The real Minnette de Silva

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Minnette de Silva smiles at comment by Corbusier, in 1947. (Frieze)

Sometimes it seems like open season on female architects as long as they are in cahoots with the roving eye of Le Corbusier, one of the founding fathers of modern architecture. There is the recurrent hullaballoo over Eileen Gray, whose Mediterranean beach house Corbu vandalized via obscene graffiti when she was away. Then there was the stinkpot of British reporter Taya Zinken’s recollections of Corbu’s offensive behavior to her at Chandigarh.

There is much more titillation that brevity forces me to exclude.

Now there’s the new book out that transforms Sri Lankan modernist Minnette de Silva’s friendship with the Corbusier, starting in 1947, into a fictional affair. Isn’t this a little over the top? Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions is reviewed in the Guardian; Shahidha Bari offers the following description:

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Looking at the photograph (at left), it seems unsurprising that this real-life encounter and the exchange of letters that followed should have provided Pinto with the bones of her story. Plastic Emotions is an exercise in romantic speculation. Pinto imagines the nature of the relationship that develops between the 29-year‑old Sri Lankan and the ageing pioneer of urban modernism. She gives them trysts, meaningful exchanges, a separation and then painful longing, ending only with Le Corbusier’s death in 1965.

Actually, I wonder if the word “unsurprising” in that paragraph should have been changed by an editor to “surprising.”

I have not read the book so maybe it is unfair for me to comment, but its title does not speak well on the Great Man’s behalf. Well, did they have an affair or not? Le Corbusier was famously disloyal to his wife, mostly left behind in Paris, and it is hard to imagine him failing to fall for the lovely Sri Lankan. If they had a romantic interlude, however brief, it is hard to imagine Corbu’s legions of chroniclers not reporting it. Bari is coy on this in her article; ditto Pinto, who wrote the book. Nor, it seems, did de Silva ever retreat from her loyalty to Corbu’s architecture, so far as I can tell. She was the first Asian woman to join the Royal Institute of British Architects.

I might never have dedicated my blog to such an inconclusive topic but for the concluding lines of another article, also in the Guardian (“The brilliant female architect forgotten by history“), by Pinto herself. Describing a recent modernist project in Sri Lanka’s capital city, she quotes another architect on what de Silva might have thought of it:

“She would have hated it,” says Selva Sandrapragas, a British architect who worked with De Silva in her later years. “It displays no sensitivity to the history, culture or geography of where it is. It wraps itself around the old city, destroying the former context, suffocating it from the sea. It could literally be anywhere: Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong.”

The question is how does that distinguish this prototypical modernist project from anything designed by Corbu?

(My hat is off to Audun Engh, of INTBAU – the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism – for sending me word of the Guardian’s articles on Minnette de Silva.)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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