Standing the Test of Time

The legacy of a pioneering Sri Lankan architect

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
01 September, 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.

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.

Minnette de Silva and the Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier, in 1947. Shiromi Pinto’s novel is anchored in a love affair between the two. COURTESY LE CORBUSIER FOUNDATION/ F.L.C/ ADAGP, PARIS, 2019

The release of Plastic Emotions is likely to generate a fresh wave of interest in Minnette, although Pinto focusses on producing an intimate portrait of the woman rather than on recounting all the particulars of her professional accomplishments. The novel follows Minnette in her journeys through Europe and India, but it is anchored in a love affair between Minnette and the Swiss modernist architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. He was married and had already acquired immense fame by the time he met her. In the novel he embarks on a design for a new capital for Punjab at Chandigarh.

What Minnette would have made of this blurring between her person and the character in the novel—her loves imagined, her sorrows dissected, her fictional friends an efficient amalgamation of the ones who made up her circle—is debatable. Even in her 1998 autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, Minnette is proud and thoughtful, open with the details of who she met and what she did, but seldom laying bare her heart.

For someone seeking a sense of who Minnette was, both the novel and the autobiography offer only partial truths: the former because it is unapologetically a work of fiction, and the latter because it is so deliberately curated.

PINTO’S EXPERIMENTS WITH perspectives in Plastic Emotions reflect something of the construction of Minnette’s own autobiography, which takes the form of a scrapbook containing photographs, letters, records, playbills, invitations and newspaper cuttings. Critics often point to the numerous typos, gaps in narrative and the uneven flow of The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect as evidence that it cries out for an editor. While this is true, it is also the case that this archive has a value greater than the sum of its parts: it is a work in which Minnette constructs a sense of her own legacy, interrogates her family history and reflects on her practice.

The autobiography was intended to have two volumes, though only the first was ever published. Somewhat tellingly, Minnette opens it not with details about herself but with several pages dedicated to the history and evolution of Sri Lankan architecture, and follows this with a loving portrayal of her parents’ rather remarkable lives. It is clear she wants to lead the reader to an understanding of the foundations of her work. But, though much can be gleaned from the book, it makes the reader work for insights, asking, among other things, that you squint at faintly visible handwritten notes and sort through a sometimes unreliable structure to understand the chronology of her life.

The critic Gillian Darley, who wrote the introduction to the autobiography, told me that Minnette had written the book as a way to ensure that she had the final word with her detractors. “Her own telling of the tale, varnished, was her way of settling the scores, with her family, with the long shadow of Bawa, and of course the fact that she was working in a country riven with its own problems and a business entirely dominated by men,” she said.

Plastic Emotions diverges markedly from the autobiography in its fascination with the story of Corbusier and Minnette. Pinto orchestrates their meeting in the Somerset town of Bridgwater, in 1947, at a gathering of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture—conferences that brought together the world’s leading modernist architects to debate new ways of thinking about architecture, urbanism and civic identity. The novel includes an exchange at the conference, also captured in Minnette’s autobiography, in which Corbusier asks the young woman sitting beside him “Vous-êtes architecte?”—You are an architect? When Minnette says yes, he is genuinely surprised. He wants to know why, and in the novel, she “does not have a sensible reply.” Minnette later writes to him that “it is immaterial anyway, for you are captivated by the two roses in my hair.”

This is a revealing exchange. According to Pinto, who corresponded with me over email, Minnette’s relationship with Corbusier was deep and vital to her development as an architect. It was also inherently unequal, particularly since Corbusier’s perception of Minnette was coloured by his ignorance of her background:

He was a mentor to her. He respected her and her work a great deal: not only did he try to find work for her, but he was also impressed with her architectural thinking ... At the same time, he exoticised her ... So, while he admired her on the one hand, he felt it necessary to “other” her, as a way of satisfying his own fantasy of who and what she was. At least, that’s how I see it.

