David Robson pens a critical review of a recent book by Shiromi Pinto that creates a fictional story based on a relationship between celebrated Sri Lankan architect Minnette De Silva and global architectural icon Le Corbusier.
Book by Shiromi Pinto
Reviewed by David Robson
The writer Shiromi Pinto has recently published her own fictionalised account of the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva under the bizarre and inexplicable title ‘Plastic Emotions’. Apparently, in this Trumpian world of fake news and casual lies, it has become acceptable for writers to take the lives of real people and re-cast them to suit their own purposes. But can such cavalier distortions ever be justified if, along the way, the personality of the protagonist is distorted beyond recognition, if the people who surrounded her are pilloried, if her achievements devalued and her ideas misrepresented?
Minnette de Silva’s life spanned the divide of independence: she was born in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon in 1918 and died in the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka in 1998. Her Sinhalese father, George de Silva, was a man of humble origins who battled against prejudice to become a lawyer and, ultimately, an important politician in the struggle for independence. Her mother, Agnes Nell, the daughter of a Dutch Burgher engineer and his English wife, was a campaigner for women’s suffrage. The family home was in the sleepy hill town of Kandy, but her parents were well-connected and played host to such visiting luminaries as Gandhi and Nehru.
Against all the odds, Minnette forged a career for herself as an architect. After a brief apprenticeship in Colombo in 1939 she moved to Bombay where she studied intermittently for three years before working for a year in Mysore with the German émigré Otto Koenigsberger. Back in Bombay she joined forces with her sister Anil and the writer Mulk Raj Anand in the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARG) and helped to found MARG, an influential journal that still exists today.
In 1945, Minnette moved to London to continue her studies at the Architectural Association. She was a good networker and soon got to know a number of key figures in the world of the arts and architecture including the architect Le Corbusier with whom she remained a close friend until his death. In 1947 she was the self-appointed Ceylonese delegate to the meeting of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (C.I.A.M) that was held in Bridgewater. The group photograph shows her seated in the front row surrounded by all the key architects of the day.
Minnette finally qualified in 1948, becoming the first Asian woman associate of the Royal Institute of British Architect (R.I.B.A.). But Ceylon was on the threshold of independence and, at the insistence of her parents, she returned to Kandy and opened her own office in the family home.
Her architectural career developed in fits and starts during the first two decades following independence and she had to operate in an exclusively male-dominated profession against the background of a conservative and chauvinist society. But she was an inventive designer and a persuasive polemicist who made a significant contribution to the development of a new architecture in a country emerging from more than four centuries of foreign domination.
Minnette’s early buildings included the Karunaratne House in Kandy (1950). This combined a modern structure of reinforced concrete with traditional materials such as stone, terra cotta and lacquered wood and met the needs of a modern Sinhalese family that still followed a Buddhist lifestyle. An article about the house that she wrote in Marg in 1953 can be read as a manifesto for what she described as a Modern Regionalist Architecture: an architecture which could exploit advances in modern construction and planning while meeting the particular needs of place, climate and culture. These ideas pre-dated similar theories that were advanced some thirty years later by such pundits as Frampton and Tzonis under the banner of ‘Critical Regionalism’.
Inspired perhaps in equal measure by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie and by traditional elevated temples known as Tampita Vihare, her second house in Colombo for the Pieris family in 1952 raised the living spaces up on columns to first floor level, providing enhanced ventilation and privacy, while creating shady loggias at ground level.
Most significant, perhaps, was her design for the Senanayake flats in Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens. Ten flats were organised in pairs on three levels around a central lightwell, each one opening out to a long curving balcony to resemble an airborne bungalow. They offered a potent protype for higher density living in a tropical city.
Minnette faced many obstacles, however, and produced relatively few buildings before she finally threw in the towel at the end of the 1960s. Later she settled for a teaching job in Hong Kong where she revealed herself to be an inspired teacher and writer, pioneering a history curriculum which focussed on Asian architecture. Back in Colombo, she tried, unsuccessfully, to revive her practice during the 1980s and died, alone and forgotten in Kandy in 1998. Her unfinished autobiography was published posthumously, and, having received scant recognition in her native Sri Lanka during her lifetime, she was soon forgotten after her death as, one by one, her buildings were either demolished or savagely remodelled.
In 1957 Minnette had agreed to take on a young Danish architect, Ulrik Plesner, as her assistant. Plesner remained in her Kandy office for almost a year before jumping ship to join the Colombo office of Geoffrey Bawa. Bawa was newly returned from London where he had also qualified as an architect at the A.A. Plesner provided him with the practical and professional know-how that he lacked and the two became close collaborators, but he also acted as a conduit for Minnette’s ideas.
Bawa’s early work was much influenced by the Tropical Modernism that was being promulgated by Max Fry and Jane Drew in the A.A. Tropical School, but he soon realised that the pure white forms and simple geometries of the International Style were unsuited to the hot humidity of Ceylon and failed to take account of local cultures and traditions. Bawa quickly shifted towards the Regionalist position that Minnette had pioneered and, aided by Plesner, produced such masterpieces as the Ena de Silva House and the Polontalawa Estate Bungalow. However, the two fell out in 1965 and Plesner returned to Europe.
Plesner apparently viewed his sojourn in Ceylon and his collaborations with de Silva and Bawa as the high point of his career and, half a century later, he wrote about it in a fantastical, semi-fictional autobiography in which he sought to inflate his own role at the expense of his two employers and erstwhile friends. His spiteful book catalogues his various sexual exploits including his alleged seduction by Minnette, though he goes out of his way to disguise the nature of his relationship with Bawa. He also seeks to belittle Minnette’s architectural achievements and subjects her to cruel character assassination, demonstrating the sort of prejudice that she faced as a woman architect in the 1950s.
