Incomplete Histories: Tropical Modernism at the V&A
After offering a preview at the 2023 Venice Biennale, a fulsome exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum parallels the post-colonial narratives of Ghana and India, exploring what has been described as the architecture of Tropical Modernism.

After offering a preview at the 2023 Venice Biennale, a fulsome exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum parallels the post-colonial narratives of Ghana and India, exploring what has been described as the architecture of Tropical Modernism. Using the well-known British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew as a springboard, this rich and jubilant exhibition takes the story of Modernism in the Global South far beyond colonial confines. Shumi Bose was treated to a walk around with researcher and architect Nana Biamah-Ofosu and co-curator Justine Sambrook.

SHUMI BOSE (KOOZ) I understand that the story of this exhibition began quite a long time ago: in 2018 as an idea, sprouting into an exhibition in Venice and eventually blossoming into this larger iteration at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But let's start from the beginning —


JUSTINE SAMBROOK Well, as a framing device, we start with Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, two pioneering modernist architects in Britain in the 1930s, who were frustrated by lack of understanding of modernism in Britain and unable to find the opportunities that they wanted. Eventually Fry worked in West Africa for the colonial office on town planning, and then Jane Drew went out to join him to assist with that in Ghana and in Nigeria as well. There was a huge postwar fund — equivalent to £6 million today — for building colonial infrastructure projects. Fry and Drew stayed and latched on specifically to certain areas of West Africa, getting a lot of work through that.

KOOZ It’s hard to imagine, today, anything like such an opportunity being offered to people so young: to have so much responsibility and freedom.

JSYes, an opportunity to develop this new form of modernism. This was led by a lot of scientific research that was calculated to be specifically adapted to what they described as “the tropical climate” — they wrote their famous book, Tropical Architecture in Humid Zone, which talks about the humid zone as this rather generic band around the globe. In fact, the first edition was published in 1956, and then they republished it in 1964 as Tropical Architecture in the Humid and Dry Zone.


So these are some maps from their book in 1956, where you see the areas that they were working in West Africa, with that's the tropical zone that they defined. However, this didn't take into account the cultural population or actually, climate differences: it was all considered to be the humid zone. They considered that the tools that they developed in West Africa would therefore be appropriate across this global zone, which of course is not necessarily true.

KOOZ So it was conceived as this one type of alternative climate, rather than actually being responsive to climate. You have a number of documents from that time and from the Colonial Office here.

JS Yes, looking at their time in Africa; the letters from Maxwell Fry are wonderful, with a lot of sketches. They are personal letters, but also discussing, thinking and bouncing ideas around. A large number of British people going out to West Africa would have been issued with The Gold Coast Handbook, which ‘instructs’ them on life in the Tropics. Comfort was a big thing: the idea was clear that as a British person, you wouldn't necessarily be comfortable in that part of the world, and of course, architecture was part of that. It was seen as quite important that they develop the tools of Tropical Modernism, as we call them — for instance the wide use of louvres or sunscreens, as a means of controlling the sun. Then there is the orientation of the buildings: east to west, with a very narrow long plan, taking advantage of the breeze. They began to call this tropical architecture.

KOOZ Were these guides and systems built upon the shoulders of Corbusier and others — as in the five point plan, for instance? Do you think this was some sort of imitation?

JS We haven't found evidence of that, although obviously, we talk about how Fry and Drew were involved in the MARS group and in CIAM, so they were part of that Modernist discussion. I'm sure that there was a lot of osmosis. They publish their book, they get international recognition for their work, they're on the cover of magazines; it's publicised globally. We found photographs in the RIBA archive, which were from a series published by the Bureau of Information about Maxwell Fry, called ‘Man of MARS’ and from these, we were able to identify many West African architects — until now, hidden figures — as they worked on school designs. But they were building all these big public buildings — like mainly schools, a community centre, and Accra University in Nigeria — against this backdrop of the end-stages of colonialism, and a growing anti-colonial unrest.

Back in the UK, there was a conference on Tropical Architecture in 1953. Then in fact, it was a student or former student from the AA who asked their tutor: ‘Why are we being taught how to build in snowy climates? I intend to return to Africa, and how does this knowledge give me the tools appropriate for what we're going to build?’

