La Biennale di Venezia 2023

In our seventh collaboration with La Biennale di Venezia, the V&A presents 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa'.

Opening in Venice, Italy on 20 May 2023, this exhibition critically reflects on the imperial history of Tropical Modernism, examining the ways in which this architectural style was adapted by new African nations in the period that followed Ghana becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957. Tropical Modernism is organised in collaboration with the Architectural Association (AA), London, which established an influential Department of Tropical Architecture in 1953, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana, where the AA was invited to set up an outpost a decade later.

Unity Hall, KNUST, Kumasi by John Owuso Addo and Miro Marasović – film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Scott House, Accra by Kenneth Scott – film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Presented as the Special Project at the Applied Arts Pavilion, the exhibition responds to the theme set by the Biennale's Artistic Director Lesley Lokko, who writes that "Africa is the laboratory of the future" in her curatorial statement, and it lays the groundwork for a larger exhibition on Tropical Modernism scheduled to take place at the V&A, South Kensington in 2024.

The Africa pavilion at the International Trade Fair in Accra during the opening in February 1967. Photograph by Jacek Chyrosz, courtesy of Łukasz Stanek.
Detail of butterfly roof structure of the School of Engineering workshop, KNUST, Kumasi James Cubitt Partners, 1956. RIBA Collections.

In the late 1940s, in the context of British West Africa, husband and wife architectural duo Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew developed the tools of Tropical Modernism, adapting an international modernist aesthetic to the hot and humid conditions of the continent. Their distinctive architectural language of climate control – adjustable louvers (vents which allow air-flow), wide eaves and brises soleils (a device for shutting out sunlight) – was propagated through the Department of Tropical Architecture at the AA in London, where Fry was the programme's first director. Here, they taught European architects to work in the colonies and trained a new generation of post-colonial architects.

(Left to Right:) Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry looking at a model of an African school, 1945. RIBA Collections; Fry, Drew and Partners' Ghana Office – Harry L. Ford, Maxwell Fry and T.S. Clerk, 1943. RIBA Collections.

Fry and Drew's architectural innovations, which attracted international interest, appeared against the political background of decolonial struggle, which would soon come to fruition. Their investment could not hold back the 'winds of change' that blew across Africa as two-thirds of the continent won their freedom in the decade that followed Kwame Nkrumah becoming the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana in 1957. In Tropical Modernism, Nkumrah saw the possibility not only for nation-building, but an expression of his Pan-African ideology, commissioning architects from Eastern Europe to work alongside Ghanaian architects to create monumental structures that were intended as beacons of a free Africa.

Installation view of Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa at the Applied Arts Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Curated by Dr Christopher Turner (V&A), Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed (AA), the Venice presentation is centred around a 35m-long brise soleil installation, into whose apertures are embedded lightboxes displaying photographs, plans and other ephemera outlining the story of Tropical Modernism. In the main space of the pavilion is a three-channel film that the V&A recorded in Ghana, featuring panoramic portraits of 14 buildings, as well as interviews with protagonists and experts (including 95-year-old architect John Owusu Addo, and Samia Nkrumah, President Kwame Nkrumah's daughter), as well as previously unseen archival footage from the 1950s and 60s that documents life around Independence.

Dr Christopher Turner, Keeper of Art, Architecture, Photography & Design at the V&A and Lead Curator of Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power said:

Through close study of the work of the Department of Tropical Studies and its collaboration with KNUST, our Venice presentation explores the ways in which Tropical Modernism was adapted by Ghanaian architects to promote Nkrumah's Pan-African ideals during a transitional moment in which new freedoms were won and a break with the colonial past was articulated through architecture. It considers the power of architecture, both as a means of colonial suppression and a symbol of nascent political freedom, as well as exploring the specific legacy of Tropical Modernism in West Africa.

Installation views of Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa at the Applied Arts Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale.

Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed, researchers and architects at the Architectural Association (AA), London and co-curators of Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa, said:

This exhibition investigates the AA's archives and institutional history in relation to its collaboration with KNUST in the 1960s. Our research centres the significant African figures of this collaboration whose voices and recollections are missing within the archives. By revisiting key buildings developed by prominent architects of the time, we are interested in the story of politics, power, resistance and freedom that this architecture came to represent in the post-independence Pan-African dream. This exhibition presents an important moment in centering African architecture, architects, and historians, and addressing the omissions and erasure evident in the archives.

Find out more about La Biennale di Venezia 2023

Header image:

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