Everything else.. Minnette de Silva: The Pioneer Female Architect That History Forgot

Minnette de Silva: The Pioneer Female Architect That History Forgot

2019 Feb 21

Minnette de Silva was a woman of many firsts. Having become the first Asian female trained architect to be appointed as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1948, de Silva also went on to become the first Asian Representative of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), whilst being a founding member of Marg, a well-known architectural publication. She was internationally recognized in the field and even became the recipient of the SLIA Gold Medal for her contributions to architecture. She is also addressed as the pioneer of modern architectural style in Sri Lanka and was a fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. Despite such remarkable achievements however, Minnette de Silva’s story was one that was never added to Sri Lanka’s history books.
Hailing from a well-educated family in Kandy, Minnette de Silva was the daughter of prominent lawyer and politician, George E. de Silva and Agnes Nell, a progressive activist who fought for universal suffrage in Sri Lanka. De Silva schooled at St. Mary’s in Brighton, England and thereafter travelled to Bombay to train as an architect at Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, amidst her parents’ apprehensions. She later made acquaintance with the Ceylon Governor-General at the time, Herwald Ramsbotham during a brief visit to her homeland. Having developed a keen interest in de Silva’s work, Ramsbotham made arrangements for her to take the Royal Institute of British Architects examination in order to earn a place at the Architectural Association in the UK. During de Silva’s time in the UK, she gained much recognition from her peers and established close contacts with distinguished designers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Picasso, Laurence Olivier, and even Le Corbusier.

De Silva with Pablo Picasso, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand in 1948. Source: Daily News

Minnette de Silva returned to newly independent Sri Lanka in 1948 and began her architectural career with little to no financial security. De Silva was highly influenced by Sri Lankan historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy and followed his steps in taking great care in the preservation of Sri Lankan arts and crafts and local craftsmen.

Minnette de Silva climbing up to inspect concrete pillars and slab work of the De Saram house, Colombo, circa 1956. Source: Architect’s Journal

Having set up her own studio at St. George’s, her family home in Kandy, she began designing a variety of architectural samplings that ranged from villas to apartments with a unique blend of modernist design tied with the incorporation of traditional Sri Lankan artistry. An amalgamation of local decorative motifs, traditional lacquerwork poles as stair balusters and terracotta or wrought-iron bo-leaf shaped tiles in addition to hand-woven textiles were some of her trademark features. Ellen Dissanayake, in describing de Silva’s unique style, mentions that there was no “neat geometrical progression and orderly rectangles” but they were rather filled with “contour, irregularity, surprise – a flow and scale adapted to human spontaneity and flexibility.” She was also known for conducting extensive discussions with the homeowners, ensuring cost-effective designs and making a remarkable effort to integrate her constructions in harmony with nature.

The north side of the Karunaratne House in Kandy, designed by Minnette de Silva and completed in 1950. Source: Apollo Magazine
Flats in Gregory Road, Colombo, by Minnette de Silva, 1954. Source: Architect Journal
The dining room of the Karunaratne House, looking up to the study at intermediate level. Source: Apollo Magazine

Despite her renowned skill and expertise, Minnette de Silva encountered her own unique challenges as a woman in the field. Prospective clients often questioned her capabilities. In one instance, during the designing of Pieris House, she was told to get her design endorsed by a London engineer before handing it over to the contractor. At the time, her work was hardly acknowledged, owing to the preconceived notion that she was a woman in a male-dominated field. In fact, her work preceded that of Geoffrey Bawa who only gained prominence in the field of architecture a decade after she launched her career. It is presently acknowledged by most of de Silva’s architectural peers that it was her contribution to Sri Lankan modernist architecture that paved the way for Bawa’s works of art. In 1996, de Silva received the Gold medal by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects fourteen long years after the institute presented Bawa with the same award.

The challenges she encountered throughout her career led her to become more assertive, eventually receiving a reputation for being “a difficult woman.” Minnette de Silva spoke out on the highly evident gender biases herself, expressing on one occasion, “I was dismissed because I am a woman. I was never taken seriously for my work.”
Sadly, most of her buildings have already begun to make their way into forgotten artefacts of a bygone era. Her studio/home in Kandy does not exist anymore and most of her surviving works are overlooked and are likely to be replaced by other structures, owing to the constant reconstruction in present-day urbanized Colombo. A house with an open courtyard, a distinct verandah and sweeping staircases down Alfred House Gardens in Colombo as well as the Fernando townhouse located further south of Colombo are some of Minnette de Silva’s masterpieces that have survived these swiftly changing times.

Minnette De Silva in her studio at St. George’s (November 5, 1997), Kandy, Sri Lanka. Credits: Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi

Minnette de Silva passed away alone at the age of 80 on November 24th 1998. A novel based on her life titled ‘Plastic Emotions’ written by Shiromi Pinto will be published by Influx Press on July 11th 2019.

Minnette de Silva was a woman who excelled in her field against all odds who went on to become an internationally recognised architect, lest we forget a true pride to our motherland and certainly deserving of more appreciation than she ever received in her lifetime.

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