At times, the novel’s unwavering focus on this affair begins to feel saccharine, as does its portrayal of Minnette as lovelorn and pining for Corbusier’s letters. Pinto’s novel is most compelling, however, in the moments where it strays away from the affair and depicts Minnette back home in Ceylon—as Sri Lanka was called until 1972—trying to carve out a career for herself while contending with a country in transition. Pinto weaves together the lives of people in Minnette’s orbit with pivotal political moments, such as exploring the implications of the adoption of the Sinhala Only Act, 1956, which replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of the country without officially recognising Tamil. The legislation became a key factor in the growing schism between the two communities, eventually culminating in the civil conflict in 1983 between the Sri Lankan state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Pinto depicts Minnette as a member of an English-speaking elite that is unprepared for how rapidly notions of a Sinhala-Buddhist identity gained precedence in independent Sri Lanka. For instance, she places Minnette in the audience when SWRD Bandaranaike—the country’s fourth prime minister—attempts to curtail the growing influence of the Buddhist clergy. But Pinto uses the moment to underscore Minnette’s privilege and the fact that her politics were out of step with a growing undercurrent of nationalism in the country:

‘There is no need to reduce such a sublime creed to a state activity.’ The words pinch another smile from her. With these words, declaimed in front of the Temple of the Tooth, the Prime Minister raked the monks back into their rightful patch. Minnette wanted to shout out her assent. Instead she offered the dry applause expected of a woman of her class. Her admiration for Ceylon’s leader is tempered only by her reservations about language. What is the point of knowing Sinhala or Tamil outside of Ceylon? We didn’t become a great country with them. We did it with English. She shakes her head. Not for her the sentimental parochialism of the nationalist.

A letter from Minnette to Corbusier. At times, Pinto’s depiction of Minnette pining for Corbusier’s letters begins to feel saccharine. COURTESY LE CORBUSIER FOUNDATION/ F.L.C/ ADAGP, PARIS, 2019

Pinto shifts between many first-person narratives, straying far beyond Minnette—albeit briefly—to portray certain political events through the eyes of Bandaranaike himself, whom she depicts being assassinated by a Buddhist monk, in 1959, over a proposal that would have given greater autonomy to the Tamils. In Minnette’s circle, too, Pinto sows disagreements about the shape that Ceylon’s postcolonial identity should take. This ratchets up the pressure on some of her protagonist’s most intimate relationships, most notably with two of Minnette’s closest friends falling on different sides of the same debate.

Pinto’s version of Minnette is of a woman who is inescapably privileged and largely absorbed with her own life until circumstances force her to confront the mounting violence around her. Minnette’s autobiography reinforces some of this: for instance, when Bandaranaike makes an appearance, it is as a guest at her family’s dinner table, where he is, to her, the jovial friend who lends her mother mystery novels. She spares few words for Sri Lankan politics in the latter half of her autobiography, but her childhood, with parents who both play a formative role in post-independence Sri Lankan society, is steeped in politics, and when it comes to her time in India in particular, it is clear that she was far from indifferent. On at least one occasion—as a young student caught in the Quit India movement—she appeared more than willing to sacrifice her professional ambition for her principles.

MINNETTE DE SILVA turned 30 in the year that Ceylon claimed its independence. It would remain a dominion of the British Empire until 1972, when it assumed the status of a republic.

In her autobiography, Minnette writes about 1947, when India, Sri Lanka and Burma were granted independence: “It was all over in a few minutes; a century and a half of colonialism.” The following year, as Ceylon celebrated the adoption of a bill of independence, Minnette looked out over Kandy—a hill station and home to her family for decades—while fireworks lit up the hills and burst like incandescent flowers in the night sky. Kandy, with its temple of the sacred-tooth relic, is viewed as a Sinhala Buddhist stronghold. The city witnessed some critical power struggles, and by virtue of who her family was, Minnette had a front-row seat.

Her father, George de Silva, was an influential lawyer and one of the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress, which was instrumental in gaining independence. He supported the opening of Hindu and Buddhist temples to all castes, education for women and the abolition of dowry. He was Buddhist and Sinhala, so his marriage to Minnette’s mother, Agnes Nell, who was of French, Dutch and Sinhalese heritage, created a stir in Kandy’s social circles. Nell was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Franchise Union of Sri Lanka—an organisation that played a critical part in achieving universal franchise—and even argued before the Donoughmare commission, in 1927, for the right of all Sri Lankan women to vote. Thanks to her parents’ stature in local society, their home was a busy one, and Minnette would later claim that a visitor to the house, who came bearing copies of architectural magazines, inspired her to become an architect. Though she would meet obstacle after obstacle—most notably because her schooling was interrupted and her father faced a financial crisis that meant he could not afford to fund her further education—she found her way to Bombay in 1938. There, she studied at the Academy of Architecture, where she was the only woman among 40 men, and would, as she noted in her autobiography, be readily “drawn into the vortex of Indian social and political life.” In 1941, she enrolled in the Sir JJ College of Architecture, but was soon expelled after joining students on strike over MK Gandhi’s arrest during the Quit India movement. She refused to apologise, although it meant the end of her formal studies there.

