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Minnette De Silva

  • Probably the first Sri Lankan woman architect and a founding member of [i]Marg[/i], Minnette De Silva mediated between tradition and modernity while defying the boundaries of gender, caste and disciplines.
  • Minnette
  • De Silva
  • 01-02-1918
  • Kandy (LK)
  • 24-11-1998
  • Kandy (LK)
  • ArchitectJournalist
  • Probably the first Sri Lankan woman architect and a founding member of Marg, Minnette De Silva mediated between tradition and modernity while defying the boundaries of gender, caste and disciplines.

    Word Count: 30

  • Portrait of Minnette De Silva, around 1945 (© De Silva 1998, 112).
  • “Have we forgotten how Nazism dispersed modern art and architecture - put it into hibernation for a decade - almost the Diaspora of art and architecture? This was the tragedy of Modernism in the post war period: uprooted and dispersed across the world. […] Architecture was the worst affected; its evolution is one of 'trial and error'; our laboratory is the actual building site.” (De Silva 1998, 87)

    Acting against this dispersion of modern architecture, Minnette De Silva dedicated her life and work to the synthesis of alleged opposites. As probably the first Sri Lankan woman architect, who came from a less privileged caste in the social order of the time, she achieved professional recognition in a male-dominated discipline. During formative years in Bombay and London − among other things, as architectural editor for Marg magazine − she built up a diverse circle of acquaintances that included exiled creatives such as Walter Gropius and Rudi von Leyden. By orienting her architectural practice equally to global building principles and local conditions, she overcame the dichotomy of tradition and modernity.
    Yet much of De Silva's work in South Asia is now derelict or destroyed. Only recently has her contribution to modern building in postcolonial Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) been acknowledged (Siddiqi 2017; Huppatz 2018; Pinto 2018). Until now, this development used to be largely attributed to her male colleague Geoffrey Bawa. Similar to her elder sister Anil (also Marcia) De Silva and her merits as an art historian, the sexualised or exoticising contemporary accounts blocked the view of the De Silva sisters’ achievements. Due to this porous source situation, the contemporary documents and the pictorial material of her self-published autobiography (1998) are used.
    With her “autobiographical scrapbook” (De Silva 1998, vii) Minnette De Silva curated her own archive to be remembered through a book of impressions, letters, press and picture material. She was born in 1918 in Kandy, Ceylon into a widely connected and progressive family, which had a decisive impact on her independent spirit and aesthetic sensibility. Her mother Agnes Nell was politically active as a suffragette and in the local arts and crafts movement. Contrary to her higher social status, she had married George De Silva, who campaigned for an anti-colonial government as president of the Ceylon National Congress.
    Despite her family’s limited financial means at the time of the Great Depression, she made every effort to become an architect after she had been inspired by lent urban planning magazines. Thanks to scholarships and part-time jobs, she was able to move to Bombay in 1938 − the centre of the architectural profession in South Asia at the time. After an apprenticeship at the architectural firm Mistri and Bhedwar, she began her studies at the Private Architectural Academy of the Bombay Deco architect G.B. Mhatre. Shortly afterwards, she was admitted to the renowned Government College of Architecture at the Sir J.J. School of Art only to be expelled in 1942 due to her participation in a student strike over Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest.
    In the early 1940s, De Silva became an integral part of Bombay’s creative scene. She met Pravina Metha and Perin Jamshedji Mistri, two of the first professionally qualified woman architects of India, as well as their brother Minocher (Minoo) J. P. Mistri. According to her autobiography, these contacts opened up the “world of avant-garde modern architectural thinking” (De Silva 1998, 61) such as the London-based Modern Architectural Research Society (MARS) or Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM).
    As a result of this thirst for knowledge, she was soon to become part of similar historically relevant developments herself. From 1941, she rented the basement of Jassim House at 25 Cuffe Parade. There she lived with her sister Anil and the writer Mulk Raj Anand in an open-minded shared flat where people from diverse political and creative milieus came together. This led to De Silva's involvement in 1944/45 in the planned city of Jamshedpur, designed by the German émigré architect Otto Koenigsberger. During her apprenticeship as “Otto's slave” (De Silva 1998, 76) she also got acquainted with the scientist Homi Bhabha, which is another proof of the close ties between South Asian intellectuals at that time.