That was when they founded the Department of Tropical Studies, of which Fry became the first director. Initially, it was mostly Western students who were being trained to build in the colonies, but as the course progressed, it became popular with students from other countries who wanted that training.

NANA BIAMAH-OFOSU A lot of this material comes from the School of Tropical Architecture archive at the AA, where I teach. But actually for me, it's something I've always been interested in as I grew up in Ghana, looking at these big secondary schools — all of the sorts of buildings you see in the drawings here. In Ghana, you have a kind of cultural understanding of this type of architecture, in the background: you will know somebody who went to one of these and nobody forgets that history.

KOOZ Do the buildings stand out, in the urban context, as being from a particular place and time?

NBO You definitely registered them as a sort of collection of buildings, but associated with schools and civic or educational buildings rather than buildings for the use of the general public. They become what school buildings look like, and to see education looks like through architecture is really interesting.

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

For instance, I’d like to speak to this image in particular; it reminds me of an essay by Chinua Achebe, called The Education of the British Protectorate Child. It's a really interesting work, on these relationships between colonialism, education, the black body: it is quite a loaded text.

JS We should take a moment to look at Africa's roots in the dawn of modernism and the development of modernism in Africa — this was especially after discussion with Gus Casely Hayford, who advised that we should acknowledge that Africa was not passive, waiting for ideas to be laid on it but there at the root of this movement taking place. Paolozzi’s collage with the African mask shows how he was inspired by ethnographical objects, but Fry and Drew often used very superficial African symbols in their buildings as the kind of decoration — that’s how they name something as African architecture.

NBO I've always wanted to stress that this false legacy — the idea that Africa wasn't part of the modern discourse — really affects how we think about these buildings now. If you don't see yourself as being part of this, you are quick to dismiss the legacy of them now; it breeds a kind of mass disregard because people in the crowd don't necessarily see themselves as part of the story. In this case, the narrative was so claimed by British or European narratives, to the extent that this is often told as a story about Fry and Drew reinventing Modernism in West Africa — which they did not. I would argue that they were gifted opportunities to develop careers that they otherwise would have never had.

KOOZ That six million pounds.

NBOIt is slightly provocative to do this, but ask people to name five buildings by Drew and Fry in the UK. If I asked you the same thing in Ghana and Nigeria, you could find the answers. You might then start to consider the chance or opportunity to develop such formidable architectures and define a country. Something that has always troubled me is how Fry and Drew’s work in Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh is quite well known as part of the curriculum — yet nobody ever mentions the work in Ghana or Nigeria, which predated all of that work. If you let a colonial power retell a history they will pick and choose which ones they want to highlight, and in which time. Looking at connections that would move the centre of the conversation to global south or global majority countries — this is really important.

"This is a parallel story about Jawaharlal Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah, who fought for and then achieved independence for their countries, but who also saw the potential for architecture as a tool — a nation-building tool — and a kind of symbol of the independence of these nations."

- Justine Sambrook

KOOZ Indeed: for me, this is a story that I've never seen told; the photos tell me everything I didn’t know.

JS We decided to look at West Africa and India, because those are the places that Fry and Drew worked; yet Fry and Drew themselves are really used as a framing device, allowing us to limit that particular story of Tropical Modernism and go beyond it. This is really a parallel story about Jawaharlal Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah, who fought for and then achieved independence for their countries, but who also saw the potential for architecture as a tool — a nation-building tool — and a kind of symbol of the independence of these nations. And that's quite a unique story.


This journey to independence has a moment at the Pan African conference in Manchester where all these discussions started taking place, but we end the introduction section with the Community Centre in Accra. This was designed by Fry and Drew and funded by the All Africa Company (later Unilever), whose headquarters had been burned down in the 1948 riots.

KOOZ Can you tell me what the slogan says on the façade?

NBO The given translation is very westernised; something like “Together we're stronger”. But in the Ga language, a closer translation would be something like “Would it not be lovely if we all lived together?”

JS Effectively then, this building was built as what designers call a tool of pacification, in response to the burning of the previous headquarters as well as warehouse properties around the country. It was provided to host community and leisure events, but ended up being used by the All-African Congress.

