Standing the Test of Time

The legacy of a pioneering Sri Lankan architect

01 September 2019
A photograph from Minnette’s autobiography, showing her sitting in front of a bookcase she had designed, made from Ceylon wood.
COURTESY LE CORBUSIER FOUNDATION/ F.L.C/ ADAGP, PARIS, 2019
A photograph from Minnette’s autobiography, showing her sitting in front of a bookcase she had designed, made from Ceylon wood.
COURTESY LE CORBUSIER FOUNDATION/ F.L.C/ ADAGP, PARIS, 2019

IN SHIROMI PINTO’S new novel Plastic Emotions, released this July, there is a moment where the protagonist, the Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, reads an article about herself. The headline trumpets that it is about “Ceylon’s first woman architect.” Minnette is flattered, even as her mind is crowded with other thoughts, including her rivalry with an architect on the rise—a man she refers to only as “the recluse,” who, she feels, has appropriated her ideas and lured away her collaborator. She also reflects on how some of her clients are quick to express admiration but slow to pay her fees, and wonders, “What good are words, I can’t eat words. I can’t build with words.”

At another point in the novel, Minnette writes, in a letter to a close confidante:

After all, when have they ever recognised me for what I am here? – a pioneer of Modernism in Ceylon. Instead I am ‘that woman architect’ or worse still, that ‘girl architect’. That has been the root of my difficulties, if I am honest. All the concessions I made … all because they would not take the word of a woman as sound.

Smriti Daniel is a journalist who writes on culture, politics, development and history. She is a two-time winner of the Feature Writer of the Year award from the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. Her work has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic’s CityLab and Architectural Digest, among others.

Keywords: Sri Lanka modernist architecture architecture
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