Review: Architecture Exhibitions


Tropical Modernism, which opened at the V&A last week, explores the architectural style pioneered by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry in the late 1940s. The exhibition examines how these architects’ creations shaped the architectural landscape and subsequent global image of West Africa and India during the mid-20th century, arguably during the most politically charged period in both countries’ recent histories. 

Tropical Modernism architecture reflected elements of modernism in style, but was primarily concerned with integral air cooling systems to accommodate the hot and humid environment. Drew and Maxwell tried to create designs that were strongly influenced by climate science research, for example the creation of four structures under a raised concrete roof which facilitated air circulation. However, the exhibition also critiques how Drew and Fry’s understanding of what architecture is and should be was informed by a colonialist perspective. They were quick to dismiss the original housing structures in West Africa, despite many of them having natural cooling systems by being built with mud and clay, which can absorb and store heat and thereby naturally lowers interior temperatures by as much as 25 degrees. 

The exhibition calls attention to how the British government used this investment in infrastructure to strengthen their power in Ghana, by attempting to distract and delay the inevitable decolonisation of the Gold Coast against the backdrop of growing calls for independence. However, instead of associating these buildings as colonialist structures of a past era, president Kwame Nkrumah campaigned for a renewal of image using this re-brand of Ghana’s built environment. The new architecture became a key symbol of Ghana’s independence and helped create a new and modern image of progressiveness. Even local fashion magazines used buildings built in the tropical modernism style as backdrops to shoots, which helped strengthen this link between the built environment and a renewed sense of national identity. 

After seeing the impact of their work in West Africa, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Drew and Fry to design Chandigarh as a fully new city in India. The couple invited Corbusier to collaborate with them to create buildings that could survive a hot, humid subtropical climate with a modernist style. There are some fantastic archival material, including models, letters, photographs and newspapers, which showcase the development of this fascinating architectural project. 

By 1971, tropical modernism had begun to fade out due to developments in climate regulation technology such as air conditioning. But with record global temperatures and new records looming ahead, perhaps tropical modernism can teach us something about how to naturally regulate our built environment. In poverty stricken areas in dense cities where air conditioning desperately needs affordable improvement, tropical modernism might perhaps be introduced as a topic of conversation. 

The exhibition ends on the 22nd of September.

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The Wide-Angle View exhibition at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, explores the Manplan series run by the Architectural Review (AR) magazine in the 60s. This series aimed to call attention to architecture’s impact on British society by means of a programme of eight thematic magazines; each edition exploring a different topic such as education, religion and health welfare. Unlike many architectural magazines, the AR decided to promote photojournalism over architectural photography, thereby including everyday citizens in their shots. This aesthetic decision shifted the message – the built environment is nothing without the people inhabiting and using it.

The exhibition showcases over seventy photographs by some of the leading photographers of the Manplan series, such as Ian Berry, Patrick Ward and Tony Ray-Jones. The photographs and accompanying texts acted as a study in how people used space and encouraged thought on how it could be improved. The exhibition highlights how the series dared to give a brazenly critique on contemporary living conditions, and the subsequent mixed reactions by its readers at the time.

Many of the topics and opinions raised similar sentiments of the British public today, that we are victims of an environment built by design hungry egos, and therefore have to endure ‘health services gummed up by bad buildings, of overcrowded leisure, of inadequate housing’.

The exhibition will continue until the 6th of April.

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