About the Tropical Modernism exhibition

As we look to a new future in an era of climate change, might Tropical Modernism, an architectural style developed in the late 1940s, serve as a useful guide?

Tropical Modernism was Britain's unique contribution to International Modernism – a colonial architecture, developed by British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, against the background of anti-colonial struggle in India and West Africa in the late 1940s. This exhibition looks at the colonial origins of Tropical Modernism in British West Africa, and the survival of the style in the post-colonial period when it symbolised the independence and progressiveness of newly independent countries like India and Ghana.

Left to right: Illustration from The Architectural Review, 1953. Courtesy RIBA Collections. © Gordon Cullen Estate; University College, Ibadan: Library veranda. Courtesy of RIBA

The story of Tropical Modernism is one of colonialism and decolonization, politics and power, defiance and independence; it is not just about the past, but also about the present and the future... We deliberately set out to complicate the history of Tropical Modernism by looking at the architecture against the anti-colonial struggle of the time, and by engaging with and centring South Asian and West African perspectives.

Christopher Turner, Curator of 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'
Inside the 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence' exhibition. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition includes models, drawings, letters, photographs, and archival ephemera documenting the key figures and moments of the Tropical Modernist movement. It begins with A Revolution in Architecture, introducing Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who adapted a utopian Modernist aesthetic that valued function over ornament to the hot, humid conditions of the region. When stationed in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, they created buildings designed to provide comfort, mainly to British administrators, and their buildings for Africans were intended to offset calls for independence.

Hidden Figures focuses on the African architects, including Theodore Shealtiel Clerk and Peter Turkson, that worked with Fry and Drew, and whose contribution is only now being recognised. This section also explores how African art and motifs were appropriated by European artists, and played a key role in the development of a Modernist aesthetic in the early 20th century.

Maxwell Fry in his London office with John Noah, an architect from Sierra Leone, 1940s, Central Office of Information London, Ghana. Courtesy of RIBA.

The Winds of Change explores how Tropical Modernism developed against the backdrop of political unrest, spotlighting the aftermath of the Second World War, when many colonies wanted recognition for their contribution to the war effort by being granted independence.

Inside the 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence' exhibition. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Section 2: Temples of Modern India explores how Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry were recruited in 1950 by newly sworn-in prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to build a new city at Chandigarh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, which would become independent India's first large-scale modernist project. They invited French architect Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects and urban planners of the 20th century, to join them.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret at Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, India, about 1960, photograph by Suresh Kumar. Pierre Jeanneret fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret. © Suresh Kumar

A Living Architecture School documents the work and achievements of Indian architects who joined the Chandigarh team, including Aditya Prakash, and Sikh model maker Giani Rattan Singh, who worked with Le Corbusier to translate his drawings into three dimensions but is little recognised in histories of Chandigarh and Modernism.

Pierre Jeanneret, portrait of model makers, Rattan Singh and Dhani Ram, at work on the model for Capitol Complex, Sector 1, Chandigarh, India, about 1960. Pierre Jeanneret fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret. © CCA

Nehru's Vision of Modernism is spotlighted in the next section, which influenced India for two decades, played out against a battle between modernists, who advocated an international, avant-garde approach to architecture that radically departed from the past, and revivalists, who wanted architecture to be more clearly Indian. Many government officials called for a national policy on architecture that would encourage the quotation of traditional motifs.

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

Section 3: Ghana, Land of Freedom looks at how Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first prime minister following independence from Britain, reappropriated Tropical Modernism as a visible symbol of the internationalism and progressiveness of his country. Nkrumah invited Ghanaian architects, like Victor Adegbite, back from the United States to create the architecture of modern, independent Ghana, building beacons for his idea of a free and united Africa. He also established an architecture school that allowed a future generation of architects to be trained at home, rather than abroad.

Inside the 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence' exhibition. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Following independence, Nkrumah sought to define a new African identity that could transcend national borders. This included the arts, music and, importantly, architecture. To celebrate independence, Nkrumah commissioned Victor Adegbite to design Black Star Square, a parade ground built in Accra on the colonial playing fields.

Black Star Square, Accra by Ghana Public Works Department – film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Section 4: The Legacy of Tropical Modernism includes an immersive three-screen film shot in Ghana, featuring panoramic portraits of 16 key remaining buildings including a Community Centre in Accra by Fry and Drew and Unity Hall at KNUST in Kumasi by John Owusu-Addo. Interviews with surviving protagonists including 95-year-old architect Owusu-Addo, who trained in London and attended the Department of Tropical Studies before returning to KNUST to build and teach, and Samia Nkrumah, a politician and the daughter of Ghana's first President Kwame Nkrumah, are interspersed with archival footage showing the buildings as they were first used and situating the architecture in the politics of the time.

The exhibition is supported by James Bartos and Celia and Edward Atkin CBE.

Inside the 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence' exhibition. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

Interior view of 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'