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Minnette de Silva climbing up to inspect works at the De Saram house, Colombo, Sri Lanka (1951, RIBA Collections)

Spotlight on Women Architects – Minnette de Silva

In our series "Spotlight on Women Architects" we regularly present the work of female architects - the Sri Lankan architect Minnette De Silva was a true pioneer and combined tradition and modernity in her projects. About time to rediscover her work.
by Florian Heilmeyer | 9/26/2022

The architect Minnette De Silva (1918-1998) was “first” in many ways: She was among the first women admitted to study architecture in Mumbai in 1938. She was among the first women from the British colonies to study and graduate from the venerable Architectural Association in London in 1945. She then became the first woman from Asia to become a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). And when she returned to her newly independent homeland Sri Lanka in 1948, she was the first female architect there to open her own practice without a male partner. With her groundbreaking residential buildings she became one of the defining figures of Tropical Modernism in the 1950s and 1960s – a self-confident mixture of Western modernism with local knowledge and craftsmanship. Even in 1996, just two years before her death, she was still among the first of her kind, being the first woman to receive the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects (SLIA) Gold Medal. Minnette De Silva was a true pioneer who paved the way for others – both men and women – in many ways, and yet hardly anyone is familiar with her name today. It is only proper that this is now slowly changing.

Minnette De Silva was born on 1 February 1918. She was the child of a mixed religious marriage, which was unusual in Ceylon at that time. Her father George De Silva was Sinhalese and Buddhist, and worked as a lawyer and politician. He was one of the reformers who consistently and patiently campaigned for the independence of the British colony. Minette's mother Agnes Nell, on the other hand, came from a Christian Burgher family with Dutch roots, and for her part fought for women's rights, which were introduced in Ceylon as early as 1931 – making it the first Asian country to do so. Intellectuals, artists, politicians and activists met at her parents' home. And thus Minnette not only grew up among Ceylon's upper class, but also knew something about staying power and dedication to a cause.

In her autobiography The Life & Work of an Asian Woman Architect, De Silva wrote that she had wanted to become an architect even as a child. This desire was extremely unusual for a woman at the time and inevitably led her into an extremely male-dominated environmant. In Ceylon, there was no opportunity to study architecture and so she first worked as an office intern in Colombo and later in Bombay. Her persistence finally convinced her parents and they paid for their daughter to attend courses at a private architecture school in Bombay. There Minnette De Silva quickly found her way into local political and intellectual circles and was one of the founders of the Indian art magazine MARG, for which she was in charge of the architecture section for a time. At the beginning of the 1940s she was one of the first women to be admitted to study architecture at the state university in Bombay – only to be exmatriculated after participating in a strike for Gandhi's release in the early 1940s. As a result she continued to work for MARG and in parallel in the office of the German architect Otto Königsberger in Bangalore. He had fled Germany to escape the Nazis and in the meantime had risen to become the state architect of the southern Indian province of Mysore. It was with Königsberger that De Silva first had the opportunity to learn modern urban planning and Western-style architecture first hand, so to speak. In his office, she was able to work on new, large-scale urban planning and infrastructure projects. And while visiting her parents she was helped by a fortunate coincidence: She got into a conversation with the British governor, who listened carefully to the story of her aborted studies. He recommended her, as she had already gone to school in England as a child and spoke fluent English, to the Architectural Association in London. In the autumn of 1945 De Silva was able to continue her studies there, completing them in 1948.

In war-weary London, De Silva must have been a remarkably exotic presence – an existence she apparently celebrated with relish. She reportedly always wore colourful saris and adorned her traditionally pinned-up hair with fresh flowers. Eyewitnesses reported that fellow male students scrambled to carry her bags, drawing materials and books. De Silva, who remained unmarried all her life, is reported to have once said that a husband is really only good for carrying your bag. Thus, even in London, De Silva had no difficulty being accepted into the illustrious circles of post-war society. She was a welcome guest at parties and celebrations. In the group photo for the 6th CIAM meeting in 1947 in Bridgewater, England, she sat in the front row between Cornelis van Eesteren and Walter Gropius – one of only 10 women among the 75 participants, and the only one from Asia. Although she had no official mandate, she was considered a representative of India and Ceylon at CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). It's a shame there are only black and white photos of these meetings, for otherwise we would certainly be able to see what an intense splash of colour the 29-year-old De Silva must have been in this world of grey European gentlemen in their dark suits. She travelled to Paris to meet Le Corbusier and a lifelong friendship began. She never worked with him, but he was, she said, one of the few who took her interest in architecture seriously. Throughout her life she always incorporated Corbusier's quotes in her writings and in her buildings. Le Corbusier, in turn, called her “my little island bird”, but probably learned much from her about India and Sri Lanka, an interest that would later take him – among other places – as far as Chandigarh.

