Unpacking the Erasure of Women of Color in Architecture

Photo: Ryan Wijayaratne

Across history, patriarchal ideals have undoubtedly shaped the use and design of the built environment despite undercurrents of feminist critique and consciousness. In Madhavi Desai’s book Gender and the Built Environment in India, she writes that “social, political, and economic forces and values shape the built environment and its form. The spatial arrangements of buildings reflect and reinforce gender, race, and class relations because space is socially constructed and its appropriation is a political act.” In this way, women of color’s exclusion or inclusion from access to the built environment, or the creation of it, has served as a control mechanism and a form of domination.

In comparison to other fields such as textile, fashion, and graphic design, the influential work of women—in particular, women of color—seems to disappear from mainstream awareness of the built environment. Society is quick to recognize and praise the worlds that Antonio Gaudi, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius (all white men) built, but what of the women that coexisted and created at the same time? What about the women architects of color? Of course, modern history is written by its victors and rulers: a Eurocentric, patriarchal, colonist narrative. So it is no surprise that the pioneering work of non-white women architects from the 20th century has largely gone unheard of.

As we reach the end of Women’s History Month, I reflect on the work of three women architects from this era who attempted to design a postcolonial world amidst a (still mostly) patriarchal structure. While navigating systems of racial discrimination and gender disparity, architects Minnette De Silva, Amaza Lee Meredith, and Urmila Eulie Chowdhury contributed significantly to the social, political, and cultural fabrics of their environment. From De Silva’s design of low-income housing and Meredith’s space of communal retreat to Chowdhury’s involvement in Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh project, these women considered and collaborated with intention.

Minnette De Silva

Minnette De Silva was born in the center of Sri Lanka, in Kandy, to a highly influential family in 1918. She was never formally accredited as an architect and came to the profession through a deeper interest in craft, philosophy, and town planning. In 1948, as Sri Lanka reached independence, she became the first Asian woman associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. By this time, she was one of two women in the world to have a practice in her own name.

De Silva used architecture to help define Sri Lanka’s independence in the aftermath of colonial rule. Her practice combined modern construction—concrete columns, trussed rafters, and glass blocks—with traditional materials such as timber, rubber, and brick and local handicrafts including terra-cotta tiles, Dumbara weaving, and lacquer work. De Silva regionalized her designs, creating a specificity and purpose for each construction that went beyond aesthetics and proved to be useful.

Amongst a legacy of work were the low-income housing projects De Silva designed. The Watapuluwa Projects were enacted in Kandy in 1958, and between the ’40s and ’60s De Silva worked on the Senanayake Flats in Colombo. In the context of a post-independence, developing world, to consider the practical development of the lives of those occupying low-income housing was basically unheard of. De Silva, whose mother was a vocal advocate for the plight of the Indian-Tamil plantation workers, was thorough in her research and planning. De Silva’s focus was solely the user of the space, and she developed a series of questionnaires for tenants to answer around their financial and sociocultural needs. De Silva was hyperaware of what the people needed, collecting personal information which was then applied to the design.

Interested in this intimate process of what was known as “participatory housing,” De Silva had a therapeutic approach to architecture that seems to come from a feminist lens. Hirante Welandawe, a Colombo, Sri Lanka–based architect whose work ranges from homes in postwar Jaffna for a war-affected family to the Nelung Arts Centre, utilizes a diary process in which her clients are asked to journal daily; she then draws on the personal insight of these recordings when designing these spaces. “Gender plays a very strong part in the empathy one feels for another,” Welandawe explains. “At some points, my clients become my children…. Sometimes while working closely, if there are personal issues, I’ll bring myself in, that all informs my process.”

Despite its sensitive, community-oriented approach, De Silva’s work has been popularly overshadowed by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, lauded as the pioneer of “tropical modernism.” According to Welandawe, the scarcity in the naming and claiming of De Silva’s impact is rooted in a “fear that if you claim she was the giant of modernist architecture in Sri Lanka, it will diminish the work of Bawa.” Revealing the explicit and subtle conditions of society, patriarchal values are reflected in access to and conversations around built environments.

What many don’t know is that De Silva’s definition of a modern, regional, tropical aesthetic predated Bawa’s. Bawa, in fact, was informed heavily by De Silva, even going to the extent of hiring her studio assistant, Ulrik Plesner. “Simply no one was studying her work at the time,” Welandawe says while reflecting on the lost archive of De Silva’s work. Many of her original drawings and plans have not been preserved. In fact, some of her constructions, including the Senanayake Flats, are in a dilapidated state. Instead, a romanticized and imagined legacy in the romantic fiction Plastic Emotions by Shirome Pinto tells of an affair De Silva had with close friend Le Corbusier.

In reality, De Silva was critical of the imposition of Western modernism and skeptical of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh, India, as a risk in “flattening regional differences.” Perhaps De Silva’s underlying refusal to bend to a practice based on a patriarchal notion of aesthetic and egoic gain led to her being forgotten from history.

