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Private View | Tropical Modernism

Event Review | Julia Nicholls

Wednesday 8 May 2024

If you’re looking for a beauty parade of modernist buildings, this may not be the exhibition for you. More interestingly, Tropical Modernism at V&A deep dives into the complex relationship between architecture and independence with a focus on West Africa and India in the 1940s and 50s.

Private View | Tropical Modernism

The content on display celebrates the leaders who achieved independence from colonial rule and embraced modernist architecture as a tool to articulate new and progressive national identities. It spotlights Ghanaian and Indian architects who were integral in designing and realising ambitious national projects, working independently or with leading modernists of the day including Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.

Visitors immediately feel transported into the mid-century tropics with pops of bright earthy colours and a grid of brise soleil separating the spaces. The first room explores the foundations of Tropical Modernism in the context of the social and geo-political landscape, with Britain under increasing pressure to grant independence to colonised nations. We’re presented with examples of colonial authorities responding with architecture as a social pacifier – answering civil disobedience with seemingly benevolent gestures of education, infrastructure and community buildings projecting messages of strength in unity.

Private View | Tropical Modernism

We’re shown how Western architects had relished the opportunity to progress modernist ideals for tropical climates at scale but – by the very nature of modernism – had given little consideration to indigenous architecture, cultural or spiritual context. Pioneering independence leaders Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Jawaharlal Nehru in India, saw an opportunity to adapt the Tropical Modernist movement into part of a progressive national identity.

As colonial powers were overthrown in the 1940s and 50s, we see Nkrumah and Nehru investing in a new generation of homegrown architects, building modern campuses – such as KNUST in Kumasi – creating partnerships with the Architectural Association and inviting academic input from leading practitioners of the day including Buckminster Fuller.

The second room focuses on projects in newly independent Ghana and India. In Ghana, Nkrumah stated that local architects - including Victor Adegbite and John Owusu Addo - must lead on construction projects as a national modernisation programme was rolled out. We see how this evolving architectural style was part of a wider definition of national identity including textiles, literature and music, adding a layer of psychological and cultural significance overlooked by Western Tropical Modernism.

Private View | Tropical Modernism

Moving to post-partition India, we’re given insights into Nehru’s early plans for Chandigarh, a new administrative capital rejecting the imperial baggage of New Delhi. Whilst Nehru invited Drew and Fry – later joined by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret – to envision the modernist city, we’re introduced to the Indian architects, designers and makers who shaped the concept and delivery as part of Nehru’s ‘living school’ to explore what Indian Modernism could be.

In the last room, a film directed by Christopher Turner, Nana Biamah-Ofusu and Bushra Mohamed gives personal insight and context to the development of Tropical Modernism in Ghana from architects, academics and Samia Nkrumah, daughter of Kwame.

As the exhibition closes, the curators highlight a selection of international architects – including Francis Kéré and Yasmeen Lari - continuing Tropical Modernism’s environmental, sustainable and local approach to design buildings appropriate to context and climate.

Private View | Tropical Modernism

I found the exhibition to be a fascinating insight into architecture’s role in power, politics and progress. In prioritising context, process and local contribution over building aesthetics, you leave with a sharper understanding of the factors that allowed Tropical Modernism to evolve from an imposed colonial import to a new symbol of progression and independence, and consider what it’s legacy can teach us today.