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. De Silva was a fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects.
De Silva was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first South 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’.
Early life in Ceylon
Minnette de Silva was born on 1 February 1918 in Kandy to a prominent MP, George E. de Silva and Agnes de Silva, a universal suffrage activist. She was educated at St. Mary’s, in Brighton, England, and returned to Ceylon in 1929. She was not able to train as an architect in Colombo, so she had to persuade her father and her maternal uncle Andreas Nellto allow her to travel to Bombay to train at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art.
Education in India
As Minnette did not complete her matriculation, she had to work as an apprentice for the Bombay-based firm, Khedwar and Mistry, 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 for Modern art and culture. During the time of political upheaval in India, she attended a Free Gandhi Marchand 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.
Education at the Architectural Association
During a brief visit to Ceylon, she met Herwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury 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 Architectsexamination for returning students for the War.
She returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 and her experiments in architecture began with the Karunaratne House, Kandy. This house still stands in the city as a testimony to the De Silva’s novel approach to design.
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. In 1975, Minnette went Hong Kong to join the Department of Architecture as the first woman architect.
De Silva’s work and life are discussed in Flora Samuel’s book Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist.
The Kandy Art Centre
Having left Hong Kong after 5 years, in 1982 de Silva settled down to work on the Kandy Art 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).
The centre was designed as a large interactive space where a number of activities could take place with a strong symbiotic relationship of architecture and entertainment. The excavated area to the rear formed a natural amphitheatre, and the 150-year-old building adjoining the site became a focus of the new design. A kandyan village setting with trees and plants was a pleasing foil to the Temple of the Tooth and the malwatta Vihara (reidence of the high priest of the sest). Minnette willed the Art Centre to be the most characteristic and living illustration in the region of a contemporary Kandyan Architecture.