by Rukmini Swaminathan

Earlier in 2023, a seventy-five-year relationship between India and Sri Lanka was celebrated. It culminated in an exhibition on architect Geoffrey Bawa titled “It is Essential to Be There.” It was the first time material from the Geoffrey Bawa Trust had arrived in the neighboring country and was made more accessible in the form of an exhibition for the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. A year later, in February of 2024, The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Sri Lanka, hosted an exhibition on Minnette de Silva, a lesser-known architect than Geoffrey Bawa yet a significant figure in shaping the identity of the postcolonial architecture of Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, halfway across the world, in London, Tropical Modernism is being reconceptualized for the exhibition at the V&A. Though independent of each other, why is tropical modernism being revisited now?

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, currently showcased at the V&A, is one of the few exhibitions in the last two years that engaged with this Tropical Modernism. In the mid-20th century, Tropical Modernism developed as a style of architecture that considered climatic conditions while designing built environments. Its adoption in tropical regions coincided with the birth of newly independent nations such as India, Sri Lanka, and Ghana (former British colonies). The text published by the V&A on the exhibition writes, “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?” While the urgency of the climate crisis might be a prime mover for the occurrence of these similar exhibitions, they are also an exercise in renegotiating with histories of the past through the inclusion of more historical sources and actors that were sidelined in the colonial narrative of Tropical Modernism. Unlike the former exhibitions located in the global south, the exhibition Tropical Modernism finds itself in the V&A in London after a variation of it was showcased at the Venice Biennale in 2023. Its location plays a crucial role in the story that is crafted. According to an interview with the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) journal, curator Christopher Turner described the exhibition as an endeavor to decolonize. Institutions such as the V&A, RIBA, and the AA have taken this opportunity to critically and carefully use their archival material to reconstruct a storyline of Tropical Modernism by drawing on its colonial past and its extended life into the postcolonial which is referred to in the subtitle Architecture and Independence. The exhibition is vast and dense as it traverses England, India, and Ghana to build the complicated history of Tropical Modernism and its remnants today. It provides a cursory, encyclopedic lens of the style and includes subtle critiques of it. However, it falls short of doing justice to the sixty to seventy-year-old postcolonial regional histories and architectural practices that developed in Ghana and India.

The exhibition begins with a history of Tropical Modernism that the curators associate with the British architect couple Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. The duo were known for their work on designing neighborhoods and housing for differing climatic conditions. On the recommendation of the British government, they were sent to Ghana. There, they designed several buildings for public utility such as the Mfantsipim School which used methods of cross ventilation and verandahs to regulate the tropical heat. The exhibition texts locate Fry and Drew’s work as a practice of the colonial regime’s paternalistic ideology. For instance, there is mention of the couple’s hesitance to borrow from regional architecture that had already devised methods adapted to the climate. Yet they occasionally deviated from the modernist approach of omitting ornamentation from buildings. The ‘ashanti stool’, a local sacred object, became an inspirational motif for many of the Fry and Drew’s buildings. In 1954, Fry and Drew established the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association, London. Initially, it functioned as an extension of the colonial project wherein British students would visit colonies for fieldwork. Soon, students belonging to Ghana and other regions of West Africa were admitted to the department to learn the features of Tropical Modernism.

Fig. 1: Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew section of the exhibition. Photo by Rukmini Swaminathan.

The next section of the exhibition ‘Hidden Figures’ discusses prominent ‘lesser known’ personalities who were part of Fry and Drew’s team. ‘Winds of Change’ places the conversation within a larger overview of the changing political environment. With the cusp of the colonial into the postcolonial, Fry and Drew now became clients of the newly independent nations. The curators tactfully continue to use the couple and their relationship with the countries to hold the narrative of the exhibition as it moves from the colonial into the postcolonial period. In the ‘Temples of Modern India’, the architecture of the former colonies, now independent nations is described through the example of India. Then Prime Minister Nehru’s modernist project is reflected in his commissioning of the planned city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier and his team that included Fry and Drew.