Minnette with her father, the politician and lawyer George de Silva, at the 1948 World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace, in Poland. Courtesy Helga Desilva Blow Perera/ Life and Work of An Asian Woman Architect

In 1945, towards the end of her time in India, Minnette would also co-found—along with the writer Mulk Raj Anand and her sister Anil—the Modern Architectural Research Group, and its eponymous magazine on modern art and architecture. Soon after, she returned to Ceylon and decided to apply to the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.

The architect Gillian Howell first met Minnette at the Architectural Association shortly after the war, when Howell was a first-year student and Minnette was completing her final year. Her memories of the time capture some of the relentless exoticisation that Minnette experienced. “She was always strikingly beautiful,” Howell would write in a note republished in Minnette’s autobiography. “Always dressed in exquisite saris, with fresh flowers in her hair and always followed by a train of young men carrying her drawing board and portfolio, her handbags, suitcases, scarves and shawls. In the drab days of rationing in the mid-forties she appeared like an exotic visitor from another planet.” However, scholars have argued that Minnette found ways to exercise her agency. In a paper titled “Tropical Modernism/Environmental Nationalism: The Politics of Built Space in Postcolonial Sri Lanka,” for instance, the academic Tariq Jazeel writes that:

De Silva’s writings from her London period (1945–1949) betray an awareness of her own difference, her exoticism, in the professional spaces of the RIBA, the AA, and the CIAM of the late 1940s. Yet her writings also suggest a certain confidence in her own authority to re-negotiate International Modernism precisely because of her difference.

So it was that Minnette cut a swathe through London society. When 1948 came around, it felt rich with promise. She had her diploma. She was introduced to the queen. That same year, she was invited to represent Ceylon at the peace congress in Poland. But 1948 was also the year her father insisted she return to Ceylon. In her autobiography, Minnette claims that George, who had never been a fan of his daughter being abroad, told her in no uncertain terms that she could not complete the additional diploma in planning, and that that unless she embarked on her way home, she could never return.

Minnette came back home and, in 1949, founded the Studio of Modern Architecture, her independent practice, which she would run out of the family home. She was reportedly one of only two women in the world at the time to have a practice under her own name, and vowed—as she mentions in her autobiography—to “conquer the distrust” of contractors, business firms and the government, as well as architectural patrons who, until her appearance on the scene, had never confronted a woman’s presence in their midst.

WHILE HER LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES were numerous—she even had to train her own draughtsman, for instance—Minnette confronted fundamental differences in approaches to architecture, which separated her from her peers and challenged her clients. In an essay, titled “Experiments in Modern Regional Architecture in Ceylon, 1950 to 1960,” she would outline what she considered the background to the problem:

Ceylon, as generally in the East, emerged suddenly in the post-second world war years from a feudal-cum-Victorian past to modern technological influences from the West—a superficial veneer of ‘modernism’ acquired second-hand through films, magazines or short trip abroad, ill-digested and bearing no relationship to our traditions and to the region in which we live.

Minnette sought to challenge this, drawing on her childhood experiences of being immersed in the social and cultural movements that ran parallel to the country’s gaining of independence, which she would later describe in her autobiography as a “live course in sociology and the relationship of architecture to it.” In particular, she felt that traditional approaches had much to say on the subject of adapting to a tropical climate. “In Ceylon, climate permits outdoor and indoor activity to be extensions of each other,” she wrote in “Twenty-Five Years of Experiments in Modern Regional Architecture in Sri Lanka and India,” an essay reproduced in her autobiography. She wanted to make full use of verandas and create deep eaves to protect against the tropical sun. She envisioned buildings that had split-ceiling levels, which would improve ventilation and were built around mada midulas—courtyards—as was the tradition in old Kandyan homes.

