In her 1998 memoir, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, Minnette de Silva narrates her origin story as the fulfilment of a childhood dream. “My longing was to be an architect. How did I develop this?” she writes. “Mr Oliver Weerasinghe, the Town Planner came to visit my father one day on official work, and lent me some magazines. That, I believe, triggered the whole thing off.”

De Silva’s parents, George E De Silva and Agnes Nell, a politician and an activist, respectively, were important political figures in a marriage that afforded cultural capital and yielded a network of similarly powerful connections. But the glimpse here from their daughter’s memoir reveals her appetite for architecture as self-written and edifying, and marks a Sri Lankan woman architect – who blazed through a landscape otherwise dominated by men – celebrating her ascent. Apart from being the first Asian woman to be elected as an associate to RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), de Silva – along with her activist and art historian sister Anil – were founding members of the Indian art magazine Marg.

A woman of letters

This portrait of Minnette de Silva is echoed in Shiromi Pinto’s compelling novel Plastic Emotions, which retells de Silva’s life particularly in relationship to her encounters with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier from 1949, a year after Sri Lankan independence from colonial rule, to 1965, the year of Le Corbusier’s death. Partly an epistolary novel, Plastic Emotions sketches out de Silva’s life through letters, newspaper articles and telegrams exchanged primarily with Le Corbusier – referred to as “the architect” in the novel – and with her friend Mimi.

The relationships that de Silva’s character cultivates are much broader – the novel includes tender sketches of her relationships with her parents at Nell Cottage in Kandy, her fictionalised sister Marcia, and artist friends named Laki and Siri, who locate themselves on opposing sides of Sri Lanka’s communal divide, espousing Tamil ambivalence and Sinhalese nationalism, respectively. While de Silva’s life as a brilliant architect emerges through the tapestry of these relationships in the novel, the focus remains largely on her relationship with Le Corbusier.

The relationship, written as an impassioned long-distance love story, is the novel’s lightest thread. The letters perfectly capture the individual temperaments of the two figures, and their whims, dreams and silences. But the constitutions of their desires is blurry: Their intellectual compatibility aside, he is largely aloof, while she pines.

Additionally, the traditional stringing up of motifs such as stars, roses, and saris, a tad too many elephant similes, mangoes being described as “ochre diamonds” and the circulation of trays of champagne being likened to “a caravan of gold camels” lend visible exoticism to the narrative. Le Corbusier’s own orientalist views of India – perhaps not inaccurate in attribution – dominate needlessly through the constant evocation of cows, lazy workers and Hindu bronzes. These aspects sit uneasily within a novel that is otherwise phenomenal in its attention to an independent and singular woman architect.

Minnette de Silva (second from left) in 1948 | image credit: PAP / Creative Commons

A unique protagonist

The dynamic portrayal of de Silva’s keen, vivid urban eye and her struggle to be allowed to execute her projects as a woman in mid twentieth-century Kandy is where Pinto’s novel truly excels. Pinto is deft with her executions of architectural ideas and moods changing within spaces, handling both Kensington and Kandy with equal flair. The very richness of imagery that results in orientalism is inverted here to a pleasurable and precise cadence.

Take, for instance, de Silva reflecting on the Royal Festival Hall in London: “She enjoyed the excellent acoustics in the auditorium itself, although the mass of the outer building troubled her, sitting like a hen on the ground.” Or her views on sinking Venice: “Islands of arches and campanelli, Palladio’s Basilica, the Piazza San Marco – all of it fainting frame by frame into the Adriatic.”

Minnette de Silva thinking or playing at work emerges as a unique protagonist with a wry humour whose drive to sculpt the landscape of her country is enough to propel the novel. As it progresses, the affair with Le Corbusier dwindles into a steady friendship, which serves the story well: we see Minnette tending to the world around her, in the midst of a communal storm, and dealing with the losses of those she loves. The novel effectively uses Nell Cottage and the arts complex that de Silva built as a framing device, siting them in 2005 as a pilgrimage spot for an architecture student, as crafting the history and memory of Sri Lankan architecture.

The architect’s signature

Alongside her work, de Silva was a lifelong practising archivist – she researched Asian architecture deeply, keeping copious notes, photographs and files on local building practices and heritage architecture, and collecting nearly two thousand slides on South Asian and South East Asian architecture that she used in her teaching. De Silva pioneered the architectural movement known as regional modernism, which was an attempt to rectify some of the colonial edifices of modernism with an emphasis on using materials local to Sri Lanka, such as terracotta, hemp and lacquer, and working with local artisans, to create spaces that responded to postcolonial practices of leisure, privacy and community.

In De Silva’s hands, wooden trellis panels expanded verandahs into homes, red-tiled roofs revealed exposed courtyards and open-plan gardens within homes, and satin-wood staircases offered breezy and sun-dappled excursions. Pinto is eloquent in her detailing of de Silva’s work, and the novel reflects a profound engagement with de Silva’s architectural signatures.

Even such a brief snapshot of de Silva’s life is enough to construct the dazzling arc of an innovator whose dedication to and talent for architecture was – of course – not enough to retrieve her completely from the still-constantly growing annals of women erased from their canons. The legacy of de Silva is also notably presented in the novel as a sober, hard-earned victory: Her patriarchal trysts with male architects, for instance, who usurped her ideas and profited off them, and her late recognition by society are written through the novel with a sustained, patient understanding that feminist victories are perhaps never final, and that making women’s lives visible is an endless task. But attempts at retrievals of stories like Minnette de Silva’s are therefore even more urgent, and in this regard, Plastic Emotions emerges as an important and ambitious historiographic work of fiction.

Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto, Penguin India.