Plastic Emotions: resurrecting an architect ahead of her time

By Jennifer Rodrigo

For Shiromi Pinto, bringing the story of Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect and the first Asian woman to become an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects – Minnette de Silva – to life simply boils down to her belief that the woman was “incredible”.

Plastic Emotions is the name of her book and it’s inspired by the forgotten feminist icon and daughter of reformist politician and suffragette George Edmund de Silva. The story is gripping and lyrical and Pinto paints a complex picture of de Silva, charting her “affair” (as Pinto likes to call it) with the infamous Swiss modernist Le Corbusier. The narrative moves between London, Chandigarh, Colombo, Paris, and Kandy.

“Minnette is forgotten now, but she wasn’t always,” shared Pinto, adding that the trailblazing architect had a thriving architectural practice in the late 1940s and 1950s. “Even if she didn’t make much money, she had many opportunities to experiment with her architectural ideas, fusing modernism with traditional approaches to building. She paved the way for people like Geoffrey Bawa to refine and extend her building ideas, but she still has not been given her due.”

Plastic Emotions is an effort at giving de Silva her due whilst also capturing the reality of being a female architect at that time. Pinto thinks de Silva was progressive on so many levels: “From taking a radical approach to architecture, bringing the outdoors firmly inside, to her friendships with some of the 20th Century’s most respected minds: Picasso, Aldous Huxley, Le Corbusier.”

The title itself comes from a phrase from Le Corbusier’s seminal Towards a New Architecture. In it, Pinto says, Corbusier talks about architecture as creating poetic space. In other words, the poetry of the space is moulded by its structure. “There is a certain plasticity to that emotional space. Readers can make of that what they will.”

Pinto is an author and Creative Manager at the Amnesty International Secretariat in London, UK. Her parents are from Sri Lanka. She herself was born in London and spent her formative years in Montreal, Canada, before returning to take her postgrad in the UK. “I ended up making a life here as an author, an activist, and a mum – although none of those aspects of me happened quickly.”

She describes herself as fiercely honest, a misanthrope, and someone who likes to eat. “I hate lying and lies. I think people who resort to it are cowardly,” she spoke candidly, adding that although she knows lies are necessary at times, and she herself deploys them if they are the only way to avoid hurting someone, on the whole, she is “honest to a fault”.

“I generally do not like people,” she continued, referring to her antisocial and anti-people nature, which she thinks works for Shiromi the Writer. “But Shiromi the Human Rights Worker? – Not so much.” Pinto’s idea of paradise is losing herself in the countryside or on a cliff, far from the press of humanity, with nothing but the sound of the waves crashing into her consciousness.

Hunger, she said, defines her, “or at least it did. Nowadays, I’m not as hungry as I used to be, but when it comes, I’m usually powerless against it. Eat, it says, and I acquiesce, biting into one more chocolate roll, or strawberry, or papadam.”
Reading is what got her into writing and Pinto believes the desire to emulate what one reads is what really drives writing. “Why an interest in architecture?” I asked, to which she responded that she supposes that she always had a “bit of a thing” for architecture, though she never dreamed it would become the theme of a novel, “and I’m certainly no expert”.

The research process for Plastic Emotions was lengthy, to say the least; Pinto used both primary and secondary sources, travelled to as many Minnette and Corb builds as her budget allowed, and interviewed a number of people who either knew Minnette or of her. “It was a painstaking process which could have gone on and on. Even now, I keep discovering something new.”

The book is a work of fiction and Pinto’s desire to paint de Silva’s close friendship with Le Corbusier as a romantic one is a testament to that. “I believe that Le Corbusier really was Minnette’s great love. The fact that they shared a friendship over decades is fascinating to me – and if I’m interested, then I think a lot of people will be. It was also convenient that their affair and friendship endured over a key period in postcolonial history that I wanted to explore through my novel.”

Pinto mixed history and fiction because that’s what she thinks happens in novels inspired by historical characters. “Given that these people existed, we need to pay some heed to the truths in their lives.” Pinto thinks she did what she felt was necessary to give the characters in her book credibility. “However, I needed to discard or bend the facts to suit the narrative of the book.”

I asked Pinto what her message to Sri Lanka is, as an author who’s touched on its conflicted past in her book, to which she responded: “My only message is a fairly prosaic one. Everyone, whether in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, must learn from her/his past. Sri Lanka was an island of huge potential, but I fear its gains have been squandered in its relentless drive towards modernisation.”

As for de Silva, Pinto thinks the Architect would ask people to remember that ultimately, they are all neighbours and that it is a dangerous minority that seeks to divide people.


Photo: Anita Sharma