NBO So this building was a leisure centre, given in an act of apparent philanthropy, but as Ian Jackson writes, there is a slightly sinister sense that a company is now dictating what Africans should do for leisure. Typically, Ghanaians don't usually meet to socialise in a sport centre or a formal building like this. Concerts, parties, gatherings in the compound — but in this community centre are the makings of a kind of respectable, colonial British-aligned African. It's in the architecture.

JS It’s the same with the schools; the architecture is intended to teach children a certain system of behaviour.

NBO I was really interested in the making of this; as a coloniser or even a departing coloniser, you need to establish a middle-upper class who will continue to enforce your ideology. It does pay off at the end because around the time of independence increments, the legacy of the currently ruling political parties started with trying to slow down the pace of independence: let’s learn how to behave; we're not ready yet. Also, there was a sense of tension between the ideal of democratic independence versus federalisation; this means we have to share our resources, and we don't like that.

JS We then moving to Indian independence in 1947 which came along with partition and that was incredibly bloody….

KOOZ Yes, it’s somewhat hard to celebrate Independence Day. I'm from Bengal, which was one of the Partition’s fault lines. The legacies of Partition continue to cause so much bloodshed, even today.

JS Obviously, in partition, the Indian part of Punjab lost its capital, Lahore. Jawaharlal Nehru recognised the need for a new administrative capital for the region, and also for thousands of refugees who were pouring over the border from Pakistan. Nehru sent out emissaries to lots of different international architects to plan Chandigarh, which I found interesting — that's not really a story often told.

He went to Fry and Drew, knowing about their West African work and so their experience in a similar climate — though they didn't really take into account how cold it gets in the Himalayas. Then he approached Le Corbusier, because he knew that he wanted to design a city from scratch. And Corbusier said that he would do it as long as he could concentrate on the capitol buildings: he wanted a ‘blank canvas’. So he came to Chandigarh with the idea already in his head, I don’t think that it was particularly adapted for India.


JS Le Corbusier’s plan of Chandigarh stands outside the College of Architecture, and it has been repainted by the students of the college for us. The only difference is in the lettering; they’ve added some contouring touches.

KOOZ I don't think I've seen this plan before; it's making me think of the much later drawings by Balakrishna Doshi, whose work is on display nearby.

JS We are really interested in the legacy left behind by this project. Nehru set up a scenario in which it was stipulated that the European architects would not bring their European offices with them. Instead, they worked with Indian architects and that such projects would act like living schools for Indian architects, who were trained on the job.


We’re showing the work of Aditya Prakash who worked on quite a lot of projects with Jane Drew. Prakash also designed the Chandigarh College of Architecture, which he based on Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s designs, but made it smaller. He also adapted a lot of the furniture designs to be more appropriate for the Indian stature. as he felt that the proportions of Western designs were not necessarily correct. His son Vikramaditya Prakash has written a great book about him (and runs his own excellent architectural podcast). Then there is Jeet Malhotra, who was a junior architect who documented the whole process of building the city in photographs. Also, Marg magazine, which focussed on a lot of the stories of the Indian architects, a lot of them wrote articles for it.

KOOZ Marg connected narratives to Sri Lanka and other South east Asian architects too; I think Minette da Silva was an early editor.

JS That’s right, and to mention another female designer, here is the classic Chandigarh chair — at least co-designed by Indian architect Eulie Chowdhury, who has not widely been credited for it. For a long time it was just cited as being designed by Jeanneret.

NBO One reason why this exhibition is really important is because I think we're just at the age where these buildings, these histories — the mid-century post-war stuff — is just old enough to come under the question of heritage. There’s a disconnect with the pace of erasure in places like Ghana because nobody is thinking through that history; it is still quite painful. In 20 or 30 years, we'll wake up and the ground will have been transformed in a way that nobody agreed on, but which nobody objected to either. It will have happened because we don't look at history in the same way: it is painful for the most part. You're always defining your value through the colonial figure, with an aspirational or hierarchical relationship. Faced with looking up to or down on those complex narratives about colonialism and assimilation, most of us choose to move forward. I think it's rare to see this kind of archival content.