After graduating in 1948, De Silva left Europe to return to Sri Lanka, which had just won its independence from the British Empire. Her father, by then the Minister of Industry and Fisheries, had urged her to come back to do her part in helping to develop the young nation as an architect. Her parents had imagined that their daughter would seek a secure job as a clerk, but instead Minnette opened her own office in Kandy, her home town. In her luggage she brought ideas of Western modernity with her, but was wise enough to take a critical position towards them. Thus, she did not develop plans in the sense of a “Heroic Modernity” as exemplified by her mentor Le Corbusier. De Silva did not envisage a modernisation that rejected the old traditions or condemned their buildings as being hopelessly backward. Too often she had travelled with her parents to ancient temples in the interior of Sri Lanka and admired their architecture. Along with Le Corbusier, she was equally enthusiastic about the ideas of the Sri Lankan philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, who vigorously advocated the careful renewal of ancient traditions and cultures in the face of Western dominance. And so, in De Silva's architecture it was exactly these two seemingly opposite poles that ultimately came together: She mixed the ideas of Western modernity and progress with local knowledge, traditional building methods and spatial philosophies in order to create something entirely new and distinct.

De Silva mainly designed residential buildings whose interiors were fluidly linked to the exteriors by means of covered terraces and verandas. In this way, she adapted the ideas of an open floor plan to the climatic conditions of her homeland. For the extremely important festivals in Sri Lanka, to which an infinite number of relatives would visit, De Silva's large rooms could easily be enlarged or repeatedly divided by means of temporary or textile walls. She integrated traditional elements into these buildings such as the mada midula (a central courtyard), rangahalas (multifunctional zones for dance and music) and avanhalas (private bathing spaces under the open sky). She also integrated handicrafts, murals and richly ornamented tiles, doors and stone walls. She brought painters like George Keyt or Stanley Kirinde to the building sites so that architecture, crafts and art could be combined. She had craftsmen build open brick walls, through whose ornamental patterns the wind would have a cooling effect and the sun cast shadows.

At the same time, her houses were surrounded by smooth, white walls, had large windows and doors or a concise grid of columns. Her Karunaratne House, built in 1951, was the first split-level house in Sri Lanka. In the Pieris House of 1955, she raised the main living area onto a grid of slender concrete columns. Parking space is integrated next to a lounge and communal areas on the ground floor, while the bedrooms and private rooms are on the upper level, where they get more privacy and better ventilation. The Pieris House can be seen as an innovative prototype for modern living in the tropics. It is as reminiscent of a less radical version of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye as well as of Sri Lanka's ancient, elevated timber and stone temples. In 1956 she designed what is perhaps her most Corbusier-like building, the Senanayake Flats in Colombo: A three-storey, curved structure articulated by wide horizontal bands of plaster, with an open ground floor that leaves the sloping concrete pillars visible. This elongated building was unlike anything that had been built in Sri Lanka before. It clearly followed the principles set out by Le Corbusier in his Vers une architecture in 1927. Contemporary commentators, however, were less enthusiastic.

De Silva continued to struggle with the role ascribed to her: Time and again, she complained that she would lose contracts or not even get them in the first place just because she was a woman. Clients always had their plans checked by independent experts – i.e. men – which must have increasingly frustrated her. She travelled a great deal, but after her mother's death in 1962 the trips became more prevalent and she left her office, which she continued to run from her parents' house, for longer and longer. In 1973, she closed her office for good and returned to London, working theoretically for the most part, before joining the University of Hong Kong as a professor of architectural history in 1975. In her four years there, she reformed teaching in the sense that much more focus was placed on the diverse history of Asian architecture, while colleagues of hers looked mainly at Western architecture. She also curated an exhibition on traditional Asian architecture, which was shown in London and consisted mainly of photographs taken by De Silva herself.

In 1979, she returned to Kandy and tried to breath new life into her office, but commissions continued to be sparse. The only major commission for a cultural and event centre for the Kandy Arts Association was an ambitious design, but getting it built was fraught with problems. A roof collapsed during construction and the client changed her mind regarding what she wanted several times. British architectural researcher David Robson commented that “This last major project showed again the power of De Silva's ideas and the originality of her thinking, but also her lack of technical knowledge”. In the 1990s De Silva increasingly struggled with illness. She died in a public hospital in Kandy in 1998. Her house was cleared out and slowly deteriorated until it was finally demolished, and her entire archive was presumably lost. So all that we have left today are five buildings she designed and built, and a few drawings of her other designs.

One aspect of Le Corbusier that De Silva did not aspire to was the famous architect's zealous, constant publishing of his own thoughts and buildings. If she had done more to promote herself, especially considering her work as an important pioneer of a much more cautious and clever modernism, she would perhaps not have been completely forgotten for so many years. A good monograph about Minnette De Silva's work that is based on the remaining material and thoroughly documents her remaining buildings is certainly long overdue.

David Robson – Minnette de Silva: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect