Resurrecting a forgotten architect
7 October 2019
Does the fictionalised retelling of Minnette de Silva’s story do justice to her life and work?
In 1946, in Bombay, a group of young intellectuals that included the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, the German architect Otto Königsberger, and two Ceylonese sisters – the art historian and writer Anil (Marcia) de Silva-Vigier and her younger sister, the architect Minnette de Silva – founded the arts and culture magazine MĀRG. The beginning of this venture was fraught with financial issues – the group had to find subscribers and advertisers to fund the first issue – but support in the form of J R D Tata’s offer of “seven ads and two rooms” enabled MĀRG to establish itself as an authority on Indian – and Southasian – art and architecture, and introduce contemporary Western architectural movements and styles to an Indian audience.
The de Silva sisters belonged to a politically active Burgher Sinhalese family: their father, George E de Silva, a lawyer and politician, was closely involved with the freedom movement and later held cabinet positions in an independent Ceylon; their mother, Agnes Nell was a social activist who championed voting rights for women and pushed for these rights to be extended to Indian Tamil women in the country. As a member – and one-time president – of the Ceylon National Congress, George was closely associated with the Indian National Congress and several prominent Indian political figures. In her autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect (1998), de Silva recalls a childhood punctuated by visits from Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, M K Gandhi and his wife Kasturba, and Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira.
Agnes and George’s social work brought de Silva in close contact with local artisans and labourers and their traditional handicraft practices, an association she deepened during her career. In her early 20s, she defied her father, who was initially against her decision to train as an architect, and moved to Bombay where she worked with Perin Jamsetjee Mistri – widely regarded as one of the first women to qualify as an architect in India – at Mistri’s father’s firm Ditchburn, Mistri and Bhedwar. She then began her training at the Sir J J College of Architecture in 1941, but was expelled for attending – and later refusing to write a note of apology to the college head – a Quit India Movement march against British rule. She worked at Königsberger’s practice in Bangalore on the Jamshedpur Tata Steel City Plan before moving to London to continue her study at the Architectural Association in London. In 1947, she represented MĀRG at the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in Bridgewater, where she met the Swiss French architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, a meeting that led to a lifelong friendship sustained through an exchange of letters over the course of their lives.
Shiromi Pinto’s novel Plastic Emotions is a fictionalised reworking of their relationship: through a series of letters and vignettes, Pinto imagines an affair between the two – it is not clear if they were involved in real life but de Silva alludes to a romantic relationship in her writings – against the backdrop of postcolonial Ceylon. The novel opens in 1949, where a reluctant de Silva – recently elected as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the first Asian woman to do so – has returned home, called back by her father who wants her to find her place in a “new Ceylon”. When de Silva begins work on her first project – a house for family friends – she fuses together modernist principles and traditional arts and crafts, drawing on her familiarity with vernacular traditions. At first, her clients are impressed with her plans, but their optimism fades away when they are confronted with her unorthodox ideas: unrendered interior walls, a floor-to-ceiling modernist mural, lacquer-work, clay tiles – and her authority is called into question. “If I were a man … [t]hey would take what I said at face value and thank me for it. Instead I am told I am mad, irresponsible, even arrogant,” she writes to Le Corbusier who is in India, having recently accepted Nehru’s invitation to build a new city in the form of Chandigarh.
Chandigarh was envisioned as a metonym for the new India. Nehru’s mandate for Chandigarh – created as a replacement capital for Punjab after Lahore became a part of Pakistan – reflected his vision for India: a modern construction that was a synthesis of the past and the present, a symbol for the future. For Le Corbusier, a city dislocated from its location, one that is “imposed on a site”, is without a soul; his vision for Chandigarh is a city that will elevate its citizens through its layout and buildings, one that will further the promise of democracy, while at the same time, be in harmony with the Himalayan mountains that border it. In this sense, his architectural principles mirror that of de Silva’s regional modernism style. Her work incorporates traditional as well as modern materials – a marriage of terra cotta and concrete – reflective of the local landscape. But they differ too. De Silva incorporates the outdoors in her plans, blurring the lines between the indoors and nature through her covered balconies, the meda midula or open courtyards filled with greenery – designs that allow cross-ventilation and have cooling properties; while for Le Corbusier, the space and nature are discrete elements. He bristles at the insistence of Indians in Chandigarh who want to soften the clean lines of his buildings by planting hedges and hanging flowers from balconies in the capital complex.
A particular strength of this novel lies in its portrayal of postcolonial Ceylon: the unfolding of events in a country – finally free of European imperialism – trying to find its identity and place in Southasia and beyond. Although Ceylon is slowly sinking into a state of chaos, with sectarian fault lines threatening to erupt any moment, de Silva is at first unaffected, ensconced in her upper-class privilege. A new political party, bolstered by the support of Buddhist monks and nuns, challenges the secular foundation of the country. For de Silva, the party’s ideology seems absurd: “How can it gain traction when we are a nation of so many others?” she thinks. She sees the national flag change: two slim coloured bands – green and orange – are added to reflect the Muslim and Tamil minorities. The prime minister mulls over a speech he is due to deliver to an audience that includes the opposition party. How does one retain secularism, a separation of the church from the state, so to speak? “What do you do when the majority wants religionists in power? Remind the religionists of their duty,” he thinks, vowing to keep Buddhism out of politics. His son Dudley, who takes over after his death, seems less concerned with the separation of religion and politics than this father. Ceylon dissolves into a series of emotive questions: what exactly constitutes a Ceylonese identity? Is it a Sinhalese one? Should Sinhalese replace English as the official language to include the common man?