KOOZ I hear what you're saying; it's true that we just don't have the same sense of valuing certain kinds of heritage over time and in different parts of the world. We can definitely see how much value was given to documenting the changes that happened in this late-colonial and formative national period. For instance, the quality of this film from 1966, documenting the construction of Chandigarh, is immaculate for its age; clearly someone considered that this is going to be of historic significance.

Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Then we look at architects who were actually designing modernist buildings before Chandigarh. We are showing the work of Habib Rahman, an architect who trained in America with Walter Gropius, and then came back just before independence. He designed a memorial to Gandhi, which Nehru opened in 1948; Mahatma Gandhi had just recently been assassinated, and this was the first memorial to him — Nehru was very impressed with it. He invited Rahman to come work for him in Delhi, designing some of the new infrastructure buildings that he was planning there. This is really about how involved Nehru was, as a politician. He asked Rahman to design the Rabindra Bhavan, a large cultural institute in Delhi. Rahman first came up with a rather Bauhaus inspired design, but Nehru really hated it. He asked him to go back and design something with a more of an Indian spirit; Rahman returned with another design including a lot of abstracted Indian references like Mughal arches and jaali work acting as a sunscreen.


JS And then we have these lovely images from a Bollywood movie, about an Indian architect who returns from training in America and designs two modernist houses to heal the tensions between two feuding families.

These are beautiful hand tinted film stills, showing how a new kind of sophisticated, modernist Indian personality is being projected but also, how architecture was infiltrating popular culture. This is where we note the importance of training a new generation of Indian architects. Balkrishna Doshi had worked on Chandigarh from Corbusier’s Paris office actually; initially unpaid, he then went to work with him. The Doshi drawing we have on display is inspired by traditional Indian village housing, which can be expanded according to needs into the street.

KOOZ This drawing has such a weird projection, it shows you all the complexity of Indian street life from multiple perspectives, at once.

Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

NBO One of the things I really love in the show is this connection with popular culture, like with the Nkrumah commemorative cloth. Celebrating with cloth is a real thing in West Africa: almost every important occasion will have a fabric attached to it, like national events, family gatherings and so on. To see this cloth which celebrates independence is really powerful. This printed fabric would have been replicated and worn, so you could buy six yards and make an amazing Nkrumah Independence dress. It's incredible, I absolutely love this.

KOOZ The question is how and why did we have such visionary capacity back then, as opposed to now. That immediate post colonial impetus held so much optimism and incredible energy.

NBO Indeed, in just a few years, what was delivered for our country's future — that is what I can celebrate though my heart breaks for where we are now. But we could do it. We have to do it again.

KOOZ Well, speaking of visionary, tell me a bit about the gigantic KNUST, what it meant for Ghana and the legacy that it.

NBO The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology or KNUST is the second biggest public university in Ghana. In this context, what's really interesting about the university is its architecture: the country’s first architecture school was formed there, as well as the Department of Works, which was responsible for delivering a lot of the campus buildings. During the 1950s, The Department of Architecture at KNUST formed a partnership with the Architectural Association in London, beginning a really long history of providing architectural education on the continent. It’s important to note that this was the first time that we were training African architects on the African continent. Most African architects had to come to the UK or abroad elsewhere; this was a school of architecture on the African continent, delivering education for African architects.


In the early 60s, John Lloyd — who had been tutor at the AA — was sent to KNUST, to head up the School of Architecture there. Quite distinct from people like Fry and Drew — who had a more colonial worldview — Lloyd was much more embracing of the local architecture and its knowledge systems. He changed the architecture course to include a programme on the history of cultures; again, for the first time, African architecture and African indigenous local knowledge was included as part of an architect's curriculum, so that was very transformational. They used to have a really collaborative partnership or information exchange, which is documented in ‘occasional reports’, which tell the story of what the department was doing. One essential part of the curriculum at KNUST was a community survey project, in which students would really immerse themselves living in a particular community, really trying to understand its site and context. You can find these amazing records of towns and villages, sometimes very remote and at other times urban; like Chandigarh, this became a living school of architecture, and student-architects were part of the efforts of a progressive nation. Their skills, their expertise and knowledge could all be in service of a newly independent nation.

KOOZ The KNUST is spread over an enormous site, if I'm not wrong?