Yet, though Minnette’s philosophy was founded on a deep appreciation of Ceylon’s artistic traditions, she was simultaneously a thoroughly modern architect. The same essay makes it evident that she was interested in how the past and present could be synthesised to create exciting, contemporary work:

There are personal, emotional, ornamental elements in a building. Ceylon and the East are alive with colourful features. To deny these natural expressions without establishing a discipline of colour and ornament results only in the garish. Wholly unassimilated modernity is expressed by those who try to ‘build modern’ with aesthetically disastrous results. Rich effects can only be seen today in old structures—in the juxtaposition of different materials—rough natural stone and smooth plaster, and timber that was painted or lacquered or used for its own natural colour and grain … these things can be brought back in a contemporary way.

There was a clear social dimension to her thinking. Families in this part of the world tended toward the large and enjoyed congregating to mark every occasion, she observed, but the pressures of modern life meant that homes had become smaller. Her solution was flexible open-plan interiors with movable walls. Overall, her approach would synthesise indigenous traditions in designs for contemporary buildings, using whatever materials and means were suitable. She envisioned homes in which the architect, craftsman and artists were collaborators.

Patterns carved in to her walls filtered light as the sun arced overhead. Her balustrades gleamed with the finest lacquer work and the staircases themselves were a feature, sweeping round in elegant spirals. Her love of the garden found expression in every floor, as windows and verandas invited the outdoors in. Everywhere she found room for Dumbara mats, using them as floors rugs, chair covers and even panelling for doors and windows.

Much of this style was on display in her first house, which was completed in 1951, and built for Algy and Letty Karunaratne, who were friends of her parents. Appearing to emerge from the hill, the two-level home was distinctive for the ways in which it connected the house and the garden and how its placement on a long strip of land made the most of the view.

The home’s design incorporated several artistic features, notably a George Keyt mural for the living room that the Karunaratne family was so disinclined to fund, and Minnette so determined to have, that she contributed some of her own money to make it possible. Minnette later reflected on her work on the house, recalling that she was in the process of learning at the time and was not ashamed of her choices:

I look back now and see a few things I’d change—for instance the use of glass bricks; but then I tried everything, but then it was my first house and my first attempt to mix old and new. The Karunaratnes were terribly embarrassed that their humble home resembled a temple, in others’ eyes, with its amalgam of arts and crafts.

In 1950, George had a heart attack on the Peradeniya golf course. His death left Minnette overwhelmed. “I suddenly realised I had lost my best friend,” she writes. “The shock of my father’s death combined with the criticism and constant battle of confidence in my work took its toll and I had to escape.” She went to Europe to find comfort and inspiration from her friends there.

Minnette climbing up to inspect concrete pillars and slab work at the De Saram house in Colombo. COURTESY HELGA DESILVA BLOW PERERA/ LIFE AND WORK OF AN ASIAN WOMAN ARCHITECT

Returning, Minnette would dive into work—the 1950s would be the busiest decade of her career as a practising architect. One of her first projects in Colombo was the Pieris House. The Pieris were great family friends—driving Minnette to school, buying her ice creams and even giving her pocket money—and for them Minnette created an unconventional home built on piloti, which, like stilts, served to lift the building off the ground. She had seen this done before with temples on pillars, but she embedded them into a modern house, modifying her design to make room for a car port. In her autobiography, she would describe the ground floor and entrance:

Few heavy walls block the vista of the pillared hall; looking through to an inner courtyard and onto another room or loggia and behind this again to a rear courtyard garden. The air flows through the house and up through the midula to upper floors. Fifteen or twenty perches of ground appears double the size. No space is wasted in pretentious, inadequate driveways. You drive straight under or beside your house. All the garden area possible is collected within for the enjoyment of the householder.

The building was carried on reinforced concrete columns with a reinforced concrete slab—another first for Ceylon. Here, again, Minnette went well beyond the brief of a traditional architect, taking an interest in the decor and the interiors by installing a Dutch-Ceylonese lamp, a Kandyan lacquered balustrade, a grill with a bo-leaf motif and a stone floor.

