A woman's kind of building

Matilde Ucelay, Spain's first female architecture graduate in 1936, stood for practical design, orderly and detailed, without grandiloquence

It was in the fifties when Mrs Oswald walked into the College of Architects in Madrid and asked whether there was "another woman" to design her house. "They introduced her to Matilde, and they got on famously," says Oswald's daughter in one of the six houses that Ucelay, Spain's first woman architect, who graduated in 1936, built for her family. In a career of 40 years and 140 projects, this pioneer mainly built bourgeois villas, such as this one in La Moraleja, an affluent suburb of Madrid, in 1978.

"Comfortable, habitable houses, in which you notice the feminine hand," says the owner, who shows you over the house, pointing out foreign novelties such as the types of office and closet. The fireplaces are magnificent. There are three, and they draw "like on the first day."

Space is efficiently utilized with ranges of all-wall closets in corridors and under stairs, discreetly finished. In the laundry room the ironing board is a huge island, overhung by a metal frame bearing the plugs, so the cord will not get in the way of the ironing. "Matilde thought of everything and sketched right down to the last doorknob and baseboard; she went to the factory to choose the roofing tiles, spent all day at the job site," says Carlos Boyer, who was her quantity surveyor.

"She was very meticulous and into detail," he says, "and unambitious in the sense of grandiloquence."

She turned down, for example, a commission for a large state hotel because it seemed too much trouble. Another feminine quality: "She knew how to listen: to the carpenter, the marble mason, and the client. For her the important thing was what the client needed. She built houses for many women, such as Helen Kirby and María Teresa Marichalar," says Javier Vilchez, who is preparing a thesis on her work.

"Ucelay never did any big buildings, her work is simple, in the private and apparently classical ambit, but conceptually she has ideas, spatial distributions and plans that were very advanced for her time," he said.

Matilde Ucelay was born in a liberal family. Her father, an opera lover, was a lawyer; her mother had an independent theater group in which García Lorca participated. She grew up surrounded by intellectuals and artists, and studied (with high marks) at the Instituto Escuela, heir to the famous liberal school Institución Libre de Enseñanza. When she enrolled in the Architecture School, a women's bathroom had to be installed for her, and her male classmates (she was a friend of Félix Candela and Chueca Goitia) are said to have risen when she entered the room.

She graduated quickly, at the age of 25, in 1936. A bad time. She spent part of the Civil War in Valencia, where she married the writer José Ruiz-Castillo. In 1940, the Franco regime penalized her for her Republican affiliations: a fine of 30,000 pesetas, lifelong disqualification from public posts and five years without working. Ucelay, who could not afford not to work, did not give up, and friends signed some of her first projects for her. Until 2003 she did not obtain a public apology for her disqualification. In 2006, two years before her death, she was given the National Architecture Prize.

"When I found her work in an exhibition, I was amazed there was so little information about her," says Vilchez. "An art history without women is only 50 percent of the story."

Almost ten years later, about to read his thesis, he remembers his only meeting with her.

"It was in her house, a charming one, where she had always worked on a small drawing table. She was lying in bed, but her head was perfectly groomed," says the historian. "I had a list of questions, but didn't ask her any."

"Why are you doing a thesis on me?" she barked.

"You were the first woman who..." the postgraduate stammered.

"That doesn't matter; sit down and let's talk."

"She was a woman of strong character, not easily flustered," says Vilchez. When asked about the machismo she must have had to face, she just shook her head with a smile.

A hallway in a house designed by Matilde Ucely in 1978.
A hallway in a house designed by Matilde Ucely in 1978.LUIS SEVILLANO

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