There was, as she intended, a combative note in Minnette de Silva’s idiosyncratic scrapbook of an autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect. It took the last ten years of her life, and emphasised her role as a nerveless pioneer and professional, instigator of what became known as ‘regional modernism’. Yet for all this, she has been almost wholly overshadowed by the (literally and figuratively) towering figure of Geoffrey Bawa – her contemporary, but a latecomer to architecture. In 1998, as the collaged version of her life was being readied for publication, she died, isolated and almost forgotten.
In 1987, de Silva took the stage at the 16th conference of the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) held in Brighton. I wrote about her work in the Financial Times then, about her aspirations towards a ‘workable synthesis of traditional and modern architecture’, and triggered a sustained campaign by de Silva herself, and her Cambridge-based sister Anil, to persuade me to contribute to the book she was planning. Never having visited Sri Lanka or seen her work for myself I was reluctant, but capitulated in the face of their insistence.
I had sensed in her presentation something particular, a credible fusion of modernity and the vernacular. In January, I finally visited Kandy, where the shreds of evidence were before me, in the first and last of her commissions in her home town.