Lange, María Rosa Oliver y Ernest Ansermet.
Following her father’s death, in 1940, Victoria decided to sell the house and move to Villa Ocampo.
The new owners distorted the original idea and remade the interior in the French style, loading it with moldings, but keeping the façade intact. In 1988, however, former model Claudia Sánchez bought the house and decided to reinstate the former austerity conceived by its first owner.
After that, in 2003, Amalita Fortabat (former President of Fondo Nacional de las Artes – National Arts Fund), bought the property with the idea of having it transferred to the capital asset of the State. The main goal of the project to re-purpose the building, carried out by Luis Benedit and Alejandro Corres, was turning the construction, originally conceived as a family home, into a public space.
Firstly, the architects restored the façade to its original look, since it had been altered in the past. The original blueprints with Bustillo’s original documents allowed them to accomplish this first goal.
In 2005 the house was finally open to the public under the name Casa Victoria Ocampo, as a means to offer a space for spreading our country’s artistic production.
The Raúl Castagnino Library, donated by the family of the great theater critic in 2008, was set up in the bedrooms on the second floor, and there’s a bookshop on the ground floor, where the public can purchase publications of FNA and other publishing houses.
In August of this year, a group of specialists in preservation and patrimony, began a comprehensive alteration of the Casa with the idea of continuing the work of Benedit and Corres and finally restoring the house to its original look.
In this new season, which begins with this re-opening, the programme includes presentations from artists from all over the country, international exhibitions, cycles of conversations with cultural referents, artists and intellectuals in order to discuss matters of current relevance, a series of concerts and book presentations.
Casa Victoria Ocampo is a friendly and welcoming house; a space that brings together artists and referential figures of the arts and literature; designers, artisans and intellectuals. This new programme aims to preserve and continue with Victoria Ocampo’s legacy and become a space that expands and nourishes the creative spirit of every artist, creator and intellectual in our country.
By Ivonne Burdelois
From 1933 to 1971 (when it stopped being published regularly), Sur magazine — along with Sur Publishing House — was the privileged witness and setting for the most notable intellectual figures in the 20th Century, remaining still as an illustrious example of the perseverance and relentless vision of a talented ’criolla‘ with the right instinct for detecting and giving expression to some of the most significant intellectual currents of her time.
Assisted by a team of writers hand-picked by her among many others, most of them unknown to the general public, Victoria Ocampo helped Sur soar as an adventure of liberal thought in the tumultuous times that came before and after World War II. Contrary to the false tradition that surrounds her, she was not only a generous hostess and translator of the European and American thought currents in Argentina at the time, but also a strong emissary of Argentine and Latin American literature, in a world that was already global long before this term was widely used.
Above all, Sur was a place of international gatherings and a world class forum for readings and writings aiming at unraveling the ’zeitgeist‘. From Rabindranath Tagore to André Malraux, from Graham Greene to André Gide through Aldous Huxley, from Jules Supervielle to Alfonso Reyes through Dylan Thomas, the pages of the exceptionally long-lived magazine shone under the light of an impressive constellation of essential names in Literature. In all justice, Gabriela Mistral once wrote to Victoria: “You have changed the literary direction of several countries in South America”.
Despite Sur’s labor having been misrepresented at times as that of a “translation company”, it must be remembered that, for example, most of the tales included in Ficciones, by Borges, appeared for the first time in Sur — certainly not as translations. Not only Borges, but also Paz, Lorca, Alberti, Mistral, Neruda, Cortázar wrote for Sur — names that, by the way, were hardly found together in any other publication of the time. Sur was not only a receiver: it was an emitter, same as Victoria was not only a reader and a listener, but also a speaker and a writer.
Another usual prejudice, opposed to all evidence of the contrary, presents Sur simply as a grandstand for pre-established values. Upon their arrival to Sur, both Sábato and Bianco were virtually unknown, which can also be said of Murena and Pezzoni. Borges says he was an unknown name himself, which is an exaggeration, but it cannot be denied that Borges’ name became international with the help of Caillois and Drieu LaRochelle, both collaborators of Sur and personal friends with Victoria, who made Borges’ name well known in France. The same happened with writers of different nationalities: Michaux was virtually non-existent as a writer when Victoria first published his work in Sur; Caillois himself was one of the many bright young men from Paris when he met Victoria, and after many years, with her assistance, he became the publisher whose books would be dropped by planes over French territory, at the end of World War II.
