Amie Corry is a London-based writer and editor. She was senior editor of Other Criteria Books from 2014 to 2020 and is director of publications for Do Ho Suh. Corry contributes to the Times Literary Supplement, Burlington Contemporary, and other publications, and in 2013 she coproduced a pioneering audit on gender equality within the London art sector. She is cofounder of the literary festival Primadonna and works closely with the art-and-mental-health charity Hospital Rooms. She is currently producing a collection of short fiction.
In 1948, a year after Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained independence, Minnette De Silva became the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). At the time, she was one of two women in the world to have an architecture practice in her own name. Ambitious and uncompromising, De Silva cut a beguiling if isolated figure within the postwar modernist milieu. Her story reveals something of the complex landscape that architecture faced in the wake of World War II and during the world’s slow emergence from colonialism. De Silva responded to this terrain decisively, developing a prescient philosophy that centered the symbiotic relationship between building, environment, and inhabitant.
De Silva was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, in 1918. In her drily titled autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, she describes growing up wild, rebellious, and with a keenly attuned political conscience. Her Sinhala Buddhist father, George, was a lawyer and activist who would serve in Ceylon’s first government after it won independence from Britain. Her mother, Agnes Nell, a Burgher Christian, overcame societal pressure to marry outside her caste. Nell campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage and to promote the country’s renascent arts and craft movement, which she saw as a sociopolitical as well as a cultural issue, given the poverty craftspeople faced.
Showing a characteristic lack of interest in gendered expectations, De Silva set her sights on a profession in architecture as a teenager, after a town planner visiting her father lent her some magazines on the subject. Despite her parents’ progressive political views, they disapproved of her ambitions—“Women architects indeed!” she quotes her father saying—but De Silva was determined.1 She raised the funds for her studies through friends and extended family and traveled to Mumbai and then to London. She successfully negotiated a place at London’s Architectural Association (AA) after encountering the head of a British parliamentary education committee in Sri Lanka, who intervened to facilitate her taking the school’s entrance exam. Once qualified, she returned to Sri Lanka at her father’s behest so as to contribute to the new nation.
While De Silva’s practice was contained in her homeland, her world was transnational. She traveled widely, fostering connections with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Jawaharlal Nehru and developing a close relationship with Le Corbusier, the feted pioneer of modern architecture. Throughout their decades-long correspondence, Le Corbusier, who addressed De Silva as his “small bird of the islands,” made evident a deeply felt respect, as well as affection, for the younger architect. Prefiguring the development of what came to be known as “critical regionalism,” De Silva strove to adapt Le Corbusier’s pared-back International Style, with its systematized, modular proportions (based on the Swiss architect’s own anatomy), to a non-Western context. Her arguments for the inclusion of indigenous crafts, materials, and traditions in modernist projects proved deeply influential, yet when she died, in 1998, in relative obscurity, only a handful of her buildings remained standing. The reasons for her decline reveal a complex intersection of problems and prejudices.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the modernist movement was struggling to regain momentum after World War II. Many doubted that it was equipped to deal with mass urban devastation and the need to integrate principles of social welfare into architecture.2 De Silva, while deeply enamored with the “pure white geometric loveliness” of Le Corbusier’s Purist work, recognized that the movement’s analytical and rationalized approach risked flattening regional differences, despite many of its proponents’ interest in vernacular traditions.3 For De Silva, the movement’s tragedy was that it was interrupted before it could reach maturity, its logical growth malformed. She described the evolution of architecture during the period as one of “trial and error”: “Our laboratory is the actual building site. Our mistakes are visible to all—but that is architecture. And so our modern masters have had to suffer ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’”4
De Silva believed that in Sri Lanka, Western technological influences had resulted in a superficial veneer of modernism, acquired secondhand and neglectful of regional traditions and conditions. She was critical of Le Corbusier’s decision not to spend longer in Chandigarh in 1950 before embarking on the construction of the Punjab’s vast new state capital, and commented on his eschewing of the Punjabi notion of collective working. Although Le Corbusier did gather a small team to work on the project, fighting to include British architect Jane Drew in the face of apprehension over her gender, De Silva noted that “Corb” ended up the sole “master builder of Chandigarh.”5 In this she prefigured much criticism of Western modernism.
