Advertisement

Tropical Modernism at the V&A review: how architecture became a symbol of independence

Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant posing in front of the United Trading Company headquarters, Accra, 1971 (James Barnor. Courtesy of galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière)
Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant posing in front of the United Trading Company headquarters, Accra, 1971 (James Barnor. Courtesy of galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière)

Tropical Modernism is an architectural style. But it’s also intimately connected to postcolonial independence and nation-building – in India and Ghana and far beyond. And it’s being reevaluated in contemporary architecture, especially in the context of the climate emergency. Its legacies and meanings are very much alive.

One section of this new show at the V&A, that focuses on those two countries, looks at the truncated pyramids designed as exhibition halls by Raj Rewal in New Delhi in 1972, with pioneering “space frame” structures in reinforced concrete, allowing for gloriously open interiors. Rewal’s buildings symbolised the secular, progressive ethos of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who explicitly demanded that his vision be expressed in modern buildings.

But so anathema are those values to the right-wing Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi that Rewal’s entire complex, including a memorial to Nehru, was destroyed overnight in 2017.

Nehru is pictured in the exhibition with its other political protagonist, Kwame Nkrumah, the first post-independence prime minister of Ghana. For Nkrumah, modern buildings evoked not just his country’s new spirit but also the dream of pan-African unity.

Nkrumah seized the momentum of Tropical Modernism from colonial origins – the British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry brought European modernity to the Gold Coast, as Ghana was called. The Colonial Office lavishly funded them and others, to the tune of around £6bn in today’s money. Their techniques adapted modernism to the intense light and heat of the tropics, with wide eaves to shield the buildings from sunlight, and semi-permeable, austerely decorative brise soleil screens to allow in the breeze and block the hot sun.

But as a commentator on a video documentary here says, Drew and Fry “didn’t take the time” fully to understand Ghana’s complexity in their designs. So Nkrumah established an architectural school that would. The exhibition uses the analogy of highlife music, which fuses African rhythm and jazz melody, to express the hybrid architectural identity it provoked, with modernism allied to traditional Ghanaian forms.

Boy and concrete screen at University College Ibadan, 1962 (Courtesy of RIBA)
Boy and concrete screen at University College Ibadan, 1962 (Courtesy of RIBA)

Postcards show architecture’s centrality to the young country’s identity. The Ghanaian architect John Owusu Addo’s designs – including the beautiful staff clubhouse for the university of science and technology at Kumasi – express its spirit best, all geometric luminosity amid the lush woodland.

Highlighting key non-Western figures at the heart of the Tropical Modern project is a crucial aim of this show. A section on the Indian utopian city Chandigarh commendably eschews over-emphasis on Swiss arch-modernist Le Corbusier and Drew and Fry, instead drawing attention to the Tagore Theatre by Aditya Prakash and gorgeous wooden models built by Giani Rattan Singh, who “could read Le Corbusier’s drawings better than any architect”.

As well as Rewal’s Hall of Nations, marvellous buildings by Habib Raman in Delhi and Achyut Kanvinde in Kanpur testify to the use of Indian tradition to disrupt modernist conventions.

Regrettably, only the Ghanaian section gets the full documentary film treatment; it’s a shame not to have the same vivid filmic close-ups of Indian projects. But this is otherwise a thoroughly absorbing reflection of architecture’s prominence in the ruptures and vicissitudes of the postcolonial 20th century, and of Tropical Modernism’s distinctive allure.

V&A, from March 2 to September 22; vam.ac.uk