Review: V&A Shows Tropical Modernism Was So Much More Than An Architectural Movement

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, V&A ★★★★☆

Review: V&A Shows Tropical Modernism Was So Much More Than An Architectural Movement Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, V&A 4

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A tropical modernist building flanked by palm trees
Film still of Unity Hall, KNUST, Kumasi by John Owuso Addo and Miro Marasović. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, we love London for its superabundance of modernist architecture yet in the late 1940s, Britain was still a dye-in-the-wool, meat-and-potatoes kind of place architecture-wise — no dice for cutting edge thinkers like Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. They headed instead for the sunnier climes of West Africa and India in order to play out their modernist fantasies.

A man and woman poring over a modernist building
Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their many buildings for the Gold Coast, 1945. Image courtesy RIBA

What followed was a fervid burst of architecture — Tropical Modernism — which is put under the microscope in the V&A's latest exhibition, a succinct yet vibrant show that emphasises the political, cultural and environmental value of good architecture.

As the pace of the movement (a swishingly sexy slant on European modernism that positively radiated in the sunshine) grew, would-be utopias sprung from nothing. Chandigarh in India became the first modernist city in the world built from scratch. A film shows the juxtaposition of the concrete metropolis rising as its soon-to-be inhabitants build it by passing baskets of concrete up bamboo scaffolding. Jane Drew later recalled "We found in India that it was cheaper to use 700 people to excavate rather than to employ a machine!"

People having a beer in a beautiful modernist space
Senior Staff Club House, KNUST, Kumasi by Miro Marasović, Nikso Ciko and John Owuso Addo. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If that sounds inappropriately flippant, then it is. But at least by this time the locals were being allowed to muck in — not just on the construction sites, but at the design stage. Maxwell and Fry — along with the likes of Le Corbusier and Lutyens, who also wanted in on this exotic architectural adventure — were both instrumental in propelling Tropical Modernism, and condescendingly colonial in their processes. (Le Corbusier's plan for Chandigarh included banning cows, something Indian architect Aditya Prakash was having none of.)

Gradually, the Western influences were diluted. As independence finally came to Britain's colonies, leaders like India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Ghana's Nkrumah pressed for architectural schools to be founded on home soil, which is when buildings really found their language. Still scientific, progressive and international, they also harked back to traditional, regional design.

A woman in a dress posing by 1970s cars and a Tropical Modernist building
Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant as a seventies icon posing in front of the United Trading Company headquarters, Accra, 1971 . © James Barnor. Courtesy of galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

The utopian dream, as is always the case, did not end as intended; Nkrumah was deposed in 1966, Tropical Modernism faded out in the early 1970s, architectural schools were closed, and many buildings — like Raj Rewel's monumental truncated pyramid, New Delhi's Hall of Nations — have since bitten the dust. That makes many of the photos and videos on display here all the more precious. But as the V&A points out, much more Tropical Modernism continues to be at risk.

A beautiful modernist house
Scott House, Accra by Kenneth Scott, film still. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Here was an architectural movement that was about more than just building beautiful, functional spaces (although many were that too). Tropical Modernism ended up being an architecture of independence, a declaration of freedom. Even putting all of this to one side for a moment, the style leaves an invaluable legacy for us all. These buildings were built using sustainable solutions to tackle extreme climates; overhanging eaves, lace-like brise soleil, thick sun-blocking walls. That's something the architects of today and tomorrow will need to circle back to.

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, V&A, 2 March-22 September 2024

Last Updated 29 February 2024

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