‘Tropical Modernism’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Tropical Modernism’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum

If you’ve spent a recent summer in Britain, where the mercury can now climb past 100 degrees, you’ve probably noticed how inhospitable the buildings are in hot weather. And good luck finding air conditioning, which only accelerates climate change, in any case.

And yet the principles of “tropical modernism,” a postwar architectural movement born in West Africa and India, were pioneered by two Britons, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. An archival exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, “Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence,” running through Sept. 22, charts how these regions ultimately made the style their own.

Across four rooms painted in bright hues of burnt orange, mustard yellow, fern green and cobalt blue, the show vividly illustrates — in photographs, artifacts, models, architectural plans and art works — the importance of architecture and aesthetics for two newly independent nations transitioning into their postcolonial eras.

Fry and Drew were part of a group of architects in mid-1930s England who imagined radical new buildings and urban planning methods. Influenced by the Swiss-French Le Corbusier, and the German Walter Gropius, who arrived in London in 1934 fleeing Nazi Germany, these designers saw the new materials, minimal ornamentation and sweeping, simple lines of modernism as the way forward.

Few in Britain agreed, including the painter Wyndham Lewis, who described the spare modernist aesthetic as “cod-liver oil to the sweet Anglo-Saxon palette” — an odd statement in an artistic period dominated by grubby grays and muddy browns. Gropius left for the United States in 1937, proclaiming England an “inartistic country.”

During World War II, Fry was stationed in the Gold Coast, the British colony that later became Ghana; Drew joined him there in 1944, leaving behind the all-female practice she had founded five years earlier. Britain’s Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940 had allocated 5 million pounds a year to build institutions and educational facilities across the colonies. (In the decade after 1946, Britain invested £120 million, equivalent to billions today.) Fry and Drew advised colonial administrations in the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Gambia and Sierra Leone on town planning, turning West Africa into an experimental laboratory for the style that had failed to impress back home.

Letters, notes and manuals on display show the initiative was both progressive and patrician. The British architects studied climate data to develop what would become characteristic features of their work: buildings oriented East-West, so the sun passed overhead; deeply shaded ground floors with wide eaves; adjustable window louvers to block the sun at multiple angles; and — perhaps the most stunning — “brise-soleils.” These varied geometric patterns cut through cement walls provide cross-ventilation but also throw shadows in elaborate designs on surrounding surfaces. Partition walls in the exhibition charmingly nod to this effect with their own cutouts.

Fry and Drew, however, ignored local traditions (“There seemed to be no indigenous architecture,” Fry wrote), lived in segregated areas and characterized their work in empire-building terms. They also treated all the world’s tropical regions, around 40 percent of the globe, as interchangeable in their architectural needs, regardless of cultural differences.

Things got more exciting when Ghanaian architects got involved. When Ghana became independent in 1957, the country’s new leader Kwame Nkrumah’s ruled that all new developments must involve local architects. A once-colonial style became an embodiment of independence.

Enduring buildings from this moment include universities, libraries and apartment complexes, as well as built environments like the site of the International Trade Fair of 1967, held in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and designed to showcase the country’s growing wealth and the striking Black Star Square, an open-air plaza for national celebrations, completed in 1961. This latter public space is dominated by a massive cement “Independence Arch,” conceived by the architect Victor Adegbite as a gateway of return for the formerly enslaved African diaspora.

In the era after India gained independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had similar ideas about appropriating Western modernism for political purposes: to him, it was an aesthetic that embodied optimism, innovation and a new secularism. One exhibition space is devoted to Le Corbusier’s sprawling design for the new city of Chandigarh in northern India. Rather than the classic Le Corbusian images of bombastic concrete lines and curves, the display presents some of the lesser-known figures who contributed to the project. Elegant teak and cane chairs by Eulie Chowdhury (and formerly attributed to her colleague Pierre Jeanneret), stand near a film documenting the arduous labor undertaken by the Indian workers who clambered up scaffolding with bowls of cement balanced on their heads.

The legacy of tropical modernism in Ghana and India is as complex as its origins. In 2017, India destroyed one of the most beloved modernist buildings in New Delhi, the elaborate pyramidal Hall of Nations — a move seen by many as the increasingly conservative state openly rejecting the country’s progressive past. When a C.I.A.-backed coup toppled Nkrumah, his statue in front of Accra’s parliament was toppled too. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, a replica statue watches over a film about Ghana’s architects, past and present, and the contemporary challenges of global warming.

Architecture has the power to shape lives, and to challenge how we exist and think as citizens of countries who also live on a shared planet. What we can learn from tropical modernism isn’t just isolated to homogeneous regional concerns, as Fry and Drew envisioned, but extends to how we might live sustainably, no matter where, or who, we are.

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence
Through Sep. 22 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; vam.ac.uk.

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