Unpacking the Erasure of Women of Color in Architecture

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.

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