Obituary: Minnette de Silva

"ASIAN WOMAN Architect" was a term Minnette de Silva liked to apply to herself. It had a defiant and definitive ring about it in a male- dominated profession. The term was also used as the title of the book on her life and work which is about to be published - posthumously now, just a few weeks after her death in Sri Lanka. It has been her main interest since she retired from practice in the early 1980s.

Minnette was born in Kandy in 1918, into the well-known and close Ceylonese reformist family of the de Silvas. Her father was a politician and a Buddhist, who represented Kandy in the Ceylon parliament (the country was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972) and served for a time as Health Minister. Her mother was of Dutch origin. Her brother Frederick (who died in 1993) was an ambassador to France.

Educated in Britain, Minnette later spent some years in India with her sister Anil, the other part of a duo known to their many friends as the "Kandy Girls". There she continued her architectural training, begun in Colombo and continued at the J.J. School, Bombay, which at the time was presided over by Otto Koenigsberger. Koenigsberger later became head of the Architectural Association School's Department of Tropical Architecture in London. De Silva worked for him briefly in India before transferring to the AA School in 1945, where she completed her studies in 1948.

That year she was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the first Asian female architect to be admitted to its ranks. She was also the first trained female architect from Ceylon. Her family soon summoned her home, and she set up practice there as Minnette de Silva Associates. However she continued to travel extensively in Europe where she made many contacts with architects and artists ranging from Jane Drew and Denys Lasdun (who remembers her bringing her work to his office for friendly "crits") to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Laurence Olivier, Picasso and Feliks Topolski.

She created a considerable impression, her fragile, slim Asian beauty enhanced by the wearing of colourful national saris. While still at the AA she attended the CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), meeting at Bridgwater in Somerset in 1947. It was there that she met Le Corbusier with whom, a woman colleague recently said, "she was almost in love", and with whom she struck up an enduring friendship.

At Bridgwater she introduced the work of the Modern Architecture Research Group, MARG (based on the English Modernist MARS Group) and early issues of the now famous Indian arts magazine of the same name, which was later edited by Raj Mulk Anand.

She remained faithful to the memory of Le Corbusier. He sent her his drawings and etchings, which were prominently displayed at St George's, her studio home in Kandy. Her architecture closely followed his architectural principles although it was by its nature more regional than functional.

In Sri Lankan society, the building industry and the architectural profession were very much a male preserve and de Silva had a difficult time. But she grasped the opportunities afforded by her unique position. She took up the challenge of combining local building traditions with Modern. She had a mission: to preserve local traditions and to join their crafts base to modern Western technologies.

Minnette de Silva was widely published in South-East Asia, her work often being compared with that of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's other prominent AA-trained architect. Today it is much admired by the younger generation of architects such as Ashley de Vos who, following her example, seeks a symbiotic relationship between regional and Modern architecture.

De Silva was able to demonstrate her principles in a number of house projects which at one level incorporate Modernist ideas for an architecture of "sun, light and air", with open plans, a sense of space and two-storey living rooms and the use of slender column supports. As in some of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses, she sought a close relationship between inside and out, allowing the abundance of surrounding nature to come into the house.

She combined concrete, timber and verandas faced with cast-iron grills to create a series of filigree facades in the two houses she designed for the Amarasinghe family in Colombo in 1954 and 1960. Between 1970 and 1972 she completed the Coomaraswamy Twin House in Colombo and the beautiful Seneviratne House in Kandy. It was houses like these, their publication and her teaching in schools of architecture in India and Hong Kong that began to make her work better known.

Her own house and studio, set in its own wilderness on a high bluff in Kandy, was always open to her friends and colleagues. Over the last few years it began to deteriorate as nature took it over again - trees pushed through the open trellises, and monkeys and insects invaded every nook and cranny of a place filled with all her memories and memorabilia.

In 1965 she began an ambitious writing project called "A Comparative History of South and South East Asian Architecture". Returning to it later in the 1970s she changed the theme to "Asian Architecture", bringing in a new slant that corrected outspoken claims that "each country is, or tends to towards, developing a deplorably unrealistic chauvinist attitude to renascent nationalism. This should be corrected," she claimed. She saw it as her "important and urgent" mission to write a history that closely followed her own architectural philosophy. Her aim was to produce a study on "all forms of town and village planning, folk design, crafts etc with research into the influence of history, climate, geography, economics and culture on this architecture".

It was never completed. However de Silva did write a whole section in the 18th edition of Banister Fletchers's History of Architecture in 1960 which showed considerable knowledge and promise. But her architectural work for a time became her preoccupation with projects such as the Forest Park resort for Buddhist pilgrims, close to the sacred city of Anuradhapura, and a wattle-and-daub thatched village camp near the rock fortress of Sigiriya.

This busy period culminated in the mid-Eighties with the opening of the most challenging project of her life: the Kandyan Centre for the Arts, near a sacred temple. Here, she landscaped the whole site, drawing for inspiration on the beautiful settings of local Kandyan villages. She used natural materials - stone, timber and rocks - and constructional methods well tried in the area, taking advantage of the experience of local craftspersons (including women) to produce a special building with an exciting, over- sailing, geometric timber roof.

She wrote of her concept as a "modern indigenous approach" - an attempt to create a new attitude to the design process that reflected the general cultural position of Sri Lankan society: "In our tradition there has always been a strong, symbiotic relationship of architecture and environment." Minnette de Silva did much to enhance and reinforce that relationship. It is her legacy.

Dennis Sharp

Minnette de Silva, architect: born Kandy, Ceylon 1 February 1918; died Kandy, Sri Lanka 24 November 1998.