There has been a recent flurry of interest in Minnette, largely from women academics who seek to laud her as a feminist icon. Whilst this is to be welcomed, it should not be forgotten that Minnette saw herself essentially as a pioneering architect and not as a champion of women’s rights.
Shiromi Pinto has now turned Minnette’s life into a novel, though it soon becomes clear that she is less interested in Minnette herself than in her relationship with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. She seeks to portray Minnette, not as the fiercely independent being that she undoubtedly was, but as the vassal of a ‘great man’. Her yarn begins with Minnette in London in the 1940s and ends with Corbusier’s death in 1965. Thus, only eighteen of Minnette’s eighty years are deemed worthy of our interest: any life before or after Corbusier is ignored.
She offers a fictionalised account of Minnette’s meeting with Le Corbusier at the C.I.A.M. conference at Bridgewater in 1947, where they are introduced by ‘Elizabeth’, Pinto’s avatar of Jane Drew. This is the first of many distortions and untruths: in fact, Minette had been introduced to Le Corbusier by a mutual friend in Paris in the previous year, and had later shown him around the India Exhibition in London.
It is true that Minnette and Le Corbusier were close friends, and it is quite possible that they had a physical relationship – though Minnette herself would later deny it. But there is no evidence to suggest that this relationship assumed the huge significance for either of them that Pinto pretends. Le Corbusier, as his biographers have attested, was a serial womaniser and Minnette, though she never married, enjoyed relationships with a number of men.
Pinto also distorts Minnette’s crucial relationships with her family. Her father was a larger-than-life figure who exercised a huge influence on her and whose career ended with his defeat in the 1947 elections after accusations of vote-rigging. He died four years later on the Peradeniya golf course. Pinto casts him as a shadowy figure and inexplicably extends his life by some twelve years. Her mother, a remarkable woman who designed the family home and led an active public life, appears as an ailing shadow. Her elder sister Anil, who lived much of her life in Europe, is stripped of her British and French husbands and acquires a bizarre German husband and a fictitious daughter. She pops up regularly throughout the book, though the fact she lived a life every bit as colourful as that of her sister and became an acclaimed writer is ignored.
Pinto surrounds Minnette with a strange clique of imaginary hangers-on, some pure inventions, some the ghosts of real people. The Dutch Burgher painter George Keyt appears as an unhinged Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist called Siri, while a strange woman called Mimi is conjured up from nowhere but pops up everywhere. And they party, night after night, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, swilling down huge quantities of champagne, a drink that, in those days, was hugely expensive and well-nigh unobtainable, and downing endless glasses of arrack.
Meanwhile in India, Corbusier is busy building the new state capital of Chandigarh, but has to put up with the inadequacies of his fictitious Indian collaborators, as well as the obduracy of an English couple called Richard and Elizabeth, thinly disguised stand-ins for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Fry and Drew, Pinto fails to mention, were largely instrumental in getting Corbusier appointed to build Chandigarh and, along with their Indian colleagues, were responsible for designing and building much of the city.
Much of the story is told in the imagined letters that bounce back and forth between Corbusier and Minnette in Pinto’s head. These bear little relation to their actual correspondence and do little to enhance either of their reputations.
Sadly, no detailed factual account of Minnette’s life and no critical analysis of her work exist. This makes Pinto’s burlesque all the more reprehensible: future generations may be tricked into thinking that it represents the truth.
I knew Minnette and met her from time to time over a fifteen-year period. For two of those years, between 1979 and 1981, my wife and I lived in a house that she designed – one of the astonishing Coomaraswamy Twin Houses – where she visited us and twice stayed overnight. My problem is that Pinto’s Minnette bears little resemblance to the Minnette that I knew and she fails completely to explain the significance of her architecture. It is true that Minnette was a difficult person who didn’t suffer fools, but she was bright, charismatic, brave: an iconoclast who thought ‘outside the box’ and continually generated new ideas. A cross between Don Quixote and Louisa Alcott’s Jo March, she tilted at windmills and put her work before everything else. Both her writings and her buildings were hugely important in the context of newly independent Ceylon and she helped to carve out a new architectural language that responded to contemporary needs and opportunities while taking into account culture, tradition and place.
“Plastic Emotions’ constitutes a slanderous assault on Minnette’s person and reputation which serves only to slake the ambitions of its author. Minnette deserves better ♦
Brighton, January 2020.
Born in London and raised in Montreal, Shiromi Pinto has written short fiction for BBC Radio 4, the Victoria & Albert Museum and opendemocracy.net. Her first novel, Trussed, was reviewed as ‘audacious’ (The Independent), ‘brilliant’ (Diva) and ‘so cool that it hurts’ (The Times). She works full-time at Amnesty International in London.
David Robson’s intriguing journey as an architect started in 1970s when he worked as the chief housing architect for Washington New Town. Robson divides his time between practice and teaching and is a prolific writer. Robson has written books on legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa including ‘Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works’. Robson has also written and researched on contemporary practices of architecture in Sri Lanka and the Southeast with titles like ‘Anjalendran: Architect of Sri Lanka‘, and ‘Beyond Bawa: Modern Masterworks of Monsoon Asia‘.
He is the author of ‘Andrew Boyd and Minnette De Silva: Two Pioneers of Modernism in Ceylon‘ first published on MATTER in 2015.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. The designations employed in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MATTER.