'Plastic Emotions' Is an Ode to an Extraordinary Woman Architect

Shiromi Pinto examines the gender divide in architecture through the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva.

A novel based on an architect, an Asian, and a woman at that, is intriguing. The last novel I recall with an architect as the protagonist was Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. That one book – written, ironically enough, by a woman – has done incalculable damage to the perception of what an architect should be, both within and outside the profession, and it needs a dozen more to counter that damage. Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions might just be one of those books.

This work of fiction based loosely on the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva has a storyline based on a string of letters between her and the legendary Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. The novel begins with Minnette writing to her ‘Corbu’ about the events of her last few days in London before her return to Ceylon. She is reluctant and unhappy about going back, but has no choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, Corbusier has been selected as the architect to bring Nehru’s vision to reality in Chandigarh.  Their imagined correspondence recounts Minnette’s life in Ceylon and Corbusier’s in Chandigarh and France. The novel succeeds in setting the stage for both protagonists, whether it is in chronicling Ceylon’s slide from a tropical paradise to a torn nation, or the struggles of creating a new city in a newly independent India. By moving between various geographies and first-person accounts, the reader is deftly plunged into each of those situations.

Reimagining the two architects as fictional characters also gives Pinto a rich canvas to work with and the kind of liberties that a biography might not be able to sustain. In reality, the two were both good friends and exchanged letters right up to the end of his life, but in the novel, they are portrayed as lovers. Were they, weren’t they? One will never know, suspended in this tantalising twilight zone between fact and fiction.

One also wonders about their musings about their projects – how much is reality, how much imagined? At some point, it ceases to matter, because the author is able to take the reader inside the mind of an architect. I would have liked to get a clearer glimpse into Minnette’s thinking however, because the little that I know about her tells me that I am dealing with someone extraordinary.

I look up Minnette de Silva on the internet to remedy this ignorance. As soon as I see her elegant image pop up, I brace myself for the tropes that will soon follow, and I am not disappointed. There is as much about her silk saris, the fresh flowers she wore in her hair, and her privileged background, as there is about her work.

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I don’t believe I have read anything about the sartorial preferences of her fellow Sri Lankan, architect and contemporary, Geoffrey Bawa, or about the similar privileges of birth that he enjoyed. Why am I not surprised? Twenty-five years after Minnette, an Iranian architect called Zaha Hadid graduated from the same school at which Minnette studied architecture.  She was a brilliant architect, an iconoclast, a trailblazer – and her wardrobe was not spared scrutiny either.

My ignorance of her is not a product of personal but systemic ignorance that stems from the fact that information is disseminated within a patriarchal system. Nothing demonstrates it better than my unfamiliarity with her work and my contrasting familiarity with Bawa’s work, not to mention the flood of articles and the flurry of events that have been planned in Sri Lanka this entire year as part of his centenary. Minnette’s centenary was just a year earlier, in 2018, but it came and went entirely unheralded.

Minnette de Silva was born in 1918 to a wealthy and progressive Kandyan family – her father was a politician and her mother fought for women’s suffrage. Her decision to study architecture was against the wishes of her parents.  Since architecture was and still remains a male preserve, Minnette would have had to battle both family and society for her choice of a career, and yet she persevered. Unable to study architecture in Ceylon, she moved first to Bombay, and then to Mysore state for a while, before finally concluding her studies at the prestigious Architectural Association school in London.

My mind boggles at the thought of a single woman deciding to make a career in architecture, moving out of the comfort of her home and living alone in a different country. I have to place her in the context of the women in my life who might have been her contemporaries in order to understand what these actions represented. My grandmother, for example, who is a few years younger than Minnette would have been had she lived longer, was married at 15 and a mother at 17. She went to college when she was 40 after becoming a grandmother.

