Birdsongs from a balustrade in Ceylon

Updated: Aug 05, 2019, 09:28 IST | Fiona Fernandez

A new book mixes fact and imagination to follow the life and legacy of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva and her long-distance relationship with Chandigarh's creator, Le Corbusier

Birdsongs from a balustrade in Ceylon
(Left) Minnette with (from left) Pablo Picasso, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand, 1948

Ton oiseau, Minnette

When translated from French, it means "Your bird, Minnette."

With these words, Minnette de Silva would sign off her letters to "Corbu", known to the world as genius architect Le Corbusier. His mentee, de Silva, was the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Her petite, saree-clad frame belied her single-minded brilliance to fight the odds. Theirs was a relationship that defied age, boundaries and blueprints.

Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier

"I heard about Minnette de Silva through a friend — he worked for her years ago and told me about this incredible Sri Lankan architect who knew Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso and Aldous Huxley. I thought, who IS this woman and why had I not heard of her?" says Shiromi Pinto, author of Plastic Emotions (Penguin RandomHouse India). The book's plot weaves a tender relationship between the visionary and his protégé across seven seas. "To tell a convincing story about these architectural pioneers, it was essential to use their names. This book is a piece of historical fiction, so it is grounded in some reality — both political and personal."

Pinto says over an email interview that the challenges to this approach included sticking to some facts to lend credibility but retain the freedom to play with facts or dismiss them to create a compelling narrative.

The Open Hand in Chandigarh
The Open Hand in Chandigarh

De Silva's timeline — in fact, her relationship with Le Corbusier — is the heart of the book, so, despite the many historical moments that marked the period when the book is set, 1940-60s, they didn't eclipse her life. "They shared an intimate correspondence over decades. Much of it was devoted to technical banter — reflections on architecture, with brief moments of fondness. While I had access to Minnette's letters from the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris, his letters were a mix of the few I could find in her autobiography, and his architectural notebooks. I combined these to imagine a correspondence that is a chronicle of love, politics, architectural reflection and, ultimately, friendship," reveals the British-Canadian author.

While de Silva is often referred to as Sri Lanka's forgotten architect, and some of her buildings are in ruins or demolished, Pinto had access to an out-of-print copy of her autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, and copies of her letters to Corbusier. "It was my Bible for research," she says. "For the rest, I relied on my imagination." It is this creative licence that teases the reader like a gentle pendulum, transporting us from London and Paris to Chandigarh and Ceylon, with including occasional stopovers in Bombay [a Sir JJ School alumnus, she and her sister were part of MARG's founding team]."

Shiromi Pinto
Shiromi Pinto

The book's biggest success is arguably, highlighting de Silva's legacy. "It is clear in the architecture that followed her in Sri Lanka: bringing the outdoors inside the home [open-air courtyards within the home or indoor gardens], and the integration of traditional arts and crafts into building design." Pinto hopes that the forgotten architect's archive, which contains her drawings and paintings by Picasso and Le Corbusier, can be secured for coming generations to view. "I hope one day they will be found, preserved and made publicly available to students, researchers and anyone else who is interested."

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