In 1926, Le Corbusier had described the profound impact effected by strip windows, which had been made newly possible by the modern industrial production of sheet glass: “Our senses are enchanted; our animal being is delighted. We have the sun in our room. It is bright in our house.”6 Like her Western counterparts, De Silva prioritized light, air, and space, but she was required to respond to different climatic and social conditions. Her buildings, primarily residential houses and apartment blocks in Colombo and Kandy, were characterized by an expansive openness, a play of light and shadow, and the integration of as much of the outside environment as possible. The key houses—the Karunaratne House (1947–51), the Pieris Houses I and II (1952–56, 1963), and the Amarasinghe House (1954)—were organized around large cantilevered staircases and multiple open verandas, both giving rise to striations of dappled light on tiled flooring. Rather than use strip windows, De Silva carefully designed screens and latticing to encourage ventilation, and often integrated verdant gardens, sometimes sunken. Walls were made of glass bricks, pierced with openings, or entirely absent. Varied ceiling heights and pockets of space that could be easily expanded or reconfigured created areas diverse in feel and aesthetic, a necessity, the architect noted, given the likelihood of large family groups and the Sri Lankan sense of hospitality.
De Silva made use of other materials and principles favored by modernists, including reinforced concrete and random-rubble stonework, the open carport (which she noted might double as a playroom, office, or loggia), and stilts, which had their own long history in local architecture. But these nods to the International Style were accompanied by a distinctly Sri Lankan decorative schema: exquisite lacquered balustrades, polished jackwood stair-treads, metal grilles bearing bodhi-leaf motifs, terra-cotta roof tiles decorated with temple-dancer designs, niches for pahanas (traditional oil lamps), and the use of local laterite and limestone. Many of her houses had ceiling or door panels made of traditional woven Dumbara mats (named after a valley in Kandy). De Silva went as far as establishing a weaving company, Ceylon Kandyan Handlooms, from out of her studio. The company, which was tragically short-lived due to a lack of interest and funds, aimed to preserve the predominantly female-led craft of Dumbara through the implementation of new technologies and designs.
De Silva remained a passionate advocate and patron of regional artistry throughout her life. She recognized the potential political role of artists and makers in the establishment of a nation that was in the process of throwing off its colonial shackles and rediscovering its own sophisticated architectural history, which spanned two and a half millennia. She commissioned numerous site-specific murals from the Sri Lankan Cubist painter George Keyt for her buildings, and in the late 1940s she encouraged Cartier-Bresson to visit the country to document its traditions and landscape. Her last significant building project was the Kandy Arts Center, commissioned in 1982, which was conceived to emulate the natural amphitheaters of local villages.
De Silva was an early proponent of what came to be known as “community architecture,” actively involving her buildings’ occupants in decision-making. In 1954, when she realized a long-term ambition to combat the crushing need for affordable housing in Kandy by working on the Watapuluwa Housing Scheme, she began with a series of in-depth consultations to ascertain the needs of the project’s future tenants, who were of mixed religions and incomes. The government was persuaded to buy a plot, and De Silva, partly inspired by the structure of village communities, developed five designs for different affordability levels and preferences. A rent/purchase scheme enabled Watapuluwa’s tenants to acquire their properties over a twenty-five-year period. De Silva proudly noted that they became “millionaires” as the value of the land rocketed.
I believe in building to suit our living needs in a living way.Minnette De Silva
Despite its wide-ranging ambitions, De Silva’s practice was beleaguered with problems. She regularly faced resistance to her designs, which in turn were often crudely adapted at the construction phase. The cash-strapped engineers of the Senanayake Flats (1954–57), a large, curved modernist apartment block the likes of which Colombo had never seen, changed the design of De Silva’s vents, allowing rain to penetrate the structure. Many clients struggled with the originality of her ideas; the Karunaratne family felt the random-rubble stonework looked dirty and that the local timbers were no match for Burmese teak. They also doubted that her workforce was up to the job of pouring reinforced concrete and decided they did not want to pay for the Keyt mural (De Silva eventually paid for the commission herself). Meanwhile, the monk blessing the Amarasinghe House consoled its owners for its unfinished state; in De Silva’s words, “he just did not think there was enough decoration or walls to hold the thing up.”7 She herself could be uncompromising—she refused to move her studio from Kandy to the commercial center of Colombo—and somewhat unsympathetic to practical concerns. When clients complained that the open structure of a building left them exposed to the elements and to security threats, she suggested buying a mop or a dog.8
Cast as an outsider in both Europe and Sri Lanka, De Silva proved uninterested in assimilation. In the West, she was endlessly exoticized in racialized terms. When Queen Elizabeth took an interest in her at a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 1948, a British paper mused, “Was it all due to the picturesque saree. . . . Could it be the irresistible lure of the mysterious East?”9 She was renowned for her striking beauty, and the British architect Gillian Howell, a contemporary of De Silva’s at the Architectural Association, remembers her “always dressed in exquisite saris, with fresh flowers in her hair and always followed by a train of young men carrying her drawing board and portfolio, her handbags, suitcases, scarves and shawls.”10 Back in Sri Lanka, she struggled on account of her mixed heritage and the English accent with which she spoke Sinhalese.