Both de Silva’s and Le Corbusier’s work in Southasia was carried out during a time of nation- building in the region. If Le Corbusier’s work played out on a grand scale, with international appreciation and recognition for Chandigarh, then de Silva’s output – and the scale of its reception – was definitely more modest, but no less visionary. Her social housing project in Watapuluwa, outside Kandy, was conceived as an inclusive space for public servants from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds: Sinhalese, Malay, Burgher, Tamil. She designed a series of questionnaires that took into account the specific needs of families before drawing up plans for 200 units of varying sizes. In Pinto’s narrative, de Silva and Le Corbusier share a mutual understanding of each other’s work; de Silva often turns to Le Corbusier for support (“There were times when only you believed in me and in those moments it was your confidence in my ability that convinced me to believe in myself”) and Le Corbusier shares his frustrations, both personal and professional. But there is a clear power imbalance between the two: she self-describes her projects as “humble” while his are “triumphs” (“How small I feel next to his greatness”); when de Silva cannot make it to the CIAM in Aix-en-Provence, she asks Le Corbusier to present photographs and sketches of her projects even though she knows that he will not.
Despite her pivotal role in shaping the future of Ceylonese architecture, de Silva’s legacy is all but overshadowed by that of her contemporary Geoffrey Bawa – his work built on de Silva’s principles – who is often credited as the primary force behind the tropical-modernism movement. It is not altogether surprising that her contribution goes unacknowledged today. Even at the height of her career, she struggled to be taken seriously, her work marginalised on gendered lines. In the novel, when after many struggles, de Silva’s first build is well-received by her clients – even the prime minister comes over to offer his congratulations – she expects to be invited to the Colombo Exhibition to share her ideas about public housing, but is ignored. She remains busy with projects for private clients, but she yearns for work that will allow her – like Le Corbusier – to influence the wider architectural discourse of the country.
De Silva has been an understudied figure: scholarship on her work and life is limited. A notable exception is the architectural historian Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi’s work on de Silva, although such research tends to remain locked behind an academic paywall. Pinto first heard of de Silva through a friend who would tell her stories about de Silva’s work and affair with Le Corbusier. This prompted her to research the architect – who by that time had mostly disappeared from public memory – initially as a personal project. Over time, de Silva’s story started to “spin itself in [her] mind”; a grant from the Arts Council England enabled her to trace de Silva’s story and bring to life the forgotten story of a determined young woman who pioneered the regional modernism movement in her country. During her research, Pinto chose not to speak to de Silva’s family as she wanted a certain amount of distance in order to retain her artistic freedom: “I might have felt obliged to present her differently; I might have lost the freedom that I had while I was trying to write this book,” she says. She chose to write a fictionalised memoir over a standard biography as she felt this format allowed her to present her version of de Silva’s life. It is impossible to ascertain the veracity of de Silva’s portrayal — her words, thoughts, even the extent of her relationship with Le Corbusier — since de Silva’s 1998 autobiography is out of print and only a few copies remain in circulation (Pinto had access to a copy). While the boundaries of fiction and fact may overlap in this novel – it is unclear how much of Pinto’s consciousness has been imposed on de Silva – this is a work of fiction and should be read as one.
Pinto is at her lyrical best in the sections set in Ceylon, where the image of a vibrant simmering island leaps off the page. Her descriptions are lush (“the pergola still drips with red bougainvillea”), her attention to local detail produces dazzling results (“black waves hiss in the darkness, sucking sand with each retreat”) and sweeps the reader straight into the vocabulary of lived experience. Where the writing falters is in its excessive use of similes: stars “beat like hearts”, morsels of hope are “stored like fat in a camel’s hump”; occasionally, it veers into the realm of Orientalism (Nehru’s eyes are likened to that of a “Hindu bronze”). In an otherwise well thought out and researched portrait, Pinto’s tendency to present an exoticised version of de Silva is distracting and risks reducing the architect to a caricature. Consider de Silva’s words to Le Corbusier about her evening at the Royal Opera House: “I was stunning. I wore my red silk sari and two roses in my hair. When I walked through the Covent Garden piazza, everyone turned to look…I was beckoned to and passed around like a tray of champagne”. This portrayal of de Silva is not new. The word ‘exotic’ is inextricably linked to her identity and work. For example, in de Silva’s obituary in The Independent, Dennis Sharp writes, “She created a considerable impression, her fragile, slim Asian beauty enhanced by the wearing of colourful national saris.”
De Silva is aware of the limitations imposed by her gender on her career. She cannot escape the label of a ‘woman architect’, a qualifier that renders her unworthy of the recognition her male contemporaries, such as Bawa, receive. If Le Corbusier worries about “atrophying” on a museum shelf, then her worries are of a more pertinent nature: will her work be remembered in public consciousness? When Le Corbusier feels betrayed by his team in Chandigarh – one of his many projects spread across the world – de Silva reflects on how she has been “abandoned” by her country. Her glaring omission from architectural history is not unique. Eulie Chowdhary, one of India’s first women architects and a member of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh team, has also been erased, and incidentally, does not receive a mention in this novel. As de Silva once said in an interview, “I don’t think the sensitivity of my architecture has necessarily grown out of the fact that I am a woman – though my career as an architect was governed by that biological fact”.
There are limitations in Pinto’s portrayal of de Silva and the focus of the novel: her relationship with Le Corbusier and his work dominates the narrative. In the absence of other easily accessible scholarship, Plastic Emotions risks being read as a representation of de Silva that plays into earlier Orientalist depictions of the architect, a novel that obscures rather than resurrects her life for a new generation of architects and readers. Even so, Plastic Emotions serves as a starting point for those interested in the social history of the built environment in Southasia and highlights the extent of de Silva’s contributions to it.
~Priyanka Lindgren is a freelance writer and a graduate student at SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include Southasian literature in translation.