SEAARC Symposium Abstract 27: “Constructions of an Asian Woman Architect: Minnette de Silva, Architecture, and History”

by Dr. Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, Bryn Mawr College

Much recent attention has been paid to an erasure of Minnette de Silva’s work from a global canon of modern architecture. This reading of exclusion has been predicated in part on the demolition and neglect of Sri Lankan buildings within her vast yet little-known architectural portfolio, and her eclipse in the literature by narratives that foregrounded South Asian peers whose work may have been more easily consumed, through European, masculine, or chauvinist lenses. In spite of a spectacular biography rich with intersections with major figures in politics, culture, and architectural modernism (for example, Le Corbusier and Vikram Sarabhai), and a career that placed her in a constellation of sites and circles meaningful in the pantheon of twentieth century architecture (from Bombay to Paris to Hong Kong, and from MARG to the AA to CIAM), her copious output yet curious omission from canonical histories may illuminate central problems in narratives that treat Southeast Asia, as well as fundamental historiographical challenges in study of the period’s modernisms, feminisms, and architecture. Based upon a survey of extant archival materials in Sri Lanka, correspondence held in institutional and private collections, and examination of de Silva’s architectural projects and remaining buildings, this paper will attempt to historically situate her career, works, and active engagement in contemporary
discourses on tropical architecture and regional modernisms—while using this case to investigate the theoretical and methodological problematics of a study that hinges upon cultural activity in pan-Asian networks, particularly, de Silva’s specific location and
activation of categories of Asianness, of feminism, and of “architect” in the construction of a global cultural sphere.

In the absence of crucial architectural “texts,” for example, St. George’s, the family home whose studio addition she designed, built, and worked in until her death—the entire building recently razed—the document (or, perhaps, monument) that presents the most direct exposure for this critical history remains The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect. As the primary remnant in which de Silva recorded her chronology and oeuvre, it operates at once as autobiographical scrapbook, career résumé, architectural monograph, and amateur history of Sri Lanka. The text reflects certain constructions of self, against the grain of dominant strands of a pan-European modernism, Indian regional cultural hegemony, relationships between a rising international and Sri Lankan avant-garde, and the crucible of local politics that de Silva and her relations engaged. De Silva tasked herself in her latter years not only with the labor of the book’s authorship but its material production, fabricating its content by hand-gluing into its pages a range of materials related to her memoir: photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence, telegrams, receipts, and other minutiae. The first volume, spanning the period from her father’s birth in 1879 to her mother’s death in 1961 was published posthumously; the whereabouts of the manuscript for the unpublished second volume, intended to span the nearly forty years of de Silva’s prolific career to follow, remain in question. The resulting truncation of this significant primary source speaks directly to historiographical questions of archival erasure, particularly in the context of the discursive tradition of approaching lives and works of architects through monographic study, and certainly in view of the paucity of source material on women practitioners in the twentieth century, even those as actualized as de Silva.

The inclusion of de Silva’s Karunaratne House in Volume 8 (“South Asia”) of the refereed compendium World architecture 1900-2000: A Critical Mosaic, as one example in recent literature, suggests a discipline’s desire to critically reassess and revise the canonical status and reception of her work. Taking such thrusts into consideration, this paper is concerned equally with exclusions and revisions, as theoretical problems in histories of architecture in and of colonial and postcolonial South/Southeast Asia. It further seeks to explore this area of complexity, so well-trod in feminist histories and theory, through investigation of regional matters related to architectural production and culture. Due to an archive that may at once be interpreted as under construction (by the subject) and in destruction (as a site), Minnette de Silva’s historical position may remain starkly elusive, and yet, these tensions between site and subject may offer far wider critical epistemological interrogations.


Anooradha Siddiqi is a historian of art and architecture and a professor in the Growth and Structure of Cities department at Bryn Mawr College. A recent graduate of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, her dissertation research examined exchanges between architectural modernism and modern humanitarianism from the Cold War to the present. Her work appears in the edited volume Un Monde de Camps, Trialog: A Journal for Planning and Building in the Third World, and the forthcoming Routledge Handbook for Socially Engaged Architecture. She is presently co-editing a special issue of Architectural Theory Review, titled “Spatial Violence.” Her research on South Asian architecture and planning appears in the journals A.D. and Revue Urbanisme. Her current research on the work of Minnette de Silva examines discourses on regionalism and vernacular architecture as platforms for transnational exchange and transregional architectural pedagogy.

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