The India section is found in the central room of the exhibition. It rushes through the expanse of modernist architecture in India and shifts from artifacts of Lutyens Delhi to Corbusier’s Chandigarh. Within the tight space, the curators open several layers to Chandigarh, showing us photographs of the entire team, material artifacts like furniture designed by them and finally exhibiting discomfort with Corbusier and Nehru’s visions of modernism. The critiques of the modernist national project are embedded at either end of the room, exhibited through the works of Nek Chand a sculptor, and Aditya Prakash an architect who worked with Corbusier. Nek Chand began conceptualizing his rock sculpture garden by collecting discarded material from construction sites. He envisioned a dynamic landscape built from ruins that opposed Corbusier’s modular, planned city. In the 1960s, Aditya Prakash, commentated on the rigidity of Corbusier’s plans and its inability to imagine the liveliness of Indian culture that is present in these spaces. The exhibition included sketches by Aditya Prakash and his visions of markets and Indian city life. Following Prakash’s work, the story of India’s journey with modernist architecture is continued with small images of buildings across the country. The section ends with a tribute to the ‘Hall of Nations’ a modernist building designed by Raj Rewal and Mahindra Raj which was demolished in 2017 to build a parking lot. The demolition was met with protests from conservationists, historians, and architects who raised their concerns about the loss of heritage and lack of recognition given to modernism by the dominant right-wing regime.

Fig. 2: Nek Chand’s work is found in the background next to a large image of Nehru. Photo by Rukmini Swaminathan.

Fig. 3: Hall of Nations. Photo by Rukmini Swaminathan.
Fig. 4: Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). Photo by Rukmini Swaminathan.

As we walk to the last two sections of the exhibition we are reintroduced to the landscape of Ghana, this time with the knowledge that the independent nations of India and Ghana developed a relationship as countries belonging to the non-aligned movement (NAM). ‘Ghana, Land of Freedom’ and ‘The Legacy of Tropical Modernism’ are introduced with a series of photographs of the planned city of Tema in Ghana. It is followed by a textual and visual representation of the work of early architects of the modern nation; John Owusu Addo and J.Max Bond. Fry and Drew are mentioned this time in the context of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) which started with the support of the Department of Tropical Architecture. Former president, Nkrumah, emphasized the need to study local styles and cultures to create a Pan-African aesthetic of the free country of united Africa. The exhibition ends with a commentary on the downfall of Nukramah’s one-party state and ties it with the closing Fry and Drew’s Department of Tropical Architecture in 1977 in London. Despite its end, the exhibition concludes enthusiastically by describing its legacy carried by present-day architects in West Africa and South Asia who can lead us into the future when the climate crisis is starkly visible in our everyday habitats. In an article on the architecture of Minnette de Silva by geographer Tariq Jazeel, he describes the caption of her work into the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse though de Silva herself never made such associations. Jazeel writes, “contingent on its use, which includes factors wholly within the architect’s authorial control as well as those outside their sphere of influence. Built space in this sense is very much an event or series of events without end.”

The exhibition on Tropical Modernism seeks to revisit the past for inspiration to inform the current climate crisis we are faced with. It also contextualizes it within the hegemonic structures created by colonial and postcolonial forces. As we witness a series of events on Tropical Modernism across geographical locations that have brought perspectives of ‘hidden figures’ of the past into the forefront, we are yet to comment on the centrality of its location. One could read the return of Tropical Modernism to the V&A as an attempt at ‘decolonizing’ history, however through this undertaking it simultaneously re-inserts the relevance of colonial histories in the present.

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence is currently being exhibited at the V&A South Kensington till 22nd September 2024.

Rukmini Swaminathan is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Her research interests lie in history of public housing in India along with the history of interiors, furnishing, and middle-class consumption. Previously, she worked as a researcher in the field of Indian handloom textiles.

All photographs taken by Rukmini Swaminathan.