Minnette, on the other hand, interned with a firm in Bombay, then joined the famous J. J. School of Art, and was expelled for refusing to write an apology to the head of the school for taking part in a freedom march. She then moved to Bangalore to intern at émigré architect Otto Koenigsberger’s office, before transferring to the AA at London. During her time in Bombay, she co-founded MARG, a magazine devoted to the arts and architecture, along with her sister Anil de Silva and writer Mulk Raj Anand. Even today, MARG is considered the oldest and most respected journal in Indian art circles.

Her expulsion and her involvement in the magazine deserve further examination. Her father was a politician, and both Gandhi and Nehru had visited her home in Kandy, so her involvement in the politics of those times is perhaps unsurprising. But the fact that she endangered the education she had fought so hard to obtain tells us something about her. The second, her involvement in setting up MARG – she was just twenty-eight and not yet a fully qualified architect – gives us an indication of her confidence and her prescience in being part of such an undertaking.  The year was 1946, and both India and Ceylon were still under colonial rule.

Two hundred years of servitude had removed any consciousness of an indigenous culture, and MARG was a brave attempt to set this deficit right.  Perhaps it set the stage for her life-long intellectual engagement with architecture. All through her career, she continued to document Asian architecture and question the existent thinking and methodologies of construction. Later in her life, this would fructify in her lecturing and writing on architecture. Nearly fifty years later, it is difficult to find an architect-theoretician, someone who straddles both worlds with such felicity.

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In 1946, Minnette transferred to the AA in London to continue her education, and graduated in 1948, becoming the first woman from Ceylon to graduate as an architect. She was then elected an associate at the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), the first Asian woman to gain this distinction. She wanted to study further, but her father refused to support her and she had to return to Ceylon. Even so, to graduate as an architect and then further validate herself with an ARIBA demonstrates both her perseverance and perhaps her understanding that she would need more than just a degree to have doors open to her. Till now, only one woman as an individual, among 170 other recipients, has ever been awarded the RIBA gold medal that was set up in 1848.

While a student at the AA, she attended the prestigious CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) at Bridgewater in 1947 as a representative of MARG, which is where she met Le Corbusier. The group photograph at the end of the conference is telling – Minnette was only a student, but was seated in the first row, right next to Walter Gropius, the father of the Bauhaus movement. It left me astounded. This was no provincial backwater gathering. This was truly the conference of the Modernist movement, with the likes of Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry, Walter Gropius and of course, Corb, attending.

There are many allusions to her using her ‘Eastern exoticism’ as a way to garner attention both at school and at such gatherings.  Architecture is very much about aesthetics, about being seen, being heard, and hobnobbing with people who have the wherewithal and taste. It is the most powerful way to get commissions, and I can only admire de Silva’s easy ability to handle that aspect of the profession.

She was used to being around famous people, she was comfortable connecting with them, and it certainly looks like she was not shy of muscling her way into spaces where she perceived some advantage accruing to her. Well-known people like Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Aldous Huxley were among her acquaintances. But as is the way with the world, a woman schmoozing raises eyebrows, and it would only have been sharper at that time.

After graduation, when Minnette returned to Ceylon, she hoped to be an active participant in building the nation. But this was the fifties, she was a woman, young, with no experience, and no man by her side (the norm even now), in construction – every one of those points ratcheting up the obstacles in her path. Despite that, she decided to set up a practice on her own, and at that time, and she would have been only the second woman architect in the entire world to have an eponymous firm.

In the book, her anguish is palpable:

“The shock of return, an absence of friends, the reality of being back home with her parents at age thirty-two.  And Ceylon, newly wrought, vulnerable to the whims of ideologues.”

Corbusier, on the other hand, was invited to India by the head of the country, also newly independent, to envision a modern city for the country. He was European, male, much older, and an established architect – every one of these points counting in his favour. The contrast could not have been sharper than when one hears him tell her:

“Imagine: here is a chance to start again, build anew, re-shape society and manners.  Everywhere, people are shedding the binds of war and demanding a better way of life.  We can give it to them.”

