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.
A photograph from Minnette’s autobiography, showing her sitting in front of a bookcase she had designed, made from Ceylon wood.

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.

Pinto uses these moments to bring into sharp focus some of the factors that influenced Minnette’s trajectory. In 1948, she made history as the first Asian woman to become an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and, in 1949, became the first Sri Lankan woman architect to start her own practice. While Minnette’s buildings would break new ground both stylistically and technically, her oeuvre extended beyond constructed works. She would also establish herself as a vital intellectual, venturing into studies of architectural history and urban planning, design and craftsmanship, archiving, conservation and teaching. Notably, she coined the term “modern regional architecture in the tropics” during the 1950s to advocate replacing the prevailing Eurocentric vision of architecture with an approach that took the best of modernity, but anchored it in the rich architectural history of her own country.

Minnette’s ideas set her apart from her contemporaries and appear to have directly influenced the likes of Geoffrey Bawa—the reclusive architect and rival that Pinto refers to. A celebrated figure, sometimes dubbed “the father of tropical modernism,” Bawa was awarded the title of Deshamanya—an esteemed civilian honour bestowed by the Sri Lankan government—for his body of work, which included hotels in the country, such as the Kandalama and the Lighthouse, as well as for his design of Sri Lanka’s parliament complex. Today, Bawa tours are popular, with his house in Colombo and garden estate in Bentota typically receiving hundreds of visitors every month. By contrast, even in Sri Lanka, Minnette does not enjoy the same easy recognition. Public interest in Bawa has grown with every new book and restoration of an old project, but acknowledgement of Minnette’s work feels almost episodic. The few of her buildings that remain standing in Colombo and Kandy do not draw busloads of tourists, and what could have been an astonishing archive and historical record of her work and personal correspondence, today, exists, for the most part, only on the pages of her autobiography, and on the walls of a hotel run by her niece.

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