Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance

The richly imagined story of an affair between Le Corbusier and Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect, Minnette de Silva

There’s an air of romance to nearly all the places Shiromi Pinto describes in Plastic Emotions, her novel about a love affair between two great 20th-century architects. Some of those places are tropical and alluring. In Sri Lanka, we head to Kandy with its verdant hills, and then Colombo with its chattering bourgeoisie. In India, Pinto takes us to Chandigarh and its elegantly experimental modernist buildings. Even in Paris and London, we are surrounded by the glamour of bohemians and their postwar parties. But it’s in the mildly prosaic confines of a conference in Bridgwater, Somerset, that the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier seems first to have collided with a Sri Lankan architect called Minnette de Silva.

It’s there that the illustrious Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne descended in 1947 for a conference. The delegates included the modernist architects Walter Gropius and Ernö Goldfinger. A photograph of the attendees shows Le Corbusier bespectacled and bow-tied at one end of the front row, and the young, bird-like De Silva in a sari, seated further along. If they seem an unlikely couple, a more candid photo seems to capture something of their mutual interest. They are mid-conversation: he is talking, smart hat perched on his head, a coat casually slung on his arm, while she clutches papers close to her chest, the tail of her sari wound over her hair in the traditional way. She gazes at him intently.

Minnette de Silva and Le Corbusier at the 1947 Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne … photograph in frame at Helga’s Folly with sketches by Le Corbusier (photographer unknown), Kandy, Sri Lanka.
De Silva and Le Corbusier at the 1947 Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne … photograph in frame at Helga’s Folly with sketches by Le Corbusier (photographer unknown, dated 1947), Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi. Courtesy of Helga de Silva Blow Perera.

Looking at the photograph, it seems unsurprising that this real-life encounter and the exchange of letters that followed should have provided Pinto with the bones of her story. Plastic Emotions is an exercise in romantic speculation. Pinto imagines the nature of the relationship that develops between the 29-year‑old Sri Lankan and the ageing pioneer of urban modernism. She gives them trysts, meaningful exchanges, a separation and then painful longing, ending only with Le Corbusier’s death in 1965.

Pinto luxuriates in their imagined love affair, revelling in the anguish of their estrangement. It’s hard not to be swept away by it all, although she never makes clear exactly how closely she cleaves to real life. Le Corbusier was married but not always faithful, and De Silva’s letters certainly indicate an intense attachment to the man she considered her mentor. And yet, what matters in the end is not the realism of the romance but the life that Pinto describes through this device.

Born in 1918, Minnette de Silva was the daughter of a reformist politician and a suffragette. She was Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect and the first Asian woman to become an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She trained in Bombay, then London, where she cut a striking figure in architectural and artistic circles, encountering Pablo Picasso and Laurence Olivier, among others. In letters she exchanged with Le Corbusier, he addresses her affectionately as “oiseau”. She calls him “Corbu”. He signs off with a sketch of a crow.

But by 1948, with the dawn of Sri Lankan independence, De Silva had left Europe to return home, setting up a studio on the family estate in the Kandy foothills and lending her talents to high-end domestic commissions and social housing projects. It’s here that Pinto bestows on her heroine the fervour of a modernist visionary, conveying how urgently De Silva understood the functional urbanism that a new Sri Lanka would need, how quickly it must be built and how beautiful it might be. Pinto is at her best when she takes us beyond the romantic agony into the design aesthetics. She shows us De Silva’s sense of invention, her determination to meld modernist architecture with traditional craftsmanship, her insistence that a built structure should have some relation to the rocky landscape into which it would be cut. In this way, the novel seeks to give voice to De Silva’s distinctive architectural vision, countering Le Corbusier’s propensity for grand pronouncements on urban planning and the “poetry of the right angle”.

The book is most valuable for its portrait of De Silva – a woman so unquestionably intelligent and intriguing that it feels scandalous she should be so little known. Pinto’s prose is a little too prone to starry skies and roses in the hair, with a preponderance of exotic tropes and a sometimes sickly lyricism (“the moon is a silver lozenge on an inky tongue”). But the novel makes clear how the idea of male genius can blot out other kinds of history and legacy. It will make you want to seek out De Silva’s work and remember her name.

Shahidha Bari’s Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes is published by Cape. Plastic Emotions is published by Influx (£9.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Shahidha Bari

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trans-Europe Express by Owen Hatherley review – the architectural case for Remain
A journey to cities on the European continent explores the author’s favourite buildings and the benefits of planning and collective provision

Lynsey Hanley

07, Jun, 2018 @6:31 AM

Article image
The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood review – art and lies
In this propulsive novel set against the Nazi rise to power, a painter recalls his youth in the German Bauhaus school

Aida Edemariam

03, Aug, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Painter to the King by Amy Sackville review – a virtuoso portrait of Velázquez
This fictional account of the artist’s life at the court of Philip IV confirms its daring author’s extraordinary gifts

Sarah Perry

05, Apr, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Jack by Marilynne Robinson review – a Calvinist romance
Radiant and visionary, the fourth Gilead novel explores whether a minister’s prodigal son can be redeemed by love

Sarah Perry

25, Sep, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Bricks & Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made by Tom Wilkinson – review
From the Tower of Babel to Henry Ford's factory in Detroit, Christopher Turner explores how architecture can shape people's lives

Christopher Turner

30, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
OK, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea review – strikingly original debut
There’s a void where his personality should be and he turns into a stalker – but somehow the narrator of this strange tale exerts a powerful grip on the reader

Lara Feigel

19, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead – review
One of several books published to mark the centenary of the artist and writer, this biography is also a spirited family memoir

Paul Laity

05, Apr, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by David Hockney and Martin Gayford – review
Lockdown blossom ... a lavishly illustrated record of the exchanges between the artist, in Normandy, and the critic, in Cambridge, during the past year

Nicholas Wroe

19, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Kenneth Clark by James Stourton review – Mary Beard on Civilisation without women
Clark’s patrician manner, and the ‘great man’ approach of his famous TV series, now seem outdated. This biography retrieves his influence, but has worrying sexual politics

Mary Beard

01, Oct, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Pedro and Ricky Come Again by Jonathan Meades review – dandyish Hulk rampage
From Duchamp to Orwell, fascism to Brexit … this collection of journalism and speeches showcases one of the world’s best haters, who has never composed a dull paragraph

Steven Poole

28, Apr, 2021 @6:30 AM