De Silva was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an RIBA associate. De Silva studied architecture in India, though she was kicked out of JJ for attending a Free Gandhi march; she completed her training at the AA in London. She went on to build her own architectural practice in Kandy, coined the term ‘modern regionalism’ at least a decade before Frampton’s ‘critical’ twist (and predating Bawa’s work by at least as much), served as the architectural editor of MARG, wrote the section on South Asian Architecture for Fletcher’s “A History of Architecture,” and was invited to teach in Hong Kong. During her globe-trotting career, she played in the highest of cultural circles: her black book included Henry Moore, Laurence Olivier, Le Corbusier (they maintained a lifelong friendship), and Fry and Drew (from whom she eventually rented a flat in Baker Street). Toughened by often being the only woman at the table, and critiqued for this toughness, the latter half of her career took a downward turn; it wasn’t until 1996 that the SLIA awarded her the Gold Medal.⁣

Unsurprisingly, most articles about de Silva note her “exotic charm” and her “difficult” nature – commentary from her male, British peers at the AA and her clients and colleagues in Sri Lanka, respectively. I’m reminded of Zaha Hadid: “Would they call me a diva if I was a man?” Not much has changed in the 21st century for strong, female architects. And, like Hadid, de Silva’s work was ahead of its time. She designed a neighborhood using participatory architectural methods in the 1950’s and developed relationships with local craftsmen to reinterpret modernism in an Asian context. The courtyards, gardens and screens that typify her built residential work are echoed in the Sri Lankan critical regionalism that followed. Her work defines the start of post-colonial modernism in Sri Lanka. ⁣

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