What is Tropical Modernism?

Not sure what makes this major architectural style unique? Read on to discover how Tropical Modernism evolved out of 1920s European Modernism, and later became a symbol of modernity and independence in India and West Africa.

What is Modernism?

Modernism was a revolutionary architecture developed in Europe in the 1920s, which placed the function of the building at the heart of its design. Its leading advocates were the Swiss‑French architect, Le Corbusier, and the German founder of the Bauhaus art school, Walter Gropius, who championed clean lines, unornamented facades, and expanses of glass and flat roofs. An early example is the offices of the newspaper Kölnische Zeitung in Cologne, Germany, designed in 1928 by architects Wilhelm Riphahn and Caspar Maria Grod. A photograph of the building taken by Werner Mantz emphasises the strict symmetry of the white concrete structure, with its severe angles and geometric shapes.

Cologne Newspaper Works, photograph, by Werner Mantz, 1928, Cologne, Germany. Museum no. PH.136-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modernist architecture arrived on British shores largely via European émigrés who came to the country to avoid Nazi persecution in the 1930s. One of the most confident examples of the movement during this period is the Finsbury Health Centre in London, designed by Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin and his practice Tecton in 1935. The poster 'Your Britain, Fight For It Now', produced during the Second World War, uses the building to represent a vision of a utopian future Britain.

Your Britain. Fight For It Now, poster featuring an image of Finsbury Health Centre, designed by Abram Games, 1942, United Kingdom. Museum no. E.295-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Architect couple Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry were among the first British Modernist architects to embrace the utopian ideal that a radical new architecture in concrete, glass and steel would build a better world. Jane Drew was a key figure in debates about reconstruction in Britain following the War. She participated in the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the V&A in 1945, and designed part of the site for the 1951 Festival of Britain. One of Maxwell Fry's best known designs in Britain is the Sun House in Hampstead, designed in 1935, with unadorned white walls, long strips of windows and a flat roof – the hallmarks of European-style Modernism.

(Left to right:) Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their many buildings for the Gold Coast, 1 945. Image courtesy RIBA; Plate depicting Maxwell Fry's 'Sun House', People Will Always Need Plates, 2006, UK. Museum no. C.111-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, this minimalist aesthetic, which rejected tradition, was seen as too severe for British tastes. A trade catalogue, Colours, written and illustrated by Russian-British architect Serge Chermayeff, was an attempt to soften the perceived severity of the Modernist style for a dubious British audience. Modernism failed to take root in Britain, so Fry and Drew found opportunities in West Africa instead, where they developed their own version of Modernism, adapted to the climate.

Colours: Decoration of To-day, no.3, written, illustrated and produced by Serge Chermayeff, printed by Kynoch Press, published by Nobel Chemical Finishes Ltd, 1936, London, England. Museum no. 38041800558231. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Modernism to Tropical Modernism

In the 1940s and '50s, the British government sought to offset growing calls for independence in West Africa, then under colonial rule, by funding modern education and public infrastructure projects. Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry were Tropical Modernism's leading practitioners. They seized the opportunity to put Modernist principles into practice in West Africa and India, inventing a distinctive version of Modernism adapted to the hot and humid climate of these regions. They defined 'the Tropics' as a broad geographical zone spanning the equator and covering 40 percent of the world's surface. It was a colonial definition that encompassed most of the territories of the British Empire, but ignored regional variations in climate as well as local cultures and traditions.

Illustration from Village Housing in the Tropics, written by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, 1947. Museum no. null. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the Second World War, Maxwell Fry was stationed in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Jane Drew joined him there in 1944 to advise the British colonial governments in West Africa on town planning. After the war, Fry and Drew stayed on to build schools, colleges and other institutions paid for by the Colonial Office's large post‑war fund – equivalent to £6 billion today – to reform, rebuild and modernise Britain's colonies. West Africa became an experimental laboratory for British architects, providing opportunities and commissions they would not have had at home.

Fry and Drew used the latest environmental and building science to adapt Modernism, which had been originally designed for Europe's temperate climate. Analysing solar path movements and meteorological data provided by building research stations, they developed principles that would provide passive cooling, maximise shade and allow ventilation. To do this, they positioned buildings so that solid walls on the East and West blocked the strongest sun. The longer North and South facades were open, using features such as brise soleils, adjustable louvres and wide eaves to allow cross ventilation and provide shade.

Brise soleils

Brise soleil are semi-permeable screens that allow a breeze to enter a building and cool the interior, while deflecting sunlight.

Diagram of a brise soleil at Aburi Girl’s School, Ghana, from 'Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone', 1956, publisher B.T Batsford. Courtesy of RIBA. Brise soleil wall at Wesley Girls School, by Fry, Drew and Partners, 1947, film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wide eaves

Wide eaves are the edges of a roof that overhang a building's walls and shield the interiors from intense sunlight and rain.

Wides eaves at Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, by Fry, Drew & Partners, film stills from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Adjustable louvres, or slats, offer protection from sun and rain while allowing natural ventilation.

(Left to right:) Horizontal louvres on the School of Engineering, KNUST, James Cubitt and Partners, 1956, film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Vertical louvres on Scott House, Accra by Kenneth Scott, 1961, film still from 'Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Not long after they arrived in West Africa, Fry and Drew attracted international attention for their books, Village Housing in the Tropics (1947), a pocket guide to self‑building in hot climates, and Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956), which set out a design system rooted in climate science. Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone presented case studies from across what they identified as the 'tropical zone', but the buildings featured are largely by British architects, and no African architects are included. Fry and Drew actively dismissed local building traditions, commenting: "There seemed to be no indigenous architecture, we therefore tried to invent an architecture which specifically met the needs of the West Africans and dealt with climate and the diseases it brought with it."

African art played a key role in the development of a Modernist aesthetic in the early 20th century. European artists exoticised and appropriated the sculptural abstraction they admired in artefacts of colonial conquest. In his collages, Eduardo Paolozzi, who taught alongside Fry and Drew at the Department of Tropical Studies, fused architectural images with ceremonial African masks, stripping them of their cultural and ritual significance. Similarly, to ornament the facades of their buildings, Fry and Drew made superficial references to West African symbols which they described as 'relics of a beautiful savage life'.

Eduardo Paolozzi, Klokvormig Masker, 1946 – 47. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London. © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

When designing their buildings, Drew and Fry went against European Modernism's rejection of ornament, incorporating local symbols to add an element of fantasy. At Opoku Ware school, the repetitive perforations in the brise soleil are based on the crescent-shape of an Ashanti stool. Jane Drew said:

The particular architectural character comes not only from the mono-pitch roof and long low blocks … but from the sunbreakers, grilles and other shading but breeze-permitting devices.[…] the sunshine and moisture and heavy overcast sky and feeling of oppressive lethargy seem to call forth moulded forms which are rhythmical and strong, not spiky and elegant, but bold and sculptural.

Jane Drew
(Left to right:) A concrete screen or brise soleil at Opoku Ware school, featuring the symbol of an Ashanti stool. Photograph by Iain Jackson; An example of an Ashanti stool, believed to be for a Queen Mother, Ghana. Image courtesy The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

By the 1970s, Tropical Modernism had begun to fade out, as its principles of climate regulation were rendered redundant by air conditioning technology. Open facades, which had facilitated cross-ventilation, were entombed in glass. But as we face an era of climate crisis, what lessons can be learnt from Tropical Modernism's principles of passive cooling? And what will the fate of this heritage be, with so many Tropical Modernist buildings under threat from both decay and new development?

Header image:

Illustration from The Architectural Review, 1953. Courtesy RIBA Collections. © Gordon Cullen Estate