What Can Architects Learn From Tropical Modernism?

The good, the bad, and the ugly of Tropical Modernism comes into view in a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which shows how countries like India and Ghana adopted the midcentury style as a symbol of modernity and progress.

Film still of Unity Hall, KNUST, Kumasi by John Owuso Addo and Miro Marasović. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

In the mid-20th century, British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry embraced the idea that Modernism could forge a utopian path forward as the world entered a period marked by post-war modernization and decolonization. The couple’s tradition-rejecting vision failed to convince conservative Brits about the merits of concrete and glass, so they seized the opportunity to put their principles into practice in West Africa, which was growing restless under British rule. To placate calls for independence, the government enlisted the duo to design public projects—community centers, educational buildings—that employed Modernist principles but were adapted for hot and humid climates. A style called “Tropical Modernism” was born, yielding buildings marked by brise soleils, adjustable louvers, and wide eaves that provide passive cooling while maximizing shade and ventilation.

The reality of Tropical Modernism, as a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum suggests, is thornier. “The tropics” encompass around 40 percent of the world’s surface, but one of the nascent aesthetic’s key tenets was that “the same architectural language could be applied everywhere,” as David Robson, a former professor who published a book about Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, once told Surface. Fry and Drew dismissed West African building traditions in favor of their own ideas, which often made superficial nods to regional symbols. The perforations in a Ghanaian school’s brise soleils that reference the crescent shape of a ceremonial Ashanti stool may have charmed students there, but likely wouldn’t be as welcome in Sri Lanka, where Bawa abandoned Tropical Modernism altogether. He instead pioneered a vernacular that fused colonial and Indigenous styles specific to the nation’s own monsoon climate and design legacies.

Film still of Scott House, Accra, by Kenneth Scott. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

“A building from Ghana must show the evidence that it’s Ghanaian because it is from within the context of Ghana—the people’s culture, the economy, the circumstances might be reflected in the buildings,” Professor Henry Wellington, former Head of the Department of Architecture at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, told the V&A Museum in an interview. “All these things have very deep psychological and spiritual significance, which the British architects didn’t take time to understand.”

Tropical Modernism was also taking hold in Chandigarh, the new capital city ordained for the Indian state of Punjab, where Le Corbusier designed a group of government buildings. The French architect banned cows and informal markets, essential features of most Indian cities, leading architect and scholar Aditya Prakash to decry his buildings as “a place for gods to play, not for humans.” While flawed, they laid the foundation for homegrown architects like Ghana’s John Owusu Addo and India’s Balkrishna Doshi to adapt Tropical Modernism’s devices and create spaces that feel endemic to their locales.

The heyday of Tropical Modernism was short-lived as open facades that facilitated cross-ventilation would soon be rendered obsolete by air conditioning, and now its future is imperiled by redevelopment. As architects are called on to address climate change, there’s ample wisdom to glean from Tropical Modernism’s principles of passive cooling—here’s to hoping they take a more sensitive approach than their predecessors.

Film still of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Film still of Senior Staff Club House, KNUST, Kumasi by Miro Marasović, Nikso Ciko and John Owuso Addo. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Black Star Square, Accra, by Ghana Public Works Department. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

“Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence” will be on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum South Kensington (Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL) until Sept. 22.

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