“The 1950s was a period of cultural renaissance in Sri Lanka and in that respect, Minnette was definitely a product of her time, but also beyond her time,” Pinto told me, pointing out that Minnette was already thinking about how the architect’s practice had to respond to increasing urbanisation and a growing population.

As Minnette’s practice developed, she once again began studying cost-effective housing, which had first made an appearance in her notes while she was still a student. She was experimenting with rammed earth, which was essentially compressed soil to be used in walls and foundations, in her buildings (“it made economic sense—using only indigenous materials and local labour”), and considering how ventilation could be optimised through the use of split-levels, courtyards and stairwells situated at the centre of the plan. By leaving materials in their natural state she could economise while celebrating the aesthetics of stone, brick and wood.

Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect in recent history, at his home in Lunugana. COURTESY DOMINIC SANSONI

Minnette also undertook larger projects, such as the Senanayake Flats in Colombo, built between 1954 and 1957. There she was determined to stretch the notion of what a flat in the city could be, aspiring to create a “bungalow in the air.” She built two identical blocks around an interior courtyard to ensure cross ventilation. She saw providing privacy as critical, and so ensured all windows overlooking the courtyards were obscured and that no flat overlooked any other. She kept all the trees that had existed on the site and created communal amenities.

She also worked on the Watapuluwa Housing Scheme, in 1958, for public servants in Kandy. The site boasted a panoramic view of the Mahaweli river. To build on it, Minnette consulted with future householders to find how they wanted to live and used that data to inform her design, piloting a participatory approach that was quite unique at the time.

In a letter written to Minnette by Asoka Amarasinghe, who was one of her clients, one can have a sense of what it must have been like to live in a home designed by the architect at her most adept. Her clients had asked for a pavilion living room and a home that felt like a garden. After speaking with members of the family, Minnette created an ethereal, airy space that seemed to its occupants to be floating. After they moved in, Amarasinghe wrote to her:

As my oldest daughter photographed the house, I recalled your chiding us, with ‘such a beautiful living room,’ for spending all our free time in the spare carport, with its enchanting vistas and lovely play of light and shade. My mother was delighted by the light reflections from the pool ripples and the changing shadow patterns of the floor to ceiling trellis with its Japanese aura … When my son was seriously injured last December I felt again how this tranquil house soothes me.

However, not all her clients were so laudatory, and her practice was not without its challenges. Early on, she was told by her contractor to get her design endorsed by a London engineer before he would consent to building it. A few of her designs never even got past the drawing stage. She would be described as difficult and arrogant by clients and peers. Yet, decades into her practice, some people clearly still expected her to work for free. Writing to ask if Minnette would undertake to design a home for him, Bunnie Molamure, a potential client, wrote, “I have an acre of land, and no money.”

The decade that had begun with the death of Minnette’s father came to an end with her mother falling ill and left semi-paralysed in Minnette’s care. She died in 1961. Minnette now felt “completely alone,” writing in the final page of her autobiography, “With the death of my mother, I am bringing volume I to a close—because it marks a significant divide in my life.”

Meanwhile, in 1957, as Minnette had been working on the Senanayake Flats, Bawa, who was 38 years old at the time, moved back to work in Ceylon after training at the Royal Institute of British Architects. “Bawa was Minnette’s contemporary, but he came late to architecture and his career ran ten years behind hers,” the scholar David Robson, who has written several books on the architect and his work, said in a 2016 lecture at the AA School of Architecture in London.

Bawa was phenomenally talented and would go on to earn international acclaim, becoming Sri Lanka’s most famous architect in recent history. In fact, in 2019, a series of centenary events are bringing together artists from Sri Lanka, India and beyond to engage with his work. In sharp contrast, Minnette’s hundredth birth anniversary passed with little fuss.