    Shortly afterwards, in 1945, the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARG) was formed in Jassim House, which published the magazine Marg from 1946. Anand as editor and Anil De Silva as his assistant were involved. Besides, Minnette De Silva together with her prior companions M.J.P. Mistri, J.P.J. Billimoria and Koenigsberger was responsible for the area of architecture. In keeping with the egalitarian self-understanding, many of Marg’s formative editorials on modern art, design and architecture were published without names or the mere mention of MARG, which makes it difficult to attribute the individual contributions. In the first years of the magazine, however, the De Silva sisters probably made a greater contribution to the design of Marg than previously assumed, since the issues of the 1940s contain more contributions on their country of origin, Ceylon and also feminist echoes, for example on the “unhealthy chauvinism in art” (Marg ,vol. 1, no. 2 1947, p. 16).
    In the context of Marg, De Silva also took over the presentation of the magazine at the 1947 CIAM conference in Bridgwater. She was the only Asian delegate. In the conference photographs, which show her alongside international modernists such as Jane Drew, she stands out strikingly with her sari and with flowers in her hair. At that time, she had just begun her studies at the London Architectural Association, which would later make her the first female member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. De Silva often seemed to take a central role in discussions, for instance in recordings of the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace from 1948. However, the “Asian exoticism” (De Silva 1998, 97) ascribed to her by European colleagues might have marginalized her professional roles. Thus, in contrast to male colleagues such as Balkrishna Doshi, she was not considered in the later distribution of delegation posts for “The East” section of CIAM.
    Her London contacts as well as her engagement with modernism were to accompany De Silva after her return to Ceylon in 1950. Throughout her life and work she repeatedly referred to Le Corbusier. On a private level, they maintained an enduring correspondence, where he signed with his namesake doodled crow (corbu). Architecturally De Silva traced the preference of clear structural elements to the Swiss Architect. Notwithstanding these entanglements her modernist regional approach went far beyond a mere reinterpretation of European architecture. Through the amalgamation of modern and local materials as well as techniques she pioneered a modernist construction style in post-independent Sri Lanka.
    Responding to the local climate, her buildings such as the Pieris House (1952) and the Asoka Amarasinghe House (1954) in Colombo create permeable indoor-outdoor spaces via verandas and sliding glass doors. Site specific elements such as decorative wrought iron grills and woven mats created with the help of local artisans are juxtaposed with concrete sun breakers in line with modern construction. In fact, most of her executed construction projects were commissions by family friends, as the local population often took offence to her radical designs and practice as a freestanding female architect. De Silva's unrealised projects include innovative plans for affordable, space optimizing construction models made from more sustainable materials. Three years before the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association was founded by Koenigsberger amongst others, and where Bawa was to study, De Silva had already designed a prototype for contemporary living in a tropical city. Long before questionnaires for inhabitants were to become a standard planning instrument, De Silva used them to address individual needs for mass housing projects like the Watapuluwa Housing Scheme (1958). Her social-political aesthetics inscribed in the pages of Marg as well as in her buildings for the newly independent Ceylon remain virulent up until today.

    Word Count: 1288

  • 44.2 Cover of Volume I of Minnette De Silva’s autobiography, 1998 (© De Silva 1998, x).
    Minnette De Silva within a self-designed interior in Ceylon woods, St. George’s, around 1952 (© De Silva 1998, 114).
    Pablo Picasso (left), Minnette De Silva, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948 (PAP, Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons).
    Piries House, Alfred House Gardens, Colomba, 1952−1956 (© De Silva 1998, 182).
  • De Mel, Neloufer. Women & the Nation’s Narrative: Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

    De Silva, Minnette. The Life & Work of an Asian Woman Architect. Smart Media Productions, 1998.

