Minnette de Silva: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect

Minnette de Silva: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect

David Robson

Minnette de Silva (1918-1998) was the daughter of a prominent Sinhalese politician called George de Silva and grew up in Kandy during the last decades of the British Raj. Having set her mind on becoming an architect she studied in Bombay during the War and worked for a time with Otto Koenigsberger in Mysore. She was a student at the AA between 1945 and 1948 and became the first Asian woman to become an associate of the RIBA.

Minnette practised from her parent’s home in Kandy and was prolific during the 1950s and 1960s. Her work combined the modernism of her friend le Corbusier with traditional methods of construction and decoration. During this period she was an associate editor of MARG magazine in Bombay which she had helped to found with her sister in 1945 and authored a number of prescient articles which proposed a theory of ‘Regional Modernism’.

Her practice foundered after 1970 and, after a brief spell in London, she moved to Hong Kong as a lecturer and pioneered a new approach to the historiography of Asian architecture. Returning to Sri Lanka in 1980 she tried unsuccessfully to revive her practice and she died, penniless, in 1998.

Minnette was a pioneer of post-independence architecture in Sri Lanka and there is little doubt that her both her buildings and her writings had a huge influence on Geoffrey Bawa whose architectural career ran about ten years after her own. But she was hindered by the fact of being a woman in what had been hitherto an exclusively male-profession and by her relative isolation in the provincial backwaters of Kandy. She has never garnered the recognition that she richly deserves: the first part of her auto-biography ‘The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect’ appeared soon after her death, but it was unedited and failed to do her justice. Her archives and many of her buildings have since disappeared.

Bartlett graduate David Robson first met Minnette de Silva when he was a lecturer in the Colombo School of Architecture between 1969 and 1972. Ten years later he returned to Sri Lanka as an adviser on the Government’s ‘100,000 Houses Programme’ and lived for three years in a house designed by Minnette. Subsequently a Professor of Architecture in the University of Brighton, he is the author of books on Sri Lankan architects Geoffrey Bawa and C. Anjalendran and recently published ‘The Architectural Heritage of Sri Lanka’.

Image: CIAM Bridgewater 1947 (Minnette de Silva is in front row next to Walter Gropius).