Minnette’s architectural plans for a building she designed in Colombo. COURTESY HELGA DESILVA BLOW PERERA/ LIFE AND WORK OF AN ASIAN WOMAN ARCHITECT

According to Robson, it is unlikely that there was any causal link between Bawa’s success and Minnette’s declining career: it may have been simply that Bawa made more strategic choices. Robson noted that by securing a partnership with the Colombo-based firm Edwards Reid and Begg, Bawa was able to establish himself in a way that Minnette did not. He benefitted from access to the firm’s established client base and could draw on the technical experience of the team there. Bawa also joined hands with Ulrik Plesner, a Danish architect who had spent 1958 working closely with Minnette and studying her ideas. In 2000, Plesner said in an interview with The Guardian that Minette “thought architecture morning, noon and night. She was always hard up, always struggling, but she was a genuine reformer, very bold, very clear in her ideas. Technically, though, she didn’t have a clue. That was why she employed me.”

Plesner moved to Colombo at Bawa’s invitation. According to Robson, Bawa, too, drew on Plesner’s technical skill and professionalism. He also thinks it quite possible that Plesner carried some of Minnette’s ideas and writings to Bawa. “Indeed, it is unlikely that he [Bawa] would have made the leap from tropical modernism to regionalism if she had not shown the way,” Robson wrote in an article for the architecture and design website Matter. In his 2016 lecture, Robson said that “it must have been devastating for Minnette, first to have watched Bawa poach her assistant and then take her ideas, and also to watch as his practice took off just as hers was starting to falter.”

In the 1960s, Minnette received only a handful of commissions, and that number shrank further by the 1970s. It did not help that she travelled frequently out of Sri Lanka during that period. When asked why Minnette’s practice seemed to struggle in later decades, Pinto shared her belief that there were a number of reasons why Minnette ended up “marginalised and alone,”’ including that she chose to base herself in Kandy, which was relatively isolated at the time, but also, simply, that she was a woman.

Pinto suggested that had Minnette been a man, there would have been no shortage of tomes exploring her oeuvre and campaigns to preserve her work. She would have been framed as an eccentric visionary, rather than being dismissed. “Bawa was, by all accounts, an anti-social type who would peremptorily ask his assistants to build a wall here, then dismantle it and move it elsewhere,” she told me. “Yet he is admired for his vision and drive to create. Minnette, on the other hand, is not afforded the same generosity, with many [men] branding her a difficult woman. I think if that’s what people are going to call you, eventually, you live up to the moniker.”

The architect C Anjalendran agreed with Pinto about this perception of Minnette. During his time teaching at the City School of Architecture, in Sri Lanka, in the late 1980s, he ensured that her work was included in the curriculum in an effort to recognise how her writings in particular had influenced the development of Sri Lankan architecture. Anjalendran told me that he first met Minnette when he was 22 years old, and would visit her many times in the following years. Where Minnette received little recognition from her Sri Lankan peers—the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects awarded her a gold medal in 1996, 14 years after it recognised Bawa—he saw that she was celebrated in international spaces and blossomed in the company of those who admired her in Europe and India.

“She was completely eccentric,” Anjalendran told me, while readily admitting that this was something she had in common with many from that generation. Minnette herself seemed to think there was only one difference. “She would say, ‘I have been penalised for being a woman,’” he recalled. Anjalendran believes that she was in some ways doubly disadvantaged by her background: being a Burgher—of mixed-race ancestry—and speaking Sinhalese with an English accent in post-independence Ceylon, she must have felt at times like an outsider in her own country.

DESPITE THE OBSTACLES in her way, Minnette de Silva was far from idle. In 1973, she closed her office and moved to London, where she wrote the whole section on South Asian architecture in the eighteenth edition of Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture, which included references to the architecture of Ceylon, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan.

A photograph of a dining room, leading to a study, in a house designed by Minnette for the Karunaratnes. COURTESY HELGA DESILVA BLOW PERERA/ LIFE AND WORK OF AN ASIAN WOMAN ARCHITECT

This work led her to the department of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, where she served between 1975 and 1979 as a lecturer in the history of Asian architecture. In her paper “Crafting the Archive: Minnette De Silva, Architecture, and History, Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, an assistant professor of architecture at Barnard College in New York, notes that Minnette pioneered a new way to teach the history of architecture in an Asian context by offering her students a chance to examine architecture and urbanism in situ. The slideshows she showed them reflected the great breadth of her interests and inspirations: from the jali windows of temples to the assembly building in Chandigarh. (It is revealing that despite her clear stature, Minnette was never invited to teach in Colombo.)