Soft Geometry’s Mirror for Aliens is a sculptural piece made out of Steel Thalis from India that is hand-polished and buffed to a mirror finish.

Urmila Eulie Chowdhury

Of course, De Silva was not the only South Asian architect overshadowed by Le Corbusier’s legacy. Urmila Eulie Chowdhury was one of the first women architects in India. She was the only woman on Le Corbusier’s team during the planning, design, and construction of Chandigarh from 1951 to 1963. Her decision to work with him led to her involvement in what was, at the time, India’s most ambitious modernist project. While Le Corbusier is known for his modular and minimalist style and choice of materials, Chowdhury’s aesthetic vocabulary was bold, stark, and exuding a sophisticated Brutalism with sharp and elegant geometrics.

After Le Corbusier was invited to Chandigarh by India’s first prime minister, Jawarhalal Nehru, to develop the new, postcolonial capital of India in Punjab, his plans were actualized by a team of Indian architects, of which Chowdhury was one. In her book Women Architects and Modernism in India, Desai points out, “Chowdhury has made a great contribution to the landscape of modernity in Chandigarh,” although her name carries no instant recall in the wider architectural conversation.

Aside from being a key connection between Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and other Indian architects and administrators, acting as both a translator and main point of contact, Chowdhury also worked on a series of wood furniture, an adaptation of the designs of Jeanneret, Le Corbusier’s cousin and collaborator. The furniture was low-cost, squat, and modular, populating the government offices and institutions in Chandigarh. In present day, this furniture retails for thousands of dollars on the vintage market; however, Chowdhury’s name is all but lost despite it’s influence. The influence of Eastern cultures on Western traditions without acknowledgement is the age-old story of colonialism.

Speaking to Soft Geometry designer Utharaa Zacharias on her experience as an Indian-born furniture designer based in San Francisco, she shares memories of dissonance. “Oftentimes we’ll present ideas that are just not Western in their thought process and I see people struggle to understand that,” she says. “So we find ourselves making a conscious effort to make ourselves understood.” Today, Chandigarh is a city that no longer matches its social objectives; its capital is more full of tourists and modernist fans than in use by local residents.

The reality of its legacy is a built environment largely out of touch with its natural environment and the changing Indian society. According to The Tribune India, Le Corbusier’s Indian team were “not as keen on claiming authorship. As a result, their work continues to be overshadowed by the Western architects who worked here.” Madhavi Desai describes at length the discursive violence that women architects in India have suffered: Their work is considered marginal, their access to larger commissions constrained, and their archives are scattered.

In the absence of archival documentation, it is difficult to ascertain Chowdhury’s intimate experience as an architect, regardless of her work with Le Corbusier. Desai continues saying about Chowdhury, “A bohemian and an unconventional personality, Chowdhury lived life on her own terms. She smoked, drank, and had a bold lifestyle. She deserves an immense acknowledgement, missing so far in history.”

Amaza Lee Meredith

While it could be easy to attribute the erasure of De Silva and Chowdhury to a symptom of colonialist tendencies, what then of the pioneering women architects in the West? One of them, Amaza Lee Meredith, had a similar experience. Meredith was born in the Jim Crow South to a white father and an African American mother. With little to no formal training, she founded the art department at Virginia State University (VSU) and was involved in the designing of residences in New York at Sag Harbor’s Azurest North, a space of retreat for Black intellectuals during redlining.

Coming of age during the Harlem Renaissance, the social and political context did not allow for Meredith, a queer Black woman, to be qualified as an architect, but the obstacle didn’t stop her from working in architecture. She designed and opened Azurest South, a home for herself and her partner on the campus of VSU in 1938. At a time where the civil rights of the Black community were highly contested, Meredith stepped beyond the boundaries of her gender to create a safe space for herself and her partner, which she often invited her students into. In this way, Meredith’s work was incredibly utilitarian.

Jasmine Weber, a Brooklyn-based artist and writer, emphasizes the fact that Azurest South “was built on the lawns of a historically Black university. So much of Meredith’s work was centered on community.” Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Azurest North was frequented by many Black intellectuals and artists, including poet and activist Langston Hughes. Looking at the few archival images of Meredith’s Azurest project, there is a softness to the design in the curved shapes and muted colors. Weber, who grew up spending holidays at Azurest North, argues that Meredith’s work “centered care and love and familial bonds.”

Given the social and political context of the Black community constantly having to prove their worth in America, Meredith prioritized the creation of havens that allowed respite from a white supremacist world—a concept that was far ahead of its time. On the erasure, Weber explains that “it’s difficult for white art historians, white scholars to deem spaces primarily occupied by people of color as worthy of their own research.” The systems of oppression in place in the art and architecture world more or less reflect larger systems of power.

The work of De Silva, Chowdhury, and Meredith is unambiguous in its dedication to uplift their communities through design. With them each existing at the periphery of a postcolonial world, already breaking gender norms in their field, could it be that the profound work of these women was considered too subversive and threatening in a time of modern world-building that was based on a patriarchal vision of the future?

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest