An imagined love affair between two great architects of the 20th century is the foundation of this lyrical novel by Shiromi Pinto.
Plastic Emotions is primarily a bid to highlight the pioneering work of Minnette de Silva. She was the first Asian woman to join the UK’s Royal Institute of British Architects and is best known for designs which incorporated both new ideas and traditional Sri Lankan features. They were created as a deliberate contrast to the colonial structures imposed by the British, reflecting a new pride in nationalism after Sri Lanka achieved independence.
Despite these accolades, her contribution was somewhat overlooked during her lifetime. Even with Swiss modernist Le Corbusier as a mentor, she was subject to prejudice on grounds of her gender. In Sri Lanka at least, she never received the due credit for her ideas which were adopted and exploited by others.
Although there is no evidence to suggest Le Corbusier and de Silva were lovers in real life, author Shiromi Pinto uses a theoretical relationship as a device for the pair to exchange thoughts, mainly through letters, about art, politics and, of course, architecture.
The story starts in London in 1949 where de Silva has spent some of the war years studying. The affair has begun, but Le Corbusier has returned to his wife, Yvonne, in Paris and de Silva has been summoned by her father to newly independent Sri Lanka. As a politician, he is keen for her to take a hand in the birth of the state.
At first de Silva is caught up in the rush of optimism engulfing the country. She becomes friendly with local artists and builds a housing development where people of different nationalities and religions co-exist peacefully. But then the rise in nationalism brings more radical elements to the fore. When the government decides that Sinhala should be the language of administration, English and Tamil speakers are marginalized and the fuse for civil war is lit.
At first, from a lofty intellectual position, de Silva ignores the civil strife. Rather arrogantly, she drinks champagne on her balcony with a friend, Laki, as the protests rage in the streets. She says, as Pinto writes:
We’ve survived so far, haven’t we? There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.
However, as the divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese deepen, de Silva learns that not even architects are immune from the ravages of civil war.
In the meantime, the much older “Corbu” as she affectionately names him, carries on his stellar career and failing marriage. Over the time frame of the novel, their meetings become infrequent, and then non-existent, as work and family commitments intrude. Corbu never leaves his wife and has the temerity to conduct an affair with de Silva’s friend Mimi, an English actress. Curiously for such a female trailblazer, de Silva mutely tolerates the bad behavior, perhaps to conserve what she values most—the intellectual partnership. This she achieves and the pair continue to correspond until Corbu’s death in 1965.
Pinto deftly evokes the yearning of the separated couple and the exotic backdrops against which their story plays out. But arguably the most compelling feature of the novel is not only a focus on de Silva’s work but also the insights it provokes. Pinto lets us see that architecture can serve a higher purpose than the merely functional. What do a nation’s buildings say about its society? Could building a statue of an open hand, as Corbu does in Chandigarh, convince a city’s population to be more accepting? Does well-designed, equitable housing encourage more harmonious communities? These are important questions to consider as our world becomes ever busier.