Minnette also curated an exhibition, at the Commonwealth Institute in London, featuring a large collection of photographs she had amassed of vernacular Asian architecture. Her study of pattern and form in 12 traditional villages—six in India, and three each in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—was later seen in exhibition form in Europe in the 1980s. She was also planning her own comprehensive history of Asian architecture, but the project was never completed. Siddiqi contends that Minnette’s significance is best understood in the context of this wider panoply of activities. “This is a person who, through many different avenues, was thinking very deeply about the country in which she was born and lived,” she said to me over Skype, adding that Minnette’s great contribution can be seen also in how she engaged with larger forms of anti-colonialism and pan-Asian culture, for instance in her work with the Modern Architectural Research Group, and also through her teaching and archive building. “For her, these were the really big questions.”

Sunela Jayewardene, one of Sri Lanka’s leading environmental architects today, credits an early apprenticeship with Minnette in the 1980s with sparking an interest in how vernacular design held the key to creating contextually appropriate architecture. Minnette was at the time documenting vernacular design elements, and she would send Jayewardene on hunting expeditions. Jayewardene also witnessed up close Minnette’s battles with gender stereotypes. Relatively isolated in Kandy, Minnette did not benefit from the publicity machine that went into overdrive for Bawa. “At a time when there were still very few female architects, she was a role model for me,” Jayewardene said. “She was a woman ahead of her time.”

In her paper, Siddiqi points to Minnette’s interest in textiles and crafts as another aspect of her work that deserves attention. Siddiqi writes that Minnette saw her workspace as a study centre and focussed on learning arts and crafts, particularly through the use of modern looms and other technologies. Not only was she hiring local women to execute fashionable clothing and household furnishings in the 1950s, Minnette trained in modern weaving herself and was very much interested in pushing the boundaries of design. Working with the villagers in the Dumbara valley, she specialised in block designs that she later described as “a kind of Op-Art in Kandyan weaves.”

What is also evident is that throughout her crowded career, Minnette remained a figure of great charisma. Though many portrayals of Minnette were of someone who suffered a crisis of confidence and failed to realise her potential, the truth was more complicated.

For instance, Lynne Walker, the feminist architectural historian who helped put together AA XX 100—a project designed to tell the story of women in the Architectural Association—recalled meeting Minnette in the 1980s. In an article in the art magazine Apollo, Walker claimed that far from the sad, disillusioned figure she is often depicted as, the Minnette she met was an “electrifying” person, “dynamic and beautifully turned out … She was networking, making sure that she was included in any publications or events about women in architecture.”

The Senanayake Flats on Gregory’s Road, Colombo. These flats, designed by Minnette, were built between 1954 and 1957. Minnette was determined to stretch the notion of what a flat in the city could be, aspiring to create a “bungalow in the air.” Courtesy David Robson

In The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, Minnette would confess that “to remain an integrated person ... the cost seems to have been incalculable.” She died in 1998. After her passing, her house was stripped of its contents. It would fall into ruins and be later demolished. Her archive, including letters and sketches from Corbusier, are scattered. There are few now who knew her well, and fewer still who loved her.

In reimagining her story, Pinto said that she was keen to raise Minnette’s profile. Anjalendran would like to see her celebrated as one of the greats of Sri Lankan architecture. Siddiqi would like us to appreciate her as someone who set out to study and enrich her fields of interest. For her part, Jayewardene would like more people to remember Minnette as she does, as a woman who was very refined and gentle. “Her intellect was very evident, and as a society, we don’t like smart women,” she said. “You can imagine that they tolerated it even less than they do now.”

In his lecture, David Robson recalled an anecdote that Minnette may have found particularly satisfying. He had lived in the Coomaraswamy Twin Houses in Colombo, which Minnette designed between 1970 and 1972. The houses were demolished in the mid 1990s. Robson had loved the buildings, enjoying in particular the double-height living room, with a bedroom suspended above it, all topped by a plunging Kandyan-style roof. “It was always full of air and full of light,” he said, adding that Geoffrey Bawa seemed to share his appreciation of the space.

Every so often, Robson said, he would pick up the telephone to find Bawa on the other end, usually inviting himself over for a drink. “It wasn’t because he wanted to benefit from my company but because he wanted to sit in this incredible house,” he said. “He loved this house by Minnette.”

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.