The First Woman Architect of Sri Lanka

7 months ago / by Swarnendu Biswas
Minnette De Silva
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Minnette de Silva is known as an internationally renowned architect from Sri Lanka; her fame has already outlived her life by decades. She is regarded as the first modernist architect from the island nation. In 1948, she achieved the distinction of being the first Asian woman to be elected as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects

Born in Kandy, a city of Sri Lanka, on 1st February 1918, Minnette de Silva went on to become the first trained woman architect from Sri Lanka. Her family was fairly distinguished and from the privileged strata of the society; her father George E. de Silva was an important Kandayan politician who served as the President of Ceylon National Congress and Minister of Health, while her mother Agnes Nell used to campaign for universal suffrage in Sri Lanka. Minnette was the youngest of three siblings; she had an older sister and an older brother.

Early Years

She did her schooling from St. Mary’s, in Brighton, England, but couldn’t complete her matriculation. She returned to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1929. She dreamt of becoming an architect and regarding that faced her first opposition at home; from her father who didn’t want her daughter to become an architect. However, she eventually managed to win that battle and went to Bombay (now unfortunately, Mumbai) to study architecture.

While exploring about Minnette de Silva we can come to know that she first studied architecture at the Academy of Architecture, which was then run by Gajanan Baburao Mhatre, who was then the President of the Indian Institute of Architects.  Thereafter she attended the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art.

As she didn’t do her matriculation, she had to work as an apprentice for the architectural firm, Mistri and Bhedwar before getting enrolled at Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art; the oldest art institution in Mumbai.

Trained to Excel

But she was expelled from the Sir JJ School of Art in 1943, just two years after her entering the hallowed institution,  for taking part in student strikes over the arrest of Gandhi and for refusing to apologize for doing so. Thereafter she went to Bangalore to work for the globally renowned German architect and urban planner Otto Koenigsberger. After that stint, in 1945, she went to London to study at the highly prestigious Architectural Association.

Here it deserves a mention that she also visited Ceylon briefly during the 40s, where she met Herwald Ramsbotham, the then Governor-General of Ceylon. He got impressed by her talent and personally intervened in his capacity as head of the Education Committee in the UK to arrange a place for Minnette at the Architectural Association, which enabled her to take a special Royal Institute of British Architects examination for returning students for the War.

She went on to became the Architectural Editor of Marg, which eventually become a famous magazine on modern art and architecture. The magazine was founded by the noted author Mulk Raj Anand in 1946.

She also represented the esteemed magazine at the 1947 Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in Bridgewater, the UK. The conference was attended by major figures in modern architecture such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Jane Drew among others.

Building Herstory

She returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 on the insistence of her father. From Kandy she began her career in architecture. Karunaratne House in Kandy is being widely regarded as the first architectural project of her, which must be highlighted in any good biography of Minnette de Silva. She designed the house for her family friends, Algy and Letty Karunaratne. The building, which was completed in 1951, is the first one designed by a woman in Sri Lanka, and initially attracted attention primarily because of that.

However, the house which clings to a hill with floors following the slope of the terrain and with spacious and interconnected interiors reflects considerable clarity of the logistical and climatic elements by the architect.

After the success of her maiden project, work for her began pouring in and she was really busy during the 1950s.

Another of the major early projects of her company Minnette de Silva Associates is Pieris House, her first commission in Colombo. The architecture of the building was characterized by open courtyards, and terraces blurring the boundaries between interiors and exteriors.

Wickremaratna HouseColombo; Mrs. D. Wickremasinghe FlatsColombo; Daswani HouseKandy; A. G. De Silva HouseCinnamon Gardens; General Habibullah Defence Academy Chief’s House, India are some of the noteworthy projects of her during the 1950s. 

Travel, Writing and Teaching

In the first half of 1960s, Minnette de Silva didn’t focus much on her thriving practice and travelled for five long years. She travelled through Greece, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. During that period, she also revisited India. She described that period as her period of self-renewal.

Following her return to Sri Lanka, she designed a number of large hotels but there is no denying the fact that during her long period of absence, her practice faltered.

Since early 1970s, she was feeling uncomfortable under the then ruling government (headed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike) and in 1973 she closed her office and moved to London where she wrote the entire section on South Asian architecture in the 18th edition of Banister Fletcher‘s A History of Architecture.

Thereafter she also joined academics after she was appointed as lecturer in the History of Asian Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. During her tenure as a lecturer too Minnette de Silva showcased her pioneering spirit by introducing a new way to teach the history of architecture in an Asian context.

Declining Years

But during her long stays in abroad her architectural practice in Sri Lanka suffered irreparably. She tried to revive it after her return to Sri Lanka in 1979 but was not successful in doing so. She could complete only three buildings post 1979. Siriwardene HouseColombo happened to be her last project, which was completed in 1992. 

She had designed only 40 buildings in her career and 37 of them were residential projects. But it is the quality of work which speaks volumes of her creativity. Succinctly one can say that as an architect Minnette de Silva was innovative. Though she is being credited for heralding modernism in Sri Lankan architecture but her work also involved local elements in it. For furnishing of her residential projects, she adapted traditional Kandy weaving and did work with local artisans on finishes and fixtures.

Ignoring Her Legacy

Though she was largely ignored by institutions in Sri Lanka, two years before her death, the 78-year-old Minnette de Silva was eventually awarded the Gold Medal by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. Perhaps it came much late in the day…

Moreover, many of her buildings were decimated during her own lifetime. Many of her finished projects now languish in a state of abandonment. It would disappoint those interested in knowing the net worth of Minnette de Silva that the great architect who revolutionized Sri Lanka’s architecture died penniless, on 24th November 1998. The age of Minnette de Silva at the time of her demise was 80 years.


When did Minnette de Silva start her career?

She began her architectural career in 1948.

To whom was Minnette de Silva married to?

She remained unmarried.

What is Minnette de Silva known for?

She is renowned for her architecture. She is credited for pioneering Sri Lankan modernism in the architectural tradition of Sri Lanka.