Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press. 

Book Review: Imaginary Cities

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Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson, is vast in scope and scale. It looks at cities throughout time, their founding and evolution, the effect their existence has had on man. The cities discussed are not restricted to those which can be visited. They include cities which exist only in history, those of myth and legend, fictional cities, and those which were conceived but never born. The cities are examined from a variety of perspectives but always with a view to their influences and effect. This is a perceptive, challenging and fascinating wander through time and space whilst looking at how history is defined.

We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. We are unreliable narrators even to ourselves. Time is much more complex and relativist than our linear way of thinking permits.

A note on this review. As I read the book I made notes. Much of what follows is taken from the book, ordered and paraphrased by me. Sometimes it is hard to cut back on all that I wish to highlight to a potential reader. This is very much a book that I want to encourage those with an interest in the subject to read, because I will struggle to do it justice.

Cities are conceived as utopias yet it is worth recognising that all dystopias are utopias for some inhabitants at least. To create an ideal city is it necessary to dispose of non ideal inhabitants? From ancient walled cities to modern, gated communities the barriers were erected to keep the Other out. Those who benefit from the status quo fear change even though it is the polyphony of a city that is its beating heart.

Might we see the Fellowship of the Ring as sabateurs of necessary progress, a ragged luddite band of aristocrats, peasent revolutionaries and priests preventing necessary industrialisation of Mordor?

The future will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present. There is little in the behaviour of mankind to suggest we will abolish degradation, poverty and ruin given our inability to extricate from greed, power and sadism. With improvements in cleanliness and thereby health we exist, perhaps without realising, in what would once have been sought after as a utopia.

With cities as with people the condition of the bowels is all important. Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Power is the control of space: in prison, factory or stately home; in kettling, erecting walls such as currently exist in Belfast or Gaza; in backstage passes, first class travel, or the ability to live in freedom within our own homes.

Every vast Emerald city requires vast emerald mines yet the powerful demand that everyone be happy by whatever means necessary: behavioural conditioning, drugs, lobotomisation.

Many accept the premise that the more you own the more you are and the more deserving of it you have been.

The edifices of the powerful have always dominated the city skyline, from the spires of churches to the glass towers of finance.

This is but a tiny taster of the subjects explored by the author. The book is long but every word is worth reading. It is a challenge to consider the world we inhabit, how it came to be and what will replace it. This is an exploration of psychogeography, architecture and philosophy; what is real and what reality even means; man’s inability to escape his influences, including fiction and the fiction that is accepted in our present and as history.

These tales of alchemy, devils and gold, theft and ambition and death, we give the insufficient title, history.

I do not review a great deal of non fiction but am so glad to have been sent such an astounding and readable tome. The depth, breadth and quality of writing is phenomenal. This is seminal stuff.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.