    Dharia, Namita V., and Mary N. Woods. “Women Architects in India: Dreaming through Design.” Marg, vol. 72, no. 1, September 2020, pp. 76–87.

    Gupta, Smita. “M.J.P. Mistri – Descendant of Master Builders. An interview with Smita Gupta” Vistāra – The Architecture of India, edited by Carmen Kagal, exh. cat. The Festival of India in U.S.A., 1986, pp. 222–226. Architexturez South Asia, Accessed 21 March 2021.

    Huppatz, D.J. Modern Asian Design (Cultural histories of design). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

    Jayawardena, Kumari. Erasure of the Euro-Asian: Recovering Early Radicalism and Feminism in South Asia. Women Unlimited, 2009.

    Lee, Rachel, and Kathleen James-Chakraborty. “Marg Magazine: A Tryst with Architectural Modernity.” ABE Journal, no. 1, May 2012., doi: 10.4000/abe.623. Accessed 20 March 2021.

    Loomba, Ania. Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism, and Feminism in India. Routledge, 2019.

    Pinto, Shiromi. Plastic Emotions. Influx Press, 2019.

    Sales-Pontes, Alzira Hilda. Dr. Mulk Raj Anand – A Critical Bibliography (Doctoral thesis, Loughborough University Of Technology, 1985), Accessed 20 March 2021.

    Sherlock, Amy. “Born 100 Years Ago, Remembering the ‘Tropical Modernist’ Architect Minnette De Silva.” 11 September 2018, FRIEZE, Accessed 6 April 2021.

    Siddiqi, Anooradha Iyer. “Crafting the Archive: Minnette De Silva, Architecture, and History.” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 22, no. 8, November 2017, pp. 1299–1336. Taylor & Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/13602365.2017.1376341. Accessed 20 March 2021.

    Word Count: 240

  • Marg, Marg Publications,

    Word Count: 6

  • Many thanks to Ania Loomba, Neloufer De Mel, Shiromi Pinto and Romila Thapar for their support of my research.

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  • Sir J.J. College of Art/ Architectural school, 78, Prospect Chambers Annexe, Hornby Road, Fort, Bombay (now 78, Dr Dadabhai Naoroji Rd, Dhobi Talao, Fort, Mumbai) (studio, 1941/1942); 25 Cuffe Parade, Bombay (now 25, Khatau Road, Mumbai) (place of residence and work 1941−c.1945); 15 Savile Row, Mayfair, London W1S 3JN (residence).

  • Bombay
  • . "Minnette De Silva." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 03-01-2024.
  • Mulk Raj Anand
    WriterPhilosopherArt PatronCultural Critic

    As a global socialist and modernist, Mulk Raj Anand sought and shaped opportunities for intellectual exchanges between Asia and Europe.

    Word Count: 20

    Marg. A Magazine of Architecture and Art

    Local and exiled creatives formed the Modern Architectural Research Group to publish a progressive journal of art and architecture in Bombay from 1946 onwards.

    Word Count: 23

    Rudolf von Leyden
    GeologistAdvertisement SpecialistJournalistArt CriticArt CollectorCartoonist

    The advertisement expert, Rudolf von Leyden, became a major art critic and art historian in Bombay in the 1940s, advocating an urgent need for modernism in art in post-colonial India.

    Word Count: 30

    Homi Jehangir Bhabha

    Homi Jehangir Bhabha was a world class scientist, institution builder, an artist and art connoisseur. His vision for growth of science and art has had significant impact in post-colonial India.

    Word Count: 30

    Farewell Dinner for Walter Gropius

    Friends and colleagues came together on 9 March 1937 to send off the architect Walter Gropius and his wife Ise Gropius, who had decided to leave for the United States.

    Word Count: 28