Minnette de Silva

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Minnette de Silva
Pablo Picasso na Kongresie Intelektualistów.png
Minnette de Silva with Pablo Picasso (left) at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948
Born(1918-02-01)1 February 1918
Died24 November 1998(1998-11-24) (aged 80)
Kandy, Sri Lanka
NationalitySri Lankan
Alma materSir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art
Architectural Association School of Architecture
Parent(s)George E. de Silva
Agnes de Silva
AwardsSLIA Gold Medal (1996)[1]
PracticeMinnette de Silva Associates
BuildingsSee below
ProjectsKandy Art Centre

Minnette de Silva (Sinhala: මිනට් ද සිල්වා;Tamil: மினிட் டி சில்வா; 1 February 1918 – 24 November 1998) was an internationally recognized architect, considered the pioneer of the modern architectural style in Sri Lanka.[2][3] 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 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 (1918–1930)[edit]

Minnette de Silva was born on 1 February 1918 in Kandy to the well known mixed race family. Her father was George E. de Silva, a prominent Kandayan politician. He was a Sinhalese and Buddhist and was President of the Ceylon National Congress, and also served as a Minister of Health. Her mother Agnes Nell, was a Burgher Christian who actively campaigned for universal suffrage in Sri Lanka.[4] She was the youngest of three children. Her sister Anil de Silva was an art critic and historian. Her brother Fredrick de Silva was a lawyer and politician who served as Mayor of Kandy and later a member of Parliament. Fredrick was also Sri Lanka's Ambassador to France.

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 Dr Andreas Nell (1864-1956) to allow her to travel to Bombay to train at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art.[5]

Education (1930–1948)[edit]

India (1938–1942)

As Minnette did not complete her matriculation, she had to work as an apprentice for the Bombay-based firm, Mistri and Bhedwar, 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 on modern art and culture. During the time of political upheaval in India, she attended a Free Gandhi March and 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.

Architectural Association (1945–1948)

During a brief visit to Ceylon, she met Herwald Ramsbotham, the Governor-General of Ceylon, 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 Architects examination for returning students for the War.


Early Career (1948–1962)[edit]

External video
Minnette de Silva, Wrocław, 1948, YouTube video

Minnette de Silva returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 on the insistence of her father, who requested her to make her contribution to the newly independent country.[6] She returned to her parents’ home, St. George's, where she would start her architectural career without any money of her own. Although her parents would have liked her to take a reliable salaried position, she stayed in Kandy and pursued her career independently.[7] de Silva decided to stay in Kandy as she had her roots there and it was the cultural and traditional centre of the nation.[8] This was important to her as she had been brought up in an atmosphere of the patriotic political and cultural commitments of her parents to the community and the country.[7] de Silva who as a child lived and moved among Kandyan artists and craftsmen would be taken by her parents to see the ancient Sinhalese architecture of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. Like her parents, she was greatly influenced by Ananda Coomaraswamy, who advocated for the preservation of the traditional arts and crafts, local craftsmen and the building methods and materials, and would be one of the first Sri Lankan architects to become a patron of the local craftsmen.[6] She would develop her own style of architecture which is still apparent in the Sri Lankan architecture of today, and would be one of the first architects to incorporate building knowledge acquired in the West with that of Sri Lanka and India.[6]

Her first building would be the Karunaratne House in Kandy. The 1949 commission came from friends of her parents Algy, who was a lawyer, and Letty Karunaratne, who asked her to build a house for Rs 40,000. She prepared plans for a split level house for a site on a hill, the first of a kind in Kandy. It was the first building designed by a women in Sri Lanka and attracted much attention and controversy.[9] She had to tackle many problems early on as a result of being the first and only woman architect in Sri Lanka.[7] The fact that she worked independently in a male dominated sector, without a male partner nor an established firm, rendered distrust of contractors, businesses, the government and architectural patrons.[7]

Completing the Karunaratne house in 1951, the rest of the 1950s would be de Silva's busiest decade throughout her career.[1]

Travels (1962–1973)[edit]

In 1962 Minnette de Silva's mother died and she subsequently suffered from bouts of ill health and depression. Throughout the 1960s she travelled, spending long periods away from Sri Lanka and allowing her practice to falter. Her career Started to decline just as Geoffrey Bawa began his.[1]

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. De Silva's work and life are discussed in Flora Samuel's book Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist.

London and Hong Kong (1973–1979)[edit]

With a change in government in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, De Silva and many others of the same outlook felt uncomfortable with the Bandaranaike government. In 1973 she closed her office and moved to London, renting a flat on Baker Street from Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.[1][10] While in London she wrote the whole section on South Asian architecture in the new (18th) edition of Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture.[10][2]

de Silva's work on A History of Architecture opened the doors for her to join the Department of Architecture, at the University of Hong Kong, where she was appointed lecturer in the History Asian of Architecture.[4][10][11] She would stay in Hong Kong from 1975 to 1979 and pioneered a new way to teach the History of Architecture in an Asian context. During this period she curated an exhibition that was shown at the Commonwealth Institute in London with the large collection of photographs of vernacular Asian architecture she had amassed. de Silva also had plans to write her own comprehensive history of Asian architecture for the Athlone Press, however this came to nothing.[1]

Back in Kandy (1979–1998)[edit]

A model of the house designed for the artist, Segar

Upon her return to Kandy in 1979 she tried to revive what was left of her architectural practice, but had difficulty in recruiting experienced staff.[10] This would be the last phase of her architectural career but would only go on to complete three buildings.[1] In 1982 de Silva settled down to work on the Kandy Art Association and Centenary Culture 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 (residence of the high priest of the sect). Minnette willed the Art Centre to be the most characteristic and living illustration in the region of a contemporary Kandyan Architecture.



Having always been plagued by financial insecurity, de Silva died penniless in Kandy on the 24 November 1998.[2][7]


In 1996, two years before her death, after being largely ignored her during much of her career, de Silva was awarded the Gold Medal by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects.[1]

Popular culture[edit]

2019 novel Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a novel based on the real life story of Minnette de Silva.[12]

List of works[edit]


  • de Silva, Minnette The life & work of an Asian woman architect (Volume I), Colombo, 1998, ISBN 9559512005

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Robson 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Sharp 1998.
  3. ^ Pinto 2018.
  4. ^ a b Dissanayake 1982, p. 41.
  5. ^ Shariff 2014.
  6. ^ a b c Dissanayake 1982, p. 43.
  7. ^ a b c d e de Silva 1998, p. 114.
  8. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 115.
  9. ^ a b de Silva 1998, p. 120.
  10. ^ a b c d Aguenaou 2018.
  11. ^ Sherlock 2018.
  12. ^ Influx Press 2019.
  13. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 137.
  14. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 158.
  15. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 161.
  16. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 180.
  17. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 202.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v de Silva 1998.
  19. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 195.
  20. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 198.
  21. ^ de Silva 1998, p. 207.


External links[edit]