BY Derin Fadina in Opinion | 05 JUN 24
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Issue 244

Tropical Modernism and the Promise of the Past

How architects in post-independence Ghana and India wrested building from their western forbears

BY Derin Fadina in Opinion | 05 JUN 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 244, Built Environment

The modernist movement that swept through Europe and North America, dominating architectural design for most of the 20th century, eventually made its way to the Global South. Formally adapted to suit the hot and humid climate of these regions, tropical modernism emerged as a term in the 1950s to define and unify buildings designed by European architects working in these non-Western sites. The leading practitioners of the movement were British architects Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who designed buildings throughout the so-called tropics of South Asia and West Africa.

Given that these projects were variously commissioned, procured and funded along colonial networks, it is difficult to divorce them from notions of coloniality, even as they were built in post-independence nations. Underpinning them is a form of soft power – an exertion of influence on people’s cultural, rather than political, lives – described by sociologist John Tomlinson in Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (1991) as ‘the exercise of domination in cultural relationships in which the values, practices and meanings of a powerful foreign culture are imposed upon one or more native cultures’.

Aditya Prakash, sketch perspective of Linear City, Chandigarh, India, 1975–87 Courtesy: © Aditya Prakash Fonds and Canadian Centre for Architecture

Fry and Drew’s work on the African continent began in the early 1940s, when they served as planning advisors for major towns in British West African colonies. They later went on to design civic and educational buildings in Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana (then Gold Coast). Through their many built projects, they developed a lexicon for architectural design that responded to the hot, humid climate of these regions. Modernism became the blueprint for their West African experiment. Its clean lines and pure geometric forms were adapted to the tropical climate and married with regional motifs. These buildings feature deep overhangs above corridors and walkways, and cross-ventilated rooms with concrete screens perforated with patterns derived from local craftwork and figurative symbols.

West Africa proved to be fecund ground for Fry and Drew. Despite facade perforations, shading and indoor-outdoor modes of dwelling having existed long before they arrived, the pair claimed to have found no precedents in the Indigenous architecture of the region. Their modernist experiments in the tropics were disseminated through their affiliation with a network of cognoscenti within Britain and the rest of Europe. The 1953 Conference on Tropical Architecture at University College London was a key event in the promulgation of tropical modernism. Alongside their built work, Fry and Drew published design manuals which were the culmination of the learnings extracted from their time in West Africa. In 1954, they established the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association in London, which acted as a think-tank for building knowledge and techniques for architectural design in the tropics.

Maxwell Fry in his London office with John Noah, 1940s. Courtesy: RIBA, London

What should be interrogated here from a cultural imperialist standpoint is not so much the structures themselves, as the way in which knowledge was produced and kept solely in the hands of European practitioners – to the exclusion, at least initially, of those who were most affected by it. In The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew (2014), architects Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland describe Fry and Drew’s design manuals as being ‘part of the colonial enterprise, a small component in the machine of empire that ensured British architects […] retained not only key commissions but […] were strategically positioned as the producers of knowledge […] in a new age of development and welfare, rather than empire and military might’.

Following the independence and violent partition of India in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru planned a new Punjab capital at Chandigarh. For their extensive experience of building in West Africa, Fry and Drew were recruited to design what was to be India’s first large-scale modernist project. Alongside Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and a team of Indian architects, Drew and Fry designed the many educational, civic, commercial and cultural complexes that characterize the purpose-built capital. The usual techniques – brise-soleil, patterned and perforated concrete screens – were here combined with parabolic arches and porticos featuring large geometric forms. Nehru bought into their modernist vision, believing in the promise of modernity and emancipation offered by this international, avant-garde style. He described Chandigarh as ‘symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past’ and noted how the experiment ‘makes you think and imbibe new ideas’.

The Architectural Review, 1953, illustration. Courtesy: RIBA Collections and © Gordon Cullen Estate

Tomlinson ties the discourse of cultural imperialism to the geopolitical relationships created in the condition of modernity and development, critiquing the necessity for the West to be the wellspring from which the tools for development flow. This condition reproduces pre-existing power dynamics between the metropolitan centre and the (post)colonial periphery. Nehru attempted to subvert this: he insisted that European architects employ Indian staff to work on Chandigarh, conceiving it as a ‘living school’ for local architects. He also encouraged expat Indian practitioners to return to build the nation, and established schools to train a new generation of postcolonial architects.

The end of imperialism did not represent a clean break from the apparatus that created tropical modernism.

Inspired by India’s independence, and amid growing calls for an end to colonial rule in West Africa, Kwame Nkrumah led a successful campaign to become the first prime minister of the newly independent Ghana. Like Nehru, Nkrumah also had grand, nation-building ambitions and saw tropical modernism – which had been employed widely through the works of Fry and Drew in late-colonial Gold Coast – as an emblem of internationalism and progress.

Nkrumah likewise desired the elevation of his people: he commissioned Ghanaian architects, such as Victor Adegbite, and – true to his Pan-African ideals – African Americans, like J. Max Bond Jr., to construct public projects for the fledgling nation. He also established the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to educate a new generation of architects locally; most of its campus buildings were designed by John Owusu Addo, a Ghanaian architect who had trained at the Department of Tropical Architecture. As symbols of a modern sovereign nation, these projects built on Fry and Drew’s tropical modernist legacy with renewed impetus. ‘Where we find the methods used by others that are suitable to our social environment,’ Nkrumah proclaimed in a speech at the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958, ‘we shall adopt them or adapt them.’

Le Corbusier in Chandigarh with the plan of the city and a model of the Modular Man, his universal system of proportion, 1951, Courtesy: ©FDL / ADAGP 2014

The end of imperialism did not represent a clean break from the apparatus that created tropical modernism, which reveals the paradox of Nehru and Nkrumah’s adoption of its rubrics and idioms in the post-independence era. For architect and researcher Nana Biamah-Ofosu, however, thinking of tropical modernism purely as a symbol of Western hegemony denies African and South Asian people their agency. When we speak, she emphasizes Nkrumah’s conviction that tropical modernism was ‘a typology derived from a science, that reflected his belief in technology and industry as prerequisites for development, self-actualization and freedom’. It’s the very same belief that produced the divergent explorations of Owusu Addo and Samuel Opare Larbi in Ghana, and Balkrishna Doshi and Achyut Kanvinde in India, among others.

In wresting tropical modernism from the hands of their Western forebears, the architects of post-independence Ghana and India developed the style beyond its colonial origins, and created an architecture that defined their age.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘The Promise of the Past’

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence’ is on view at the V&A South Kensington, London until 22 September

Main image: MiroMarasović, Nikso Ciko and John Owuso Addo, Senior Staff Club House, KNUST, Kumasi, 2024, film still, 'Tropical Modernism Architecture and Independence' Courtesy: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Derin Fadina is an architect, critic and associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, London, UK.