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Tropical Modernism at the V&A opens March 2024

Left – Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their many buildings for the Gold Coast (now Cape Coast) Education Department, Ghana. Right – Precast concrete brise soleil at University of Ibadan library by Fry, Drew & Partners, 1955. © RIBA Collections

'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence' opens at the V&A Museum, South Kensington in March this year. Tropical Modernism was an architectural style developed in the hot, humid conditions of West Africa in the 1940s. After independence, India and Ghana adopted the style as a symbol of modernity and progressiveness, distinct from colonial culture.

The V&A says that through a colonial imposition in British West Africa, with buildings paid for out of the Colonial Office’s £200m (£6 billion today) post-war fund to modernise the colonies and strengthen ties to the Metropolis, the style survived the transition to Independence, when it became a key aspect of nation-building and symbol of the progressiveness and internationalism of these new countries.

The exhibition in London follows the V&A’s fourth special project with La Biennale di Venezia for the Pavilion of Applied Arts at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The pavilion was the result of a five-year research partnership with the Architectural Association (AA), which started an influential Department of Tropical Architecture in 1954, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, where the AA started an outpost a decade later. This research has informed the exhibition at the V&A on Tropical Modernism.

Christopher Turner, Keeper of Design, Architecture and Digital states:

'With my co-curators, Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed from the AA, we deliberately set out to complicate the history of Tropical Modernism by engaging with and centring African perspectives. In the V&A’s Architecture Gallery there are currently no Africa-related exhibits. In looking at the process of decolonisation through an architectural lens, we also hope to refresh the museum’s collection and practices.

'In the late 1940s, in the context of British West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia and Sierra Leone), British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew developed the tools of Tropical Modernism. Rapid development made the region an experimental laboratory for colonial architects, presenting them with opportunities and commissions they would not have had in Britain. The couple’s distinctive scientifically-informed language of climate control – adjustable louvers, wide eaves and brises soleils that mitigated against the tropical climate – attracted international attention.

'They propagated it through their influential book, Tropical Architecture (1956) and the Department of Tropical Architecture they established in 1954 at the Architectural Association (AA), where they taught European architects to work in the colonies. Tropical Modernism in West Africa was designed to provide comfort, mainly to colonial administrators, and Fry and Drew’s schools and other public buildings were intended to create a more productive colonial subject and offset calls for independence.

'Tropical Modernism was developed against the backdrop of political unrest and decolonial struggle. In 1947, Kwame Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast from London and implemented a campaign of ‘Positive Action’ inspired by Gandhi. In response to boycotts, strikes and riots, buildings were sometimes commissioned by the colonists and western corporations as propagandistic gifts. Fry and Drew’s Community Centre, commissioned by the United African Corporation after their headquarters was burned down in the Accra riots of 1948, was one such deliberate tool of attempted pacification.

'In 1957, Ghana was the first country south of the Sahara to gain independence and Kwame Nkrumah became the country’s first Prime Minister and then President. Over the next decade the so-called ‘winds of change’ would sweep across Africa and 32 countries – two-thirds of the continent – won independence. Nkrumah saw in Tropical Modernism the possibility not only for nation-building, but an expression of his Pan-African ideology, which sought to make meaningful links between all of Africa and its diaspora.

'He thought that the Independence of Ghana was meaningless unless linked to the liberation of all Africa (‘Africa must unite or perish!’, he said), and commissioned architects from Eastern Europe to work alongside newly trained Ghanaian architects to create monumental structures that were intended as beacons for a free Africa. These included Black Star Gate, a huge double arch framing the sea built as the centrepiece of Independence Square to celebrate Ghana becoming a Republic.

It was designed as an arch of return, the opposite of the ‘door of no return’ in the colonial forts through which so many Africans were forced as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Nkrumah encouraged the African diaspora to come back and help liberate and rebuild Africa. Sitting on the gate’s balcony, overlooking the square from under a huge umbrella, a symbol of chiefly power, he positioned himself as the leader of what he hoped would be a United States of Africa.

'Nkrumah persuaded Harvard-trained architect Victor Adegbite to return to Ghana from the United States to become the country’s Chief Architect. Under Nkrumah’s indigenisation or Africanisation policy, Ghanaian architects were required partners on all construction projects, and they worked on a spate of school, hospital and infrastructure projects including the Volta hydroelectric dam, which Nkrumah hoped would power the country’s ambitious industrial and social strategy.

'As an important part of this political policy, the training programme between Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi and the AA was set up. John Lloyd, who had no previous experience of the tropics, was sent by the AA to head up the Kumasi school. Whereas Fry and Drew had seen to learn from traditional African architecture, Lloyd showed a new appreciation of cultural context and instituted a course in its history.

'KNUST became something of a Bauhaus in the tropics. Lloyd invited luminaries such as Buckminster Fuller to Kumasi to teach, and students made a series of geodesic domes, including a huge structure at Ghana’s first International Trade Fair in 1967 to house university exhibits. Lloyd also hired Ghanaian teachers like John Owusu Addo, who was sent to the AA for training at the Tropical School, and Max Bond, an African American architect who had trained at Harvard and came to Ghana at Nkrumah’s invitation.'


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