Few careers lay open the complexities of architectural entanglements with gender, labor, and the politics of cultural heritage in the twentieth century as does that of Minnette De Silva (1918-1998): R.I.B.A. Associate, Sri Lanka Institute of Architects Gold Medalist, C.I.A.M. participant, and co-founder of the journal MARG. She combined progressive and revivalist thrusts together, from her student work in the 1940s at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture and the Architectural Association to later studies of Asian architecture for MARG, Ekistics, and Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture. Her designs combined reinforced concrete technology and Surrealist composition techniques with Ceylonese arts and crafts and a gendered, village-based system of fabrication.
Though she was a fixture in modernist Bombay and London and engaged in some of the most important modern architectural interventions in South Asia, her appearances in the institutional record, and thus the history, are erratic. No formal archive documents her practice or professional biography, but her international itineraries and localized productions appear in her scrapbook-style memoir, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect. Part Bildungsroman and part architectural portfolio, the lone volume of the two she intended to publish offers an amputated narrative of engagements with significant institutions and figures and a similarly remarkable body of built works and writings. This aborted map offers a possible model for historiography—for histories of women, of South Asia, of architecture, of modernism—by throwing into question the reliance upon the catalogue raisonné and instead giving space to its occlusions, which may better serve to trace the creative life and intellectual labor of an architect in the world.