Chandigarh is a riddle. Loved as much as it is loathed, it was conceived as India’s first modern city. For Jawaharlal Nehru, Chandigarh would be the future and Le Corbusier — father of modern architecture — was the visionary to make it happen.
Never one for humility, Le Corbusier agreed. He brought Brutalism to India, imbuing his buildings with a kind of elemental spirituality. It was his first proper engagement with India, but his first contact with South Asia came in the form of a woman little known today, though impossible to ignore at the time. And it isn’t too far-fetched to say that she, too, exists in the foundations of this enigmatic city.
Woman of steel
When Le Corbusier first met her, Minnette de Silva was an ambitious young architect, already forming her unique vision of modernism. The 28-year-old from what was then Ceylon was on a visit to Paris. It was winter 1946, and after spending time with artist Brancusi in his freezing studio, De Silva was introduced to Le Corbusier in his Paris flat by the editor of a French architectural journal.
“I was, I think, his first encounter with ‘India’, as he then called Ceylon — soon to lead to Chandigarh,” recalls De Silva in her remarkable memoir, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect. “I was shy and slightly intimidated by the heroic great man. I listened and observed.”
It is hard to imagine this version of De Silva: quiet, pliant, vulnerable. She was, in fact, a woman of steel — defying her father to pursue her architectural studies first in Bombay and later at London’s Architectural Association. She was a woman accustomed to socialising among all classes, including the very elite. Her parents, both political reformers, had known Gandhi and Nehru. Among De Silva’s acquaintances were Sarojini Naidu, Mulk Raj Anand, Ram Gopal, the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aldous Huxley, the Gielguds, even Picasso. That a woman such as this should blush before Le Corbusier is almost unbelievable — and yet she did. The effect, it seems, was temporary.
Making of Marg
The following year, De Silva attended the first CIAM (World Congress of Modern Architects) to take place after World War II. One of the few students to take part — and the youngest at that — she represented India and Ceylon, and was CIAM’s first Asian delegate. It was an extraordinary opportunity for De Silva. Here were the world’s most vaunted modern architects — people she had been studying at university — all coming together to discuss post-war reconstruction.
De Silva also had an ulterior motive. While studying at the JJ School of Architecture in Bombay, she had met the writer and thinker, Mulk Raj Anand. The two of them together with her sister, Anil de Silva, founded Marg, the seminal South Asian arts magazine that is still around today. In the early years, mustering support for the magazine was a challenge. De Silva would describe how she and her co-conspirators would fan out into the streets to collect subscriptions for Marg, thus ensuring its survival for yet another month.
CIAM was the perfect opportunity to recruit more subscribers, and so De Silva arrived in Bridgwater in southwest England, with a copy of Marg firmly in hand. It was her pass to CIAM, her reason for speaking there, and her excuse to strike up conversation with Le Corbusier once again.
In my novel, Plastic Emotions, Bridgwater is the watershed moment when the two architects meet for the first time. I stand by this, for it isn’t until Bridgwater that Le Corbusier actually sees De Silva. As she points out in her memoir: “He could not quite take in that I was in architecture, until one day at dinner sitting next to him I joined in the general discussion on architecture. He turned and said, ‘But you are an architect.’ And then, ‘But why?’”
There is no doubt that Le Corbusier was intrigued by De Silva. He even broke his own rule about not speaking English, just so he could converse with her. De Silva writes: “He was greatly attracted by his first live contact with l’Inde. I think he romanticised our meeting. I became the symbolic link with l’Inde, the idealised symbol. Since then I have been deeply touched by his sympathy and interest in me and my work. His was an enduring, understanding friendship, pure and simple. At the time I hardly realised the great honour.”
So began a friendship that would span decades. Neither Le Corbusier nor De Silva admitted to having more than a platonic relationship, although their correspondence over the years was full of humour, affection and yearning.
In a letter dated June 1949, some months after she’d left London for Kandy, Sri Lanka, De Silva writes: “Corbu. So, so long a time without a letter. Have you forgotten altogether the little bird of the Islands… Paris seems so far away and I am very nostalgic for it all.”
“Oiseau de l’Ile,” writes Le Corbusier in 1952 from Chandigarh. “I am a crow, and crows look at flowers… with passion, but the flowers ignore them… I kiss you, Minnette, to the very tips of your fingers.”
In that same letter, le Corbusier talks about visiting a friend of De Silva’s in Milan and seeing the bed that De Silva slept on. It is striking — something a mere friend would not dwell on, and yet Le Corbusier does with a palpable sense of longing. His respect for De Silva is also clear: “Minnette – homme d’affaire – business – woman… fortune – O Minnette, oiseau de l’Ile!”
