Remembering the life and work of Minnette de Silva - Hindustan Times
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Remembering the life and work of Minnette de Silva

Mar 03, 2024 07:00 AM IST

Minnette de Silva was born in 1918, a year before her more famous compatriot, Geoffrey Bawa—though her practice precedes him by a decade.

It’s women’s history month and if I skipped the newsletter last week, dear reader, it was because I was in Sri Lanka where I discovered the work of the marvelous Minnette de Silva, the country’s first woman architect. While there are serious efforts to revive and assess her work, she remains largely forgotten. Read on…

Minnette de Silva with Pablo Picasso and others (Source: Wiki Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)
Minnette de Silva with Pablo Picasso and others (Source: Wiki Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)

Truth be told I had not heard of Minnette de Silva. Goeffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s lionised and feted architect, yes. His influence can be seen in not just his own former country estate in Lunuganga but in buildings such as the new Parliament house.

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But Minnette who?

On a visit to the island nation that gave the world meaning to the word serendipity, I stumbled upon a solo show at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It was, unusually, of a housing project that had been designed by Sri Lanka’s first woman architect.

Minnette de Silva had many other firsts to her name: first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and, incidentally, in her time, just one of two women anywhere in the world to have an architectural practice in her own name.

The exhibition on display was another first-of-its-kind social housing project, the Watapuluwa housing complex completed in 1958 for government employees in the then recently independent nation. De Silva called it “an early example of community architecture,” in The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, vol 1, her posthumously published, and incomplete, work.

When you think of the depressing shabbiness that has come to be associated with government housing, De Silvas’s Watapuluwa and the scale of her ambition stands out.

She used modern materials, concrete and rough finishes, alongside traditional materials like earth, bamboo, handwoven textiles, wood carvings, writes Sumita Singha in this assessment of De Silva’s work in RIBA. “She was also able to help local artisans, particularly women, through her work and advocacy.”

Working with the natural lay of the land, the buildings on the hillside in Watapuluwa featured split levels to avoid wasteful excavations. There were terraces and verandahs to promote sunlight and airflow. She sent out questionnaires to the owners to understand how they lived and what their needs were to develop five general plans with close to 50 variations along with community facilities.

“When planning her builds, she tried to think about how a householder would use their home, rather than impose a way of living on them. She was ahead of her time, championing what we would now call participatory design,” says Shiromi Pinto, author of Plastic Emotions, a fictionalised rendering of de Silva’s life and relationship with Le Corbusier, with whom she had a close friendship until his death in 1965.

“The exhibition addresses the overlooked work of one of the global south’s most unrecognised women architects and thinkers,” explains chief curator Sharmini Pereira. The idea, she adds, was to locate the research as coming from Sri Lanka and to share this with a global audience. This was easier said than done since there were no original drawing or models of her work intact. One way to get around the problem was to commission a film by three contemporary artists who researched and interviewed people about de Silva.

The architect in a sari

Minnette de Silva (Source: Gagosian.com)
Minnette de Silva (Source: Gagosian.com)

Minnette de Silva was born in 1918, a year before her more famous compatriot, Geoffrey Bawa—though her practice precedes him by a decade.

The daughter of George de Silva, a barrister and Buddhist-Sinhalese politician and Agnes, a suffragette of Eurasian parentage (like Bawa and known as burghers in Sri Lanka), she studied architecture in Mumbai and was, along with writer Mulk Raj Anand and her sister, Anil de Silva, one of the founding members of cultural magazine, Marg. In 1944, she worked briefly in Bangalore for German Jewish refugee Otto Koenigsberger, the chief architect and town planner of Mysore.

A chance meeting led her to enrol with the Architectural Association in London and it was during this time, that she met Le Corbusier. One can only imagine the impact she made, dressed invariably in silk saris with flowers in her hair. In August 1948, she attended the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace held in Poland, interacting with artist Pablo Picasso, sculptor Jo Davidson and American political commentator Albert E. Kahn.

In 1949, de Silva was summoned back to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then known, by her father to contribute to the newly independent nation. She set up her practice from her parents’ home in Kandy, starting with low-budget private homes for friends of her parents.

In 1962, her mother’s death sent her into depression. “She began to find it increasingly difficult to get commissions in the 1970s. Perhaps to cope with her grief and the new political climate in Sri Lanka, she travelled a lot in the 1960s and 1970s to the detriment of her practice,” writes Sumita Singha. When she returned aged 62, it was even harder to revive her practice. She died alone in a hospital in 1998 after falling from her bathtub, where she lay for days in her family home, before she was found. She was 80.

A ‘difficult’ woman

“Ahead of her time, de Silva’s ideas were popularised by men, but she was not credited properly,” continues Singha. She was compared unflatteringly with men, but “she was the one who took risks”, for instance, setting up a practice in her own name in Kandy rather than Colombo.

“She was often castigated for being a ‘difficult woman’,” says Pinto in an email interview. Men like Geoffrey Bawa had a whole coterie of young architects who “became disciples and then set up a foundation to preserve his work, it’s hard to see anyone doing the same for Minnette. She was often dismissed and even when I interviewed architects in Sri Lanka (male architects, I should add), they were often from the Bawa camp and wasted no time in telling me that Minnette’s architecture was ‘not very good’ or that she was just ‘difficult’. Where Bawa’s tendency to be a loner was seen as idiosyncratic, Minnette’s grumpiness was taken as her being ‘difficult’,” says Pinto.

It's an assessment that Singha also subscribes to. For instance, her relationship with Le Corbusier was brought up in books and lectures while Bawa’s friendship with a self-confessed paedophile called Donald Friend is hardly mentioned. Bawa, writes Singha, even poached de Silva’s employee, a Danish architect called Ulrik Plesner who would go on to disparage de Silva in his eventual memoirs, but remained tight-lipped about Bawa, even though they fell out.

And yet, over a quarter century after her death, there is an effort to revive the reputation and place of Minnette de Silva. “She is often described as being ahead of her time. Whilst this is true, she also paved the way in her way for architects like Geoffrey Bawa,” says Pereira. She was the first to use the term ‘regional’ in relation to issues related to climate, terrain, local materials and cultural history, Pereira adds. And for this, she “deserves to be given a much greater level of recognition, not only as a woman architect of historical importance but as an architect working in the late 40s in a newly independent country where her contribution to modernist architecture was bold, audacious and richly deserving.”

The following article is an excerpt from this week's Mind the Gap. Sign up here.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Namita Bhandare writes on gender and other social issues and has 25 years of experience in journalism. She has edited books and features in a documentary on sexual violence. She tweets as @namitabhandare

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