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The marriage of two minds

  • This debut novel revisits the love story between two pioneering architects, Le Corbusier and Minnette de Silva
  • Told partly through the letters they wrote each other, the story looks back into the beating heart of a bygone era

A 1951 photograph of Minnette de Silva inspecting a building under construction. twitter@gilliandarley
A 1951 photograph of Minnette de Silva inspecting a building under construction. twitter@gilliandarley

From the late 1940s, newly decolonized countries in Asia and Africa had set about transforming themselves from hitherto tradition-bound societies into modern nations, equipped with newly-minted sociopolitical structures and institutions of governance. The invention of a fresh architectural idiom, entailing design of public buildings and spaces as expressions of a new vision of the individual, community and society, was an important component of this project. These new buildings combined traditional concepts and materials from the past with modern aesthetic and functional requirements. It was a heady time in many of these countries, filled with passion, zeal and hope for the future.

Shiromi Pinto’s novel, Plastic Emotions, features as protagonists two eminent architects who worked, respectively, in India and Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka). One is the legendary “Le Corbusier", a Frenchman widely acknowledged to be a genius, who was invited by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1951 to design and build Chandigarh as “a city of the future" in the plains of Punjab and the shadow of the Himalayas. The other is Minnette de Silva, a young architect from Ceylon, 31 years Corbusier’s junior. They met at the International Congress of Modern Architecture (Ciam) in 1947 in Somerset, England, fell in love and carried on a long-distance friendship, interspersed with occasional trysts, for the next 17 years, until Le Corbusier’s death in 1965 at the age of 77.

The love they shared forms the core of the novel and is narrated through a series of passionate letters the two wrote to each other over the years. Except towards the end, we are privy to the circumstances in which each letter is composed and received, which renders their love even more vivid than what is contained in the letters.

Corbu, as De Silva fondly calls him, is much married at the time of their meeting and has a wandering heart besides. A genius fêted by governments and royalty the world over, he is of such eminence as an artist that he can pick a political quarrel with fellow cubists of world renown, such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Éluard. During their romance, the Chandigarh assignment remains his main preoccupation even as he completes other prestigious projects in India and elsewhere, including the famous church at Ronchamp, France. De Silva is a young architect trying to make her mark in her island country.

In his letters, Le Corbusier is encouraging and tender to his oiseau (bird), also empathetic and supportive, and, later in their liaison, seeking reassurance against his fears of ageing, bodily decay and professional oblivion. In hers, she is the loyal and loving protégé, sharing her hopes and fears on the professional front, the vagaries of her personal life, and anxiety about the onset of turbulence in the world around her. Of necessity, both of them hide as much as they reveal of their intimate selves, and hence, perhaps, the novel’s title, which seems to signify the malleability of emotional life so essential for forming and sustaining such relationships. Pinto gives us a richly imagined account of this epistolary romance through the lovers’ voices, which ring true through all the vicissitudes of their lives.

Beyond the romance, the two protagonists are fleshed out superbly as professionals and individuals, enmeshed in a web of relationships with family and friends. We are treated to a ringside exposition of Le Corbusier’s foundational ideas and concepts for Chandigarh, which makes for a fascinating read. We accompany the great man on his field trips to Ahmedabad and Jaipur and share his thoughts on the architectural marvels of those two cities. We see him grapple with the sloppiness of Indian work culture, as well as the refractory tendencies of his handpicked international team of architects, comprising a British couple, a French cousin and two Indians. We are also witness to his complaint to Nehru about his conflict with the local authorities and the latter’s empathetic and appreciative response to the architect.

It is fascinating to learn that the architectural design of natural light in the Ronchamp Cathedral in France was inspired by the Amer Fort in Jaipur, about the conceptual basis of the Open Hand Monument in Chandigarh, and the difficulties faced in its construction.

De Silva too is focused on evolving an architectural style and method that makes judicious use of traditional materials in modern buildings. Her design approach aims to blend the building with the natural topography of the site. Her housing projects, with their balanced mix of private and public spaces, are designed to foster individual well-being as well as a sense of community among the residents. Even after 10 years as a professional, De Silva realizes that most of her commissions have come through family contacts, a clear marker of social prejudice against her as a woman architect.

In the concluding section of the novel, disenchanted by the unhealthy political climate in her country, she embarks on a comparative study of architectural styles in South Asian and South-East Asian countries, which results in a paper assessed as “brilliant" by Le Corbusier. The thread that runs through the professional lives of the protagonists is their commitment to supporting a new modernist ethos for community life through their “builds". It’s an ethos that has been flattened and pulverized by the market-driven dynamics of present-day architecture in India and the world.

Another important facet of the novel is its politically sensitive portrait of Ceylon’s descent into the hell of Sinhala majoritarianism and the attendant violence in the country’s first decade of independence. The case for providing opportunities for Sinhala-speaking people, hitherto dominated by Anglophones, quickly degenerates into shrill majoritarian rhetoric and paves the way for the militant entry of religion into politics. We are aware of the horrors it precipitated over the next five decades, culminating in the mass killing of Tamils in Mullivaikkal in May 2009.

That Ceylon took this disastrous turn during the decade when Nehru’s cosmopolitan vision had Le Corbusier striving to build Chandigarh as a city of the future tells us something about Nehru’s historical role in preserving India as a humane republic. Now that we are well along the same path of majoritarian politics, Sri Lanka’s trajectory of violence could be an ominous portent for our own future.

Plastic Emotions is a love story that takes us into the beating heart of a bygone world through architecture and the lovers who brought that world, and each other, to life. A slice of intimate history filled with intransigent love and light, it’s a story we all need to hear.

N. Kalyan Raman is a critic and literary translator based in Chennai.

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