By David Robson
In this Trumpian world of fake news and casual lies, it has become acceptable for writers to take the lives of real people and re-cast them to suit their own purposes. Thus, the writer Shiromi Pinto has recently published a fictionalised account of the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva under the bizarre title ‘Plastic Emotions’. But can such cavalier distortions ever be justified if the personality of the protagonist is distorted beyond recognition, if her achievements are devalued and her ideas misrepresented, if the people who surrounded her are pilloried?
Minnette de Silva was born in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon in 1918 and died in the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka in 1998. Her Sinhalese father, George de Silva, was a man of humble origins who battled against prejudice to become a lawyer and, ultimately, an important politician in the struggle for independence. Her mother, Agnes Nell, the daughter of a Dutch Burgher engineer and his English wife, was a campaigner for women’s suffrage. The family home was in the sleepy hill town of Kandy, but her parents were well-connected and played host to such visiting luminaries as Gandhi and Nehru.
Against all the odds, Minnette forged a career for herself as an architect. After a brief apprenticeship in Colombo in 1939 she moved to Bombay where she studied intermittently for three years before working for a year in Mysore with the German émigré Otto Koenigsberger. Back in Bombay she joined forces with her sister Anil and the writer Mulk Raj Anand in the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARG) and helped to found Marg, an influential journal that still exists today.
In 1945, Minnette moved to London to continue her studies at the Architectural Association. A good networker, she soon got to know a number of key figures in the world of the arts and architecture including the architect Le Corbusier with whom she remained a close friend until his death. In 1947 she was the Ceylonese delegate to the meeting of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (C.I.A.M) that was held in Bridgewater. The group photograph shows her seated in the front row surrounded by all the key architects of the day.
Minnette finally qualified in 1948, becoming the first Asian woman associate of the Royal Institute of British Architect (R.I.B.A.). But Ceylon was on the threshold of independence and, at the insistence of her parents, she returned to Kandy and opened her own office in the family home.
Her architectural career developed in fits and starts during the first two decades following independence. She had to contend with chauvinist prejudice as she struggled to establish herself in an exclusively male profession, but she was an inventive designer and a persuasive polemicist who made a significant contribution to the development of a new architecture in a country emerging from more than four centuries of foreign domination.
Minnette’s early buildings included the Karunaratne House in Kandy (1949). This combined a modern structure of reinforced concrete with traditional materials such as stone, terra cotta and lacquered wood and was conceived to meet the needs a modern Sinhalese family who still followed a Buddhist way of life.
An article about the house that she wrote in Marg in 1953 can be read as a manifesto for what she described as a Modern Regionalist Architecture: an architecture which could exploit advances in modern construction and planning while meeting the particular needs of place, climate and culture. These ideas pre-dated similar theories that were advanced some thirty years later by such pundits as Frampton and Tzonis under the banner of ‘Critical Regionalism’.
Inspired as much by traditional elevated temples known as Tampita Vihare as by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie, her second house in Colombo for the Pieris family in 1952 raised the living spaces up on columns to first floor level, providing enhanced ventilation and privacy, while creating shady loggias at ground level.
Most significant, perhaps, was her design for the Senanayake flats in Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens (1957). Ten flats were organised in pairs on three levels around a central lightwell, each one opening out to a long curving balcony to resemble an airborne bungalow. They offered a potent protype for higher density living in a tropical city.
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