NBO That huge scale of the campus is incredible: you find yourself in this amazing sort of clearing within the dense tropics, with these magnificent buildings rising out of it, hovering over the tree line of. For me, what’s important about some of these monumental buildings like Africa Hall — designed by John Owusu Addo with a group of Yugoslavian architects — was how they responded to the context. Rather than the earlier buildings of Fry and Drew, these buildings seem to capture more about the way of living, more cultural intelligence. This is especially so at Unity Hall, in the courtyards that link the towers together; there’s a playfulness and a joyfulness in those buildings. Another really beautiful example is the Staff Clubhouse; this was a very seminal piece of tropical modernism. This is why it’s important to tell the story beyond Fry and Drew; we are celebrating the works of people like John Owusu Addo and others like him at KNUST.

As part of this exhibition and to make this exhibition possible, the AA the V&A and KNUST have formed a five-year partnership, working to make sure that their archives are maintained properly. The Kenya state department of Works has an incredibly rich archive of all the significant buildings on this campus, and this agreement will go far to protect and digitise the contents. This is one of the few architectural archives of the African context, which still exists on the African continent and it belongs on the African continent, to be able to inform our future thinking.


"There is more to architecture than just the kind of formal sort of physical presence of it. There are also the vital political, social, economic and cultural forces that bring architecture into being."

- Nana Biamah-Ofosu

KOOZ Finally, tell me a tiny bit more about the film that you made with Christopher Turner, curator of this exhibition with Justine Sambrook. Inherently a film can capture depth and life in a way that a static image or text cannot —

NBO That's a really important part of it. Even at the predecessor of this exhibition in Venice, we were keen that the exhibition brought a kind of bodily experience of this architecture, in terms of the setting and exhibition design. Of course, there is more to architecture than just the kind of formal sort of physical presence of it. There are also the vital political, social, economic and cultural forces that bring architecture into being. For us, the film was a way to unpack that and to really understand this architectural moment beyond the image; to try and understand the power and politics embedded in it. So the film allowed us to really contextualise this history, within a wider story of political independence and colonial struggle.

"It's time to tell that story more fully, rather than see the African continent as a passive receiver of modernism."

- Nana Biamah-Ofosu

Christopher and I spent two and a half weeks in Ghana with a camera, a cameraman, and we visited sixteen of these seminal buildings in their contemporary setting; we really wanted to understand what the legacy of them were now, what was their context, how have they fared how are they use now, how is how the public engage with these buildings. We spoke to people like John Owusu Addo, who is now 95, and loaned us significant assets for this exhibition. We also spoke to the family relatives of other really significant architects and designers who contributed really significantly to our understanding of this of the time, like Henry Wellington. We also contacted people like Samia Nkrumah, who is a Ghanaian politician, and also the daughter of Kwame Nkrumah. It's really about going beyond the formality of architecture, to impress on you the political, social, economic, cultural context that it lives within.

I think of the film as a kind of a gift, to give back to a continent, and a real appreciation of that continent’s role in the development of modernism. It's time to tell that story more fully, rather than see the African continent as a passive receiver of modernism. Our film tells a different story. I will borrow from the words of Lesley Lokko: this is not to say that the history of architecture is wrong; it's just been incomplete. My hope for a film like this, and this discussion on Tropical Modernism, is that it goes some way to complete or offer different perspectives on that story.


Nana Biamah-Ofosu is an architect, writer and director of YAA Projects, an architecture, design and research practice dedicated to exploring counter-histories, material and diasporic culture, through making, speaking and writing architecture. YAA Projects engages in intelligent and contextually rich projects, centring peripheral identities to create a more inclusive, holistic understanding of the built environment. Recent projects include Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa at the 18th Venice Biennale, the ArchiAfrika Pavilion and Althea McNish: Colour is Mine.

Justine Sambrook is a researcher and curator of architectural photography. As curator of the Royal Institute of British Architecture's Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, Justine is involved in the care, research and growth of a collection of over 1.6 million images of architecture from prehistory to the present day. In addition to Tropical Modernism, curated alongside Christopher Turner at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Justine has curated numerous exhibitions at the RIBA including At Home in Britain: Designing the House of Tomorrow (2016) and Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith (2014).

Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.

06 May 2024
Reading time
20 minutes
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