In truth, Sur was born tumbling amongst the skepticism of the writers that used to be around it but did not completely adhere to its risky enterprise. It was only after the ship started sailing calm seas, having waded through all sorts of obstacles, and after it started harvesting unexpected applause from the most diverse and prestigious horizons, that the adventure became a fervent project; the most reticent ones quickly jumped over board and sailed along with the national and international success both sown and harvested by Victoria’s effort. Octavio Paz rightly said that Sur represented the freedom of literature in front of power.
Notwithstanding, the legacy of Sur persists until today in its own right, as part of its irrevocable testament. It constitutes a unique door, half-open to the riches and contradictions of the 20th Century, and a true key to “inscribing our enigma within the Universe and thus communicating with it”. Hopefully, it might as well be a precious key to help unravel the enigma of Victoria Ocampo — as put by Paz, not a mythological figure, but a woman gifted with generosity, anger and imagination, and to spread her mysterious energy across the Universe.
In 1930, Victoria Ocampo wrote to Ortega y Gasset: “Here is my project: publishing a magazine to deal mainly with American problems, under different lights, with the collaboration of Americans with something to say and Europeans with an interest in America. This will be the leitmotiv of the magazine, but it will naturally deal with other matters, as well”.
The name Sur was chosen, from a distance, by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, but the idea of actually publishing the magazine belongs to North-American novelist Waldo Frank, a left-wing intellectual that convinced Victoria that she should undertake such a project. Thus came along Sur, one of the most significant cultural enterprises in the 20th Century, which published the works of the main figures in literature, philosophy, history and visual arts, not only from Latin America, but also from North America and Western Europe. Sur also carried out the translation of countless of the most prestigious authors of the time, introducing Latin American literature to the European public and vice-versa.
The model for Sur was the Nouvelle Revue Française, created in Paris in 1909 and Revista de Occidente, founded by Ortega y Gasset in 1923. Sur survived over four decades and it was “the freedom of literature in front of the earthly powers; a little less than a religion, and a little more than a sect” according to the words of Octavio Paz. The magazine’s first issue was published in the summer of 1930-31, the cover was white and there was a green arrow crossing over it behind Sur’s black letters.
It was a quarterly publication consisting of 199 pages with the collaboration of names such as Drieu La Rochelle, Borges, Waldo Frank, Eugenio D’Ors, Ansermet, Walter Gropius and Alfonso Reyes. Apolitical in nature, the magazine published both left-wing and right-wing writers. Nevertheless it was harshly criticized for being, among other accusations, an elitist publication, created to satisfy a foreign readership. The fact is that Sur was able to open up to the world like no other magazine of its time could, and its sight went beyond strictly nationalist or regionalist movements, to include European currents as well as Hispanic American ones. Writer and essayist Blas Matamoros wrote in his book “Genius and Figure of Victura Ocampo”: “The team at Sur cannot be thought of as an expression of class, as it has been speculated. Calling Sur a magazine for the Porteño Oligarchy, even if the concept were limited to its intellectual layer, is terribly inaccurate. The Porteño Oligarchy never was one to devote itself to enterprises such as this, and among the main names of Sur there are as many of this kind of people as there are of others”.
Ocampo’s aim was always to keep her magazine plural and democratic. It opposed both the Nazi and Franco regimes and celebrated the victory of the Allies. When Peronismo came to power in 1946, it didn’t disguise its disgust. In 1955, when Perón was overthrown by the Military, it celebrated his fall. The Chief Editors of Sur were Eduardo Mallea, with Guillermo de Torre as secretary, José (Pepe) Bianco, who occupied his position for twenty-three years, Borges, Raimundo Lida, Ernesto Sábato, María Luisa Bastos and Enrique Pezzoni. Towards 1933 publishing house Sur came along, which published some of the best literature of the time: Borges, Sábato, José Bianco, Juan Carlos Onetti, Horacio Quiroga, Bioy Casares, D. H. Lawrence, Jung, Virginia Wolf, García Lorca, Camus and Nabokov, amongst others.