This contrast could have been used to effectively foreground the vexed issues of gender and profession, and perhaps that was the intention, but disappointingly, one does not sense that emerging strongly from the text. The portrayal is, curiously enough, of an unequal relationship where Minnette pines for him, a sentiment not entirely reciprocated by Corbusier. There are pages of cloying prose both in the letters and elsewhere.

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Her adulation for him is obvious, but his admiration for her are to be picked up in the phrases like this – “She is clever, his oiseau. She can follow the thread of his thoughts” – where her ability is conjoined to his genius, rather than as something that stands alone. On the other hand, the recurrent theme of her needing validation from him, and ‘the architect’ dropping morsels of approval for her to lap up, are reflected in phrases like ‘’Her despair over her current project is checked only by the knowledge that he believes in her.’’  Oh dear, did we need any more male approbation?

In fact, Minnette was no tyro when it came to ideating on architecture. Her thoughts were far ahead of her times, and the novel does give us glimpses into her thinking:

“Instead of the cosmetic application of modernism, we must look at and understand our own traditions.  It is only in understanding them that we can determine which concepts are still valid for contemporary living. It is these we must integrate with modern techniques, not forgetting the vast skill of our traditional craftspeople and artists.  Indeed, a building should be a combination of all these disciplines: the architects, the craftspersons and the artists.”

She was the original proponent of what came to be known as Modern Critical Regionalism, a style that Geoffrey Bawa used with so much success in his work. Airy, cross ventilated plans, deeply shaded verandahs, internal courts, elevated and semi-open living spaces, the use of brise soleil – all elements critical to comfort in a tropical climate; and craft elements, such as handmade terracotta tiles or wall murals – were seen in most of her projects. Unfortunately, these ideas get lost among the other threads that keep weaving in and out of the narrative. On the other hand, Corbusier’s ideas appear in sharper focus, as the novel sticks close to his engagement with the Chandigarh project.

Pinto keeps a steady pace through the novel, darting in and out of the lives of not only the two protagonists but also the other characters in Minnette’s life.  The subtle shifts in the people who are part of Minnette’s social circle give us a clue as to the worsening political climate in Ceylon.

Her two artist friends, Siri and Laki (was it a deliberate ploy to name them with the same letters as Sri Lanka?) choose divergent paths, one becoming a radical Buddhist, the other remaining secular. Their relationship mirrors the deepening divide within Ceylon as the country embraces its Buddhist and Sinhala identity while sidelining others. Minnette imagines herself untouched by the political strife around her, but it could not have left her unaffected.

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As the novel progresses, she loses her family, her social and political moorings, and ultimately even her commissions, while the ‘recluse’, as Bawa is referred to in the book, becomes the face of Sri Lankan architecture. Minnette’s work preceded his by a decade and many of the ideas that one sees in his designs are informed by the ideas she had posited through her work, but unsurprisingly, her contribution still remains entirely overlooked.

In the book she laments:

“After all, when have they 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.”

Meanwhile, Corbusier makes steady if uneven progress in his work at Chandigarh, and leaves on a high note from India. Perhaps it is necessary to mention here that this commission has been serendipitous, coming at a time when he faces oblivion in his own country, and allowing him the freedom to test out long-held ideas, untrammelled by artistic constraints. Would such a ‘gift’ ever have come the way of a ‘woman’ architect?

The novel ends abruptly with Corbusier’s death, leaving the rest of Minnette’s story untold. One is left pondering over some unanswered questions – what of her legacy had she not been a ‘woman architect’? How would her fellow countrymen have perceived if it were a different age? We have to leave it to Minnette herself to answer these questions:

“If I were a man, there wouldn’t be all the questions, criticisms and second guessings. They would take what I said at face value and thank me for it. Instead I am told I am mad, irresponsible, even arrogant.”

Suchitra Deep is an architect, urbanist and community activist from Bangalore.