Rediscovering Minette de Silva

The Sri Lankan architect has been forgotten by history, but was one of the world’s most famous female architects in the 1940s and 1950s.

Have you ever heard of Minette de Silva? Chances are you haven’t; yet she was a pioneer of Modernism in Sri Lanka and was once ranked as being among the most famous women architects worldwide. 

Minnette de Silva was Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect and the first Asian woman to become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her choice of career may have been somewhat influenced by the fact that her parents –one a reformist politician, the other a suffragette –were great friends with Le Corbusier. Even so, her father was opposed to Minette studying architecture, but she was determined to follow her vocation and went to Mumbai and London to study. During her time at the Architectural Association (AA) in the UK she stood out in terms of her appearance, as she continued to wear beautiful saris, despite the English weather. Indeed, according to recollections of her time there, she used her exotic appearance and the fact she was among a minority at the AA to find her way into high society. As one writer says, she quickly became the 1940s ‘It Girl’ and was seen mingling at parties with Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Laurence Olivier and Le Corbusier. 

When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, Minette returned to her home country where she set up a studio in her parents’ home and became one of only two women in the world to have an architectural practice with her own name over the door. From her studio in St. George’s she began designing and building everything from cottages to villas to entire apartment blocks. Her trademark was to develop modernist architecture in harmony with the landscape and traditional craftsmanship.

Her first building in the capital Colombo was the Pieris’ house. Here we can see the combination of Modernism with Sri Lankan traditional designs that became her hallmark: striped, lacquered balusters in maroon and gold leaf print, echoing traditional Kandyan craftwork; doors inset with woven palm panels bearing a simple tile pattern in similar colours.

But although she became known for her work on houses owned by Sri Lanka’s elite, of which she herself was a member, she was also anxious to improve the lives of artisans by including their work in her designs, and not just for grand houses. 

In the 1950s, she worked on a housing development scheme for public servants in Kandy, the island’s second largest city. What Minette did was considered groundbreaking. She conducted in-depth consultations with the people who would be living there and she used that information to design different housing types, some of which were built by the householders themselves. This kind of participatory approach to housing was way ahead of its time. 

And this wasn’t the only way in which she was ahead of her time. She experimented with indigenous methods such as wattle and daub, and incorporated rammed earth technology – a process popularly used for today’s ecohomes. One house is a shining example of her desire to find cost-effective ways of building: her townhouse for Mss CF Fernando in Colombo. 

The Fernando house is a compact cube, with cooling crosswinds channelled through a central staircase and surrounding verandahs, and air shafts between the door lintels and the ceiling. In a city where temperatures regularly surpass 30C (86F) in 90% humidity, such measures are crucial.

Minette de Silva said at the time, “We must re-orientate our ideas for living comfortably in congested towns like Colombo, where we no longer have expansive acres of garden and spacious cool pillared halls.” The Senanayake Flats in Colombo and the light-filled houses with interior courtyards for her wealthy clients are a testament to this, with the De Saram and Pererea houses being fine examples of her philosophy and her blending of modern with cultural tradition. 

Her client, Mrs Fernando, who is still living in her de Silva townhouse, said about her: “She was a very nice, intelligent lady. She had done a lot of improvements in building and trying to cut down expenses. She was very cooperative.”

De Silva didn’t have an easy time being a female architect in this era; the profession was male dominated and chauvinistic. Clients and contractors alike questioned her decisions and when she was building the Pieris’ house, she was forced to have her design endorsed by an engineer in London before her contractor agreed to build it.

She played it tough with contractors and workmen, but this only led to her being seen as a “difficult woman.” It led to her contracts drying up and to her being overtaken by Geoffrey Bawa, who has for many years been considered Sri Lanka’s ‘star’ architect, even though he came after de Silva, and her work actually paved the way to make his style possible. Ismeth Raheem, an architect who worked closely with Bawa in the early years, recalls De Silva telling him on several occasions: “I was dismissed because I am a woman. I was never taken seriously for my work.”

In 1996, the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects awarded De Silva the gold medal, some 14 years after it recognised Bawa. But by this time in her life Minette de Silva had become marginalised in the world of architecture and socially isolated. She died in 1998 at the age of 80. 

Since her death, her house and studio in Kandy have fallen into ruin. The house, designed by her, is not the only one in Sri Lanka to have been forgotten: one of her first villas is in danger of being demolished. However, her influence remains. You can see it in the expansive Kandyan-styled roofs of Sri Lanka’s parliament complex, or the presence of indoor garden spaces inviting a piece of open sky into living rooms across the city. 

According to Selva Sandrapragas, a British architect who worked with De Silva in her later yearsshe would have hated the way Colombo has developed to look like Dubai or Singapore. Unlike with her work, “It displays no sensitivity to the history, culture or geography of where it is.” 

Perhaps the forthcoming novel Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto and based on the life of Minette de Silva will help to place this woman once again amongst the ranks of groundbreaking architects of the twentieth century.