For De Silva, Le Corbusier would always be a mentor and, arguably, her foil, throughout her career. Her architectural vision was a reaction to Corbusian modernism. A modernist at heart, De Silva nevertheless saw its limitations in the Eastern context. Rather than break entirely with tradition to import a new grammar into her building, she saw an opportunity to both revive a waning arts and crafts industry, while modernising traditional aspects of Sri Lankan architecture. Her work was a kind of hybrid — what she called Modern Regionalism.
“It is essential for us to absorb what we absolutely need from the modern West,” she wrote in 1950, “and to learn to keep the best of our own traditional forms. We have to think understandingly in order to develop an indigenous contemporary architecture, and not lose the best of the old that has meaning and value.”
She applied this thinking to the dozens of homes she built between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Her first build, the Karunaratne house, featured woven dumbara mats and specially fired clay tiles made by local artisans, as well as a floor-to-ceiling mural commissioned by celebrated local artist George Keyt. So, too, her most Corbusian structure: the Senanayake flats at Gregory’s Road in Colombo. This whitewashed build still stands, its ultra-modern exterior softened by the shrubs and trees she had planted in strategic locations, at once cooling the building while lending it gentle camouflage.
Perhaps her most challenging commission was the sprawling and ambitious public housing scheme (1958) in Kandy, the island’s second largest city. It was the chance De Silva had been waiting for and she seized it, using her own unique approach to design.
First, she consulted extensively with future householders, meeting with them and completing detailed surveys on how they lived. She then used this information to design different housing types, some of which were built by the householders themselves. Some of this approach was an echo of that used by Le Corbusier’s team in Chandigarh, albeit with more direct engagement.
Today, De Silva’s participatory approach to design and building wins prizes. She did it without fanfare, always aware that the success of the scheme relied on how useful householders would find their new living environment. And the scheme did prove a success, becoming a model for other housing schemes on the island, although none came close to the original.
The Open Hand
That Le Corbusier regularly referred to De Silva as his Inde is problematic whichever way you look at it. Its reductive effect, its conflation of her identity with a symbolic ‘India’, ignores her true origins while elevating her to quasi-goddess status.
At the same time, given that De Silva was his first introduction to the South Asia region, her views and thoughts would undoubtedly have held sway in his mind.
Yet, Le Corbusier never explicitly spoke of her as an influence, although he was always respectful of and impressed by her ideas. He also confided in her, sending her a collage in December 1950 of what would later become Chandigarh’s famous Open Hand monument. “I think it was the first time he actually put the Open Hand on paper,” she writes in her memoir. This is not true; sketches of the Open Hand appear in Le Corbusier’s notebooks in February 1950. Still, the act of sharing an artwork that clearly means much to him — with De Silva — is notable in itself.
There is also the neat parallel between his Oiseau de l’Ile (“Bird of the Island”) and the obviously bird-like shape of the Open Hand. Earlier sketches in Le Corbusier’s notebooks depict la licorne, a winged, horned female creature whom I describe in my novel thus: “She first appeared on his flight back from India. Born on the plains of Chandigarh, or dropped from the heavens? Her wings are not yet open, but once open, will they welcome or repel? She is multihued, the colour of fire. I draw her and it is as if she has come from somewhere else. Have I seen her perched on the crescent of a bull’s horn, those bulls that are so ubiquitous in India?”
A few passages earlier, I show Le Corbusier ruminating on De Silva. The link between the two “birds” is clear: “Ah, he thinks, this old servant, blind in one eye, how is it possible that he has captured the attentions of such a rare bird of paradise? Her feathers are of the finest texture — multi-hued, fragile, iridescent.”
Applying literary tropes to architecture might be a dangerous exercise, but in this case, I think there is some value to the observation. When you consider the strength of Le Corbusier’s friendship with De Silva, the immense respect he had for her — then weld these to the leitmotif of the bird that unites her with Chandigarh’s symbol of the Open Hand… Perhaps De Silva’s influence on Le Corbusier and Chandigarh is hiding in plain sight. We will never really know.
Minnette de Silva died in 1998 aged 80, alone and almost forgotten.
"Corbu. So, so long a time without a letter. Have you forgotten altogether the little bird of the Islands… Paris seems so far away and I am very nostalgic for it all. — Minnette to Corbusier | June 1949 after She had just left London for Kandy
"I am a crow, and crows look at flowers… with passion, but the flowers ignore them… I kiss you, Minnette, to the very tips of your fingers. — Corbusier to Minnette | 1952 From Chandigarh
— The writer is author of Plastic Emotions (Penguin Random House), a novel inspired by the life and work of Minnette De Silva
The writer tweets at @blimundaseyes
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