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Posts tagged ‘architecture’

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.[1] 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.


[1] MacLeod, ‘Modernism’, 3.

Bari, Shahidha, ‘Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance’, Guardian, 20 July 2019 <; [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 <; [accessed 9 February 2020]

Image: Photograph of Minette de Silva at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948. Public domain.

Changing rooms in eighteenth-century London


By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

On 8 February 1750, some time between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Baptist Minister Benjamin Wallin was ‘musing’ at his desk in the upstairs study of his Southwark home when he suddenly

‘felt the Desk move the floor shake and the Front of the house seemed to incline forwards the strut and presently an sensation of some large body falling and sounding as the covered with a Blanket or as could arise from the fall of a Woolpack of a prodigious size’ [1]

The alarming sensation, also experienced by his daughter, wife, maid, and neighbours, turned out to have been an earthquake, the first of two to hit London within a month of each other. Wallin was among the many who interpreted this as a providential act; he preached on the matter three days later. Of more interest here, however, is that in the course of the detailed description he gave of the event in his diary, Wallin inadvertently left us a rich insight into the domestic space of a moderately wealthy eighteenth-century London household. Read more

Solving the Historical Puzzle of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum

By Atlanta Rae Neudorf

Approaching the past as an historian is comparable to trying to solve a puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape. An element which momentarily appears to fit snugly in place comes suddenly into focus as glaringly wrong when new evidence comes to light. Whilst frustrating at times, these moments of clarity during the historical research process can also be wildly exciting and lead to new understandings of the past. Equally thrilling is the experience of applying different approaches to one’s research that results in two apparently incongruous pieces of the historical puzzle joining together perfectly. The process of piecing together the complex puzzle of historical problems involves searching for the hidden tensions and unspoken meanings inherent in all human activity. Read more

Royal Palace or Hellish Temple? Using Architectural Style as a Source

By Atlanta R. Neudorf  //

When one pictures the historian undertaking their archival research, it is common to conjure up an image of the scholar poring over sources of the written word: newspapers, letters, pamphlets, or book manuscripts. Few would imagine this dusty figure staring at a building. Read more

Royal Power takes Flight: A Reconsideration of the Staircase in the Early Modern Palace

By Atlanta Neudorf | @ARaeNeudorf

In a letter written in 1663, Jean-Baptiste Colbert wrote to King Louis XIV of France that ‘in lieu of dazzling actions in war, nothing indicates better the greatness and spirit of princes than buildings’.[1] This sentiment illustrates the importance of palace architecture to the image and character of the prince in the early modern period. In the growing field of architectural history, the political and cultural functions of such grand spaces have been the focus of increasing interest in the last few decades. Scholarship has focused on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century trend for palace building and adaptation by European princes aiming to affirm their royal status. Read more