Musings for January 2019

  Minnette de Silva, Sri Lankan Pioneering Architect

I visited Sri Lanka in November, and mid way through the visit went to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city.  It’s an extraordinary, vibrant, noisy city which feels as though its streets can scarcely contain its crowds of people and traffic.  But within it is a calm lake where the golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth is located.  We circled the lake on the way to the Temple, enjoying its peace.  I remember spotting a slightly dilapidated building, with rather stark white columns and a tiled roof.  It was the Kandyan Art Association building. But I thought we were on a demanding schedule, and passed on without investigating.


I have later discovered that it was built by Minnette de Silva, once one of the most famous female architects in the world, but now largely forgotten, her remaining buildings often in a precarious state.  Born in 1918 in Kandy, the daughter of a reformist politician and a suffragette, she trained in Mumbai, afterwards travelling widely.  She spent two years at the Architectural Association in London, becoming a friend of le Corbusier, and rubbing shoulders with Walter Gropius, Cartier-Bresson and Laurence Olivier.


After Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, she returned and set up a studio in her family home in Kandy.  She was Sri Lanka’s first female architect and one of only two women in the world at the time to establish an architectural practice in her own name.  She began designing and building everything from small houses to entire apartment blocks, experimenting in fusing European modernism with the landscape and traditional craftsmanship.  But she became increasingly marginalised, her commissions dwindling.  She believed that as a woman in a man’s profession, in a developing country, her work was not taken seriously.  She died impoverished in Kandy in 1998.


De Silva’s final commission, in the 1980s, said to be her most ambitious effort to integrate modernism with traditional ways of living, was the Kandyan Arts Association building, which I briefly glimpsed. It was built to mark the centenary of the city’s art association, and to celebrate and nurture local crafts.  Sadly, the identity of its architect is apparently confined to a little notice referring to her as the daughter and sister of eminent Sri Lankans.  I very much regret not climbing those steps to investigate her building.


Loveday Herridge




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