Colonial to modern identity

Senior Staff Club House
Mfantsipim School
Scott House
Sketch perspective of Linear City
‘The Tropics’ as identified by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, 1947
Scale model of the Tower of Shadows, 1957
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West Africa

Tropical Modernism emerged as an architectural style in the hot, humid conditions of West Africa in the 1940s. Newly independent nations like Ghana and India embraced the movement, viewing it as a symbol of modernity and progress, a clear distinction from their colonial past.

Victoria & Albert Museum

The V&A has an exhibition on the colonial origins of Tropical Modernism that draws a link between architecture and independence. On the surface, there is no link. However, the curators argue that political pressures caused as much of this architectural style as artistic advancements.

European Modernism

Tropical Modernism evolved out of 1920s European Modernism, the principles of which were born out of the horrors of World War I. European Modernism in architecture questions traditional values and emphasises that the design of a building should be driven by its intended purpose. The central tenant was form follows function. This resulted in buildings with open floor plans, clear lines and a focus on maximising space and light for the activities that would take place within. They reject ornamentation and embrace new materials like steel, concrete and glass.

British Architects

Developed by British architects, Tropical Modernism addressed the West African problems of sun and humidity with designs that prioritised natural ventilation, shading and rainwater management. Architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry were the pioneers.

Drew and Fry applied the core principles of European Modernism to the tropics. They analysed sun movement and weather data to design buildings with passive cooling strategies. Solid walls on the east and west blocked the harsh sun, while louvres, wide eaves, strategically placed walls and courtyards channelled breezes and provided shade. Local materials like wood, bamboo and terracotta were used alongside concrete and glass, and courtyards, gardens and open terraces blurred the lines between indoors and outdoors. Open floor plans further facilitated airflow, as did large windows and sliding doors, maximising natural light and ventilation.

British Government

A key design element in this strategy was the incorporation of brise-soleils, a shading system made up of fins or perforated blocks that allow a breeze to enter a building and cool the interior while deflecting sunlight. Brise-soleils also allow visually interesting geometric shapes and patterns that play with light and shadow.

Buildings designed with Tropical Modernism aesthetics were comfortable without relying on air conditioning, which was not a practical option at the time.

Aesthetics aside, in the 1940s and ’50s, the British government sought to offset growing calls for colonial independence by funding building projects. This had a significant influence on colonial architecture.

Gold Coast

During the Second World War, Maxwell Fry was stationed on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Jane Drew joined him there in 1944 to advise the British colonial governments in West Africa on town planning. After the war, Fry and Drew stayed on to build schools, colleges and other institutions, which were paid for by the Colonial Office’s large post‑war fund to reform, rebuild, and modernise Britain’s colonies.

India Independence

Against a backdrop of political unrest, in the aftermath of the Second World War, colonies wanted recognition for their contribution to the war effort by being granted independence. Many countries in Asia and Africa succeeded. India and Pakistan in 1947 and Ghana in 1957. Britain continued investing in these colonies after independence as Britain relied on them for raw materials and as markets for their manufactured goods.

Kwame Nkrumah

The first Prime Minister of newly independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, reappropriated Tropical Modernism as a symbol of freedom, modernity and progressiveness. Regardless of its colonial roots, it now symbolised new hope and liberation for brand new worlds of independence. Nkrumah invited Ghanaian architects, like Victor Adegbite, back from the United States to create the architecture of modern, independent Ghana, building beacons for his idea of a free and united Africa. To celebrate independence, Nkrumah commissioned Victor Adegbite to design Black Star Square, a parade ground built in Accra on the colonial playing fields.

Le Corbusier

In 1950, Fry and Drew were recruited by newly sworn-in Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to build a new city at Chandigarh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, which would become independent India’s first large-scale modernist project. Nehru wanted Chandigarh to be a city “unfettered by the traditions of the past” and “a model for our glorious future growth of the country”. Fry and Drew invited French architect Le Corbusier, one of the twentieth century’s most influential architects and urban planners, to join them.

By the 1970s, air conditioning became a practical option, and the influence of the Tropical Modernism style began to fade as oilmen and bankers built air-conditioned office towers. The price paid was the loss of distinctly local buildings.  

The emphasis on functionality and environmental responsiveness in Tropical Modernism resonates deeply with the current focus on sustainable design. As we strive to create comfortable buildings without relying heavily on artificial cooling, Tropical Modernism’s principles offer a blueprint for a more sustainable future.

Text Martin Wray and V&A Curators / Photos courtesy of V&A South Kensington