Minnette de Silva (1 February 1918 – 24 November 1998) was an internationally recognized architect, considered the pioneer of the modern architectural style in Sri Lanka. She was a fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects and a first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1948. De Silva was also the first Asian representative of CIAM in 1947 and was one of the founding members of the Architectural publication Marg. Later in her life, she was awarded the SLIA Gold Medal for her contribution to Architecture in particular her pioneering work developing a regional modernism for the tropics.
As Minnette did not complete her matriculation, she had to work as an apprentice for the Bombay-based firm, Mistri and Bhedwar, where she befriended Perin Mistry and her brother Minoo, and attended private classes at the Architectural Academy before enrolling at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art. Minnette was part of the cultural and political circles which included Mulk Raj Anand and Ravi Shankar and became the architectural editor for Marg, the new publication on modern art and culture. During the time of political upheaval in India, she attended a Free Gandhi March and as a result was expelled for not writing an apology to the head of the School. She then started working for the emigre architect and planner Otto Koenigsberger in his office in Bangalore working on prefabricated housing for the Tata Steel City plan in Bihar.
Architectural Association (1945–1948)
During a brief visit to Ceylon, she met Herwald Ramsbotham, the Governor-General of Ceylon, who took a keen interest in her situation and personally intervened in his capacity as head of the Education Committee in the UK and managed to arrange a place for her at the Architectural Association to allow her to take a special Royal Institute of British Architects examination for returning students for the War.
Early Career (1948–1962)
Minnette de Silva returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 on the insistence of her father, who requested her to make her contribution to the newly independent country. She returned to her parents’ home, St. George's, where she would start her architectural career. Although her parents would have liked her to take a reliable salaried position, she stayed in Kandy and pursued her career independently. Minnette de Silva who lived and moved among Kandyan artists and craftsmen would be taken by her parents to see the ancient Sinhalese architecture of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. Like her parents, she was greatly influenced by Ananda Coomaraswamy, who advocated for the preservation of the traditional arts and crafts, local craftsmen and the building methods and materials, and would be one of the first Sri Lankan architects to become a patron of the local craftsmen. She would develop her own style of architecture which is still apparent in the Sri Lankan architecture of today, and would be one of the first architects to incorporate building knowledge acquired in the West with that of Sri Lanka and India.
Her first building would be the Karunaratne House in Kandy. The 1949 commission came from friends of her parents Algy, who was a lawyer, and Letty Karunaratne, who asked her to build a house for Rs 40,000. She prepared plans for a split level house for a site on a hill, the first of a kind in Kandy. It was the first building designed by a women in Sri Lanka and attracted much attention and controversy. She had to tackle many problems early on as a result of being the first and only woman architect in Sri Lanka. The fact that she worked independently in a male dominated sector, without a male partner nor an established firm, rendered distrust of contractors, businesses, the government and architectural patrons. Completing the Karunaratne house in 1951, the rest of the 1950s would be de Silva's busiest decade throughout her career.
Writing - Modern Regional Architecture
In 1953 Minnette wrote a prescient article about the Karunaratne House in MARG Magazine, describing it as an experiment in ‘Modern Regional Architecture in the Tropics’. Her use of the term ‘Regionalism’ predated its use by international historians such as Kenneth Frampton and Tzonis by a quarter of a century. She was offering an alternative to the intellectual straight jacket of international modernism by demonstrating that a building could be modern and of its time and while responding to context and tradition. Twelve years later, in 1965, she returned to this theme in a retrospective article in the Journal of Sri Lanka Institute of Architects which reviewed her work of the 1950s under the title: ‘Experiments in Modern Regional Architecture’. But she was a woman in a provincial backwater and nobody was listening.
In 1960 she left Sri Lanka for 5 years and called it her period of self-renewal. She spent this time travelling in Greece, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and revisited India. After her return to Sri Lanka she was engaged in the design of a series of large tourist hotels. De Silva's work and life are discussed in Flora Samuel's book Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist. Minnette was an inveterate traveller. In 1949 she attended the 7th C.I.A.M. Congress in Bergamo and in 1951 was involved in the preparations for Italy’s first post-war Triennale. In 1953 she attended the 9th C.I.A.M Congress in Aix-en-Provence where she again met up with Le Corbusier who gave her a personal tour of the newly completed Unité in Marseilles. At all of these international gatherings she managed to pass herself off as the delegate from Ceylon, though she had no mandate so to do. In 1954 le Corbusier sent her a signed copy of his series of lithographs ‘The Poem of the Right Angle’ and she later visited him in Chandigarh.
London and Hong Kong (1973–1979)
With a change in government in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, De Silva and many others of the same outlook felt uncomfortable with the Bandaranaike government. In 1973 she closed her office and moved to London, renting a flat on Baker Street from Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. While in London she wrote the whole section on South Asian architecture in the new (18th) edition of Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture. De Silva's work on A History of Architecture opened the doors for her to join the Department of Architecture, at the University of Hong Kong, where she was appointed lecturer in the History Asian of Architecture. She would stay in Hong Kong from 1975 to 1979 and pioneered a new way to teach the History of Architecture in an Asian context. During this period she curated an exhibition that was shown at the Commonwealth Institute in London with the large collection of photographs of vernacular Asian architecture she had amassed. de Silva also had plans to write her own comprehensive history of Asian architecture for the Athlone Press, however this came to nothing.
Back in Kandy (1979–1998)
In 1982 de Silva settled down to work on the Kandy Art Association and Centenary Culture Centre in her hometown. The centre was designed with many levelled Kandyan flat tiled roofs and symbiotic indigenous features, thorana (gateways), midulas (open courts), mandapas (pavilions), rangahala (space for dance and music), avanhala (refectory).
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