Minnette de Silva: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect

Series: AA XX 100 / AA Collections Talks
Date: Tuesday 26 April 2016
Time: 18:30
Venue: Lecture Hall
Running time: 80 mins

Minnette de Silva (1918-1998) was the daughter of a prominent Sinhalese politician called George de Silva and grew up in Kandy during the last decades of the British Raj. Having set her mind on becoming an architect she studied  in Bombay during the War and worked for a time with Otto Koenigsberger in Mysore. She was a student at the AA between 1945 and 1948 and became the first Asian woman to become an associate of the RIBA.  

Minnette practised from her parent’s home in Kandy and was prolific during the 1950s and 1960s.  Her work combined the modernism of her friend le Corbusier with traditional methods of construction and decoration. During this period she was an associate editor of MARG magazine in Bombay which she had helped to found with her sister in 1945 and authored a number of prescient articles which proposed a theory of ‘Regional Modernism’.

Her practice foundered after 1970 and, after a brief spell in London, she moved to Hong Kong as a lecturer and pioneered a new approach to the historiography of Asian architecture.  Returning to Sri Lanka in 1980 she tried unsuccessfully to revive her practice and she died, penniless, in 1998.

Minnette was a pioneer of post-independence architecture in Sri Lanka and there is little doubt that her both her buildings and her writings had a huge influence on  Geoffrey Bawa whose architectural career ran about ten years after her own.  But she was hindered by the fact of being a woman in what had been hitherto an exclusively male-profession and by her relative isolation in the provincial backwaters of Kandy. She has never garnered the recognition that she richly deserves: the first part of her auto-biography ‘The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect’ appeared soon after her death, but it was unedited and failed to do her justice.  Her archives and many of her buildings have since disappeared.

Bartlett graduate David Robson first met Minnette de Silva when he was a lecturer in the Colombo School of Architecture between 1969 and 1972.  Ten years later he returned to Sri Lanka as an adviser on the Government’s ‘100,000 Houses Programme’ and lived for three years in a house designed by Minnette. Subsequently a Professor of Architecture in the University of Brighton, he is the author of books on Sri Lankan architects Geoffrey Bawa and C. Anjalendran and recently published ‘The Architectural Heritage of Sri Lanka’.

Image: CIAM Bridgewater 1947  (Minnette de Silva is in front row next to Walter Gropius).

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The Architectural Association receives Taught Degree Awarding Powers by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council.

The Architectural Association (AA), the oldest independent school of architecture in the United Kingdom, is pleased to announce that it has been granted the power to award its own degrees. As of 1 October 2019, the AA has the right to establish new academic programmes and degree awards and is working to create some of the world’s most pioneering courses in architecture to shape and build the future.

Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) give UK higher education institutions the right to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Prospective students worldwide can apply to the AA Foundation Course (Foundation Diploma), Experimental Programme BA(Hons), Diploma Programme (MArch), and nine taught postgraduate programmes encompassing History and Critical Thinking in Architecture (MA), Projective Cities (Taught MPhil) and Sustainable Environmental Design (MSc/MArch), amongst others.

AA Director, Eva Franch said, ‘since our founding in 1847 we have never ceased to create new horizons, institutionally and academically. This is a significant milestone for the AA and demonstrates how we have grown and progressed as an institution that has always valued independence. Receiving TDAP marks a new era for our institution; these are exciting times for the AA. The process has required considerable work from all members of staff and students. I would like to take this opportunity to credit them for this major achievement’.

President of the AA Council, Victoria Thornton added, ‘the TDAP process has recognised our strong governance, academic standards, scholarship and teaching as well as the environment supporting the delivery of taught higher education programmes’.

The School’s application for Taught Degree Awarding Powers was supported by the Architects Registration Board, the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Open University.