That we know all of this is entirely down to Minnette herself, whose autobiography-cum-scrapbook-cum-monograph, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, was published the year she died. The act of compiling the book, its title citing the descriptors that hampered and defined De Silva throughout her career, was a radical one. In the absence of serious recognition, and with the demolition or deterioration of many of her buildings, she recognized the urgency of preserving her own archive. In doing so, she literally centered herself in the architecture’s narrative, often appearing in photographs of the buildings, at work on some detail or simply observing the scene.11
Life and Work is replete with fascinating observations of the postwar melting pot. De Silva accompanied her father to such major events as the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, in Wrocław, Poland, in 1948, where she was photographed smiling with Picasso. In 1947, she represented India-Ceylon at the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) VI, in Bridgwater, England. In CIAM’s group photograph, De Silva—the youngest delegate and, she assumed, the first Asian—can be seen sitting front and center next to Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. Already an expert in Asian architectural history, she hungrily absorbed Europe’s cityscapes during this period, describing Venice as perfect in its proportions, “all at the scale which the human eye can comprehend” (she decried the gigantism taking over architecture), and Notre Dame, Paris, as “pure distilled light.”12
It was in Paris, at the age of twenty-eight, that De Silva first met Le Corbusier. She was, at first, intimidated by the “heroic great man,” while he was intrigued by the newly qualified architect.13 At their first encounter, De Silva resigned herself to deferential listening, but she grew in confidence and they would correspond animatedly until Le Corbusier’s death, in 1965. De Silva identified “Corb” as the only friend who really cared about her work. She credited herself with teaching him about Indian art—which was enormously important to his later work—and cherished a sketch of Siva that he drew after they visited an exhibition of Indian work at London’s Royal Academy together in 1948. Whether their relationship was romantic has remained the subject of speculation, the possible affair depressingly defining much of the narrative around De Silva’s life and work since.
In the 1960s, De Silva’s career was eclipsed by that of her compatriot Geoffrey Bawa, who is regularly cited as a chief proponent of “tropical modernism.”14 Bawa qualified a decade after De Silva and his practice was heavily informed by hers—he employed her studio assistant, the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, direct from her studio, and Plesner reportedly took a lot of her ideas with him. Bawa was awarded a Sri Lanka Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1982, an accolade De Silva eventually received two years before her death, in 1996.
Yet De Silva remained committed to the case for a regionally assimilated modernity that made room for the “personal, emotional and ornamental elements” of a building.15 She went on to lecture in Asian architecture at Hong Kong University in the 1970s, and despite the relative dearth of her existing buildings, her extraordinary life and pioneering sensibilities are increasingly seen as an important part of modernism’s global story. This is in large part due to the actions De Silva herself took to document a career that never reached its full potential.
1Minnette De Silva, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect (Colombo: Smart Media Productions, 1998), p. 59.
2For more on this see Peter Minosh, “Moderate Utopias: The Reconstruction of Urban Space and Modernist Principles in Postwar France,” MS thesis, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007.
3De Silva, Life and Work, p. 233.
4Ibid., p. 87.
5Ibid., p. 342.
6Le Corbusier, “Notes à la suite,” Cahiers d’Art, no. 3 (March 1926): p. 46.
7De Silva, Life and Work, p. 233.
8See David Robson, “Minnette De Silva: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect,” lecture at Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, May 6, 2016. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4JKQHLi8IU (accessed June 29, 2022).
9De Silva, Life and Work, p. 102.
10Gillian Howell, introduction, in ibid., p. ix.
11See Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, “Crafting the Archive: Minnette De Silva, Architecture, and History,” The Journal of Architecture 22, no. 8 (2017): 1299–1336.
12De Silva, Life and Work, p. 233.
14Other key contemporary contributions to the conversation include Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Village Housing in the Tropics (1947) and Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956), and Victor and Aladar Olgyay, Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (1963).
15De Silva, Life and Work, p. 133.