Inside the Modernist mind: Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto (2019)
By Sam Young (@Samyoung102)
Minnette de Silva was a remarkable individual. Sri Lanka’s first female architect and the first Asian woman to join the Royal Institute of British Architects, she pioneered the development of a ‘Regional Modernism’ style of urban design throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto intimately explores the life of this often forgotten but nonetheless influential figure in architectural history, focusing on de Silva’s struggles in a turbulent post-independence Ceylon and her passionate (if speculative) relationship with famed Swiss-French Modernist Le Corbusier. A heady mix of art and romance, Plastic Emotions has been praised for its gripping portrayal of two fiercely intelligent individuals brought together by a shared belief in the transformative power of architecture, resulting in a story as beautiful as it is desperately sad.
However, in focusing on the romantic element of Pinto’s novel, reviewers have often overlooked its strength as an exploration of the psychology of Modernism itself. Loosely defined as an adherence to ‘functionalism, rationalism, and the elimination of “useless” decoration’, Modernism as an architectural style was grounded in the early twentieth-century belief that society could be revolutionised via the application of technology and rational thought to urban space. Through her deeply introspective narrative, Pinto shows the reader how de Silva and Le Corbusier both allow themselves to be swept up by the utopian mentality of Modernism, placing all their trust in its socially transformative powers. She has Le Corbusier hint at this sense of devotion in an imagined letter to de Silva: ‘We architects must be idealists. We construct not just individual buildings, but whole cities. We plan cities, and in doing so, change lives.’ To Pinto’s characters, Modernism becomes an empowering faith, giving them the intellectual and emotional drive to construct a perfect world.
Yet Plastic Emotions does not simply portray Modernism as a positive, motivational force. By committing themselves wholeheartedly to the Modernist revolution, de Silva and Le Corbusier also become vulnerable to its fragilities. Chief among these is the alluring belief that a single skilled individual can transform the world, regardless of practicalities. De Silva’s dream of developing a ground-breaking architectural form that combines Modernist rationality with the elegance of traditional Sri Lankan design is constantly frustrated by an ugly mix of cultural sexism, sectarian violence and the uninformed whims of her clients. The easily flattered Le Corbusier readily accepts the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design the brand-new city of Chandigarh, but soon finds his monumental project undermined by bickering colleagues and shoddy local construction methods.
Their grandiose dreams under threat, the Modernists retreat into a kind of snide, elitist bitterness. When a friend warns de Silva about mounting tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the architect calmly sips her wine and remarks ‘We’re artists. We stand above such petty arguments.’ Meanwhile Le Corbusier, experiencing delays in the Chandigarh project, angrily dismisses his design team as ‘incompetent, lazy, treacherous wasps.’ Such outbursts demonstrate the weakness of the Modernist mindset: by pursuing wildly utopian goals, Modernists only set themselves up for disappointment. Modernism is thus presented by Pinto as total and all-consuming, providing its devotees with the motivation to achieve great things but also with the inevitable sense of failure that comes from setting one’s sights too high.
This depth of psychological exploration elevates Plastic Emotions above most other historical fiction. Rather than simply placing her story in front of a two-dimensional historical backdrop, Pinto instead gets inside the mentality of the era, mapping out her characters’ thoughts in a way which allows the reader to connect with the lost historical mindset of Modernism. Much like Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) or Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016), Plastic Emotions gets inside the heads of revolutionaries, envisioning how they interacted with a now-vanished ideology on a psychological level. Through this approach, Pinto helps us develop our emotional understanding of figures whose legacies still surround us today, preserved forever in concrete.
 MacLeod, ‘Modernism’, 3.
Bari, Shahidha, ‘Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance’, Guardian, 20 July 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/20/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto-review> [accessed 2 February 2020]
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 13th edn., trans. by Frederick Etchells (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2001)
McLeod, Mary, ‘Modernism’, Histories of Postwar Architecture 1.1 (2017), 1-10, <10.6092/issn.2611-0075/6726> [accessed 2 February 2020]
Pinto, Shiromi, Plastic Emotions (London: Influx, 2019)
Wallace, Jane, ‘“Plastic Emotions” by Shiromi Pinto’, Asian Review of Books, 6 August 2019 <https://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto> [accessed 9 February 2020]