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Exhibition: V&A shows how tropical architects localised modernism

Pamela Buxton

Western modernism came to colonial West Africa and India, but with independence they made it their own. Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence follows the story

Film still of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, by Fry, Drew & Partners.
Film still of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, by Fry, Drew & Partners. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For many reasons, it’s a pertinent moment for the V&A to tackle tropical modernism, the subject of a new exhibition opening on 2 March. Architecture’s intersection with colonialism and independence in West Africa and India in the mid-20th century would make for rich material at any time, but all the more so at a point when many institutions, says curator Christopher Turner, are seeking ‘to decolonise themselves, reckoning with their imperial past and its racial assumptions’. 

Tropical modernism’s built heritage is increasingly under threat, especially in India, where several key pre-and post independence modernist buildings face uncertain fates. Time was also running out to record, first hand, the experiences of surviving architects from those times, as the exhibition has done.  And at a point of climate crisis, might tropical modernism be a useful reference point for those seeking more sustainable design approaches?

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence tells the story of the spread of the style in West Africa and India in the context of the anti-colonial struggle of the time.  The exhibition considers its role, first in the service of colonial regimes, and later as a form of expression for newly independent countries post-decolonisation. Along the way, it explores how it was shaped first by Europeans such as British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who had worked in the former Gold Coast (now Ghana) since 1945, adapting modernist principles to the tropical climate but with little attempt to engage with indigenous architectures.

The exhibition then looks at how the style was appropriated by West African and Indian architects, and evolved into more regional manifestations.


Shop assistant from Sick-Hagemeyer store posing in front of the United Trading Company headquarters, Accra 1971.
Shop assistant from Sick-Hagemeyer store posing in front of the United Trading Company headquarters, Accra 1971. Credit: James Barnor. Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

How did tropical modernism offer expression both to colonial and post-colonial regimes? According to Turner, it survived the transition because it was seen as ‘international and neutral, especially when compared to earlier colonial architecture’, and was free of religious or ethnic baggage. As a result, key protagonists such as prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana adopted it as a key tool of nation building. 

‘They saw it as progressive, scientific and optimistic, a style appropriate to their particular brands of socialism,’ said Turner.

Nkrumah invited Ghanaian architect Victor Adegbite to return from the US to help build a new future for the country after independence in 1957. His projects included Black Star Square, a parade ground in Accra on the former colonial playing fields, commissioned to celebrate independence. A new law ensured all major construction projects were led by Ghanaian architects.

Nkrumah established the first architecture school in sub-Saharan Africa – the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology – to train a new generation of African architects. The exhibition includes an aluminium Buckminster Fuller dome built by students at the university during a short teaching visit by the American inventor in 1964. Turner was delighted to discover the dome during research for the show, languishing long forgotten in a roof space at the university.  A film – directed by Turner, Nana Biamah-Ofusu and RIBAJ Rising Star Bushra Mohamed – explores the built legacy of tropical modernism from this time. It includes both archive footage and interviews with surviving participants, such as 95-year old John Owusu-Addo, who had trained and worked in London before returning to Ghana to build and teach. 


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

Throughout, the exhibition strives to name and recognise the achievements of West African and Indian architects, in contrast with contemporary archives, which were more likely to refer to them as unnamed assistants.

Turner says: ‘We aimed to centre and celebrate architects that worked with and alongside them in West Africa, and later in India, who all deserve to be better known. After independence, these architects sought to create alternative modernisms that better reflected their traditions, and we wanted the exhibition to trace that story.’

In India, the exhibition looks at how Nehru initiated Chandigarh, the country’s first sizeable modernist project, hiring Drew and Fry who brought in Le Corbusier. European architects were not allowed to bring their offices with them to India – Nehru wanted Chandigarh to be a ‘living school’ for Indian architects to train on the job, says Turner. There is acknowledgement of the Indian architects who worked within the Chandigarh team full time – Corb visited twice a year – and Turner was pleased to be able to interview Jeet Malhotra and Shivdatt Sharma, who worked at Chandigarh from its inception as junior architects.

Nehru was also keen for local architects to develop an Indian modernism as part of a new national identity, says Turner. The exhibition looks at the work of architects such as Aditya Prakash, Balkrishna Doshi and Raj Rewal in this context.


Aditya Prakash, photo album of architectural projects, people, landscapes, and Aditya Prakash, circa 1960s -2000s .
Aditya Prakash, photo album of architectural projects, people, landscapes, and Aditya Prakash, circa 1960s -2000s . Credit: Aditya Prakash fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Gift of Vikramaditya Prakas

Tropical modernism was primarily a climate responsive architecture that, using deep verandas and solar shading, worked with the climate rather than against it. Its fate was sealed, says Turner, with the ubiquitous use of air-conditioning from the 1970s.  But in researching the exhibition, he detected a renewed interest in this history among contemporary architects in South Asia and West Africa. The exhibition will show how there are ‘lessons to be learned’, he says, from tropical modernism’s scientifically-informed passive principles, as architects seeking a more sustainable architecture for these regions look back to look forward. 

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, 2 March – 22 September 2024, Porter Gallery, V&A, South Kensington, London