Originating as “tropical modernism,” this architectural style was pioneered by British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. They adapted the experimental principles of European modernism to construct municipal buildings across the late British empire and contributed to planning the new city of Chandigarh in independent India. The V&A exhibition aims to “re-evaluate their legacy” in these regions by showcasing photography, films, models, and archival materials to trace the development and decline of tropical modernism. It presents a “nuanced” and scholarly examination that avoids simplistic assessments of colonialism.

Drew and Fry, a committed married couple described as unconventional, were initially met with indifference in prewar Britain when introducing modernist ideas. However, in Ghana and India, they found opportunities to realize their vision “on a scale and with a confidence rarely seen in Europe.” While they didn’t fully integrate local traditions, they did incorporate traditional Ashanti patterns into their concrete structures. The exhibition illustrates how tropical modernism evolved into a style “closely linked to postcolonial independence and the formation of national identities.”

Following Ghana’s independence in 1957, President Nkrumah established a school to train local architects in modernist techniques and Ghanaian traditions. Architects like Victor Adegbite transformed colonial spaces into symbols of national pride, while others, like John Owusu Addo, contributed to the development of a national architectural style. Similarly, in India, PM Jawaharlal Nehru advocated for the development of an Indian modernism as part of the nation’s new identity. Indian architects studied the works of Fry, Drew, and Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, forging their own architectural language. However, with the advent of air-conditioning, many modernist buildings became obsolete and were demolished. It is only now that we appreciate how ingeniously these structures “harmonized with the climate.” For those interested in sustainable architecture, this exhibition serves as a valuable resource.

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