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May 15, 2024

An insight into V&A’s new exhibition – Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence

While, in the beginning, modernism may have been a tool of imperial power, it rapidly morphed in post-colonial hands to become a symbol of new freedoms and the possibility of a utopian future. The exhibition showcases models, drawings, photographs and ephemera that chart this journey, alongside a 30-minute film that explores modernism’s role in shaping decolonisation and constructing new national identities. “The story of tropical modernism is one of politics and power, defiance and independence; it is not just about the past, but also the present and the future,” says the exhibition’s curator Christopher Turner, who is also the V&A’s keeper of art, architecture, photography and design. “We deliberately set out to complicate the history of tropical modernism,” he adds, “by engaging with and centring South Asian and West African voices.”

Model makers at work on the model of the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh (Photos: Pierre Jeanneret, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture).

These voices include Indian architect Aditya Prakash, a leading contributor to Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s monumental Chandigarh city project, and Ghanaian architect Victor Adegbite, who returned to Ghana from the USA at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first leader following independence from Britain in 1957. Adegbite managed Nkrumah’s “reappropriation” of modernism, designing Black Star Square, a parade ground built over capital Accra’s former colonial playing fields. Prakash, meanwhile, though clearly on the receiving end of Le Corbusier’s overbearing nature, paid tribute to the Swiss French titan’s vision of Chandigarh. “[He] wanted to show a modern democratic India, and he succeeded by using equal elements to create a rippling, beautiful rhythm,” he reflected. “He was rather brash and impatient—he treated us like uninitiated children—but he helped us to realise our own country.”

Image may contain Bench and Furniture

The model of the Chandigarh High Court (Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Scala, Florence).

Some of the most interesting buildings in the show are little known globally. Among them is Mfantsipim School, a secondary school in the Gold Coast (now Cape Coast), designed in the late 1940s by British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. This duo was known for its adaptation of modernist aesthetics to the African climate, prioritising function over ornament—although the filigree façade of Mfantsipim School displays a little of the latter.

Visitors may leave the V&A pondering another pressing contemporary issue—or at least, Turner hopes they will. “As we look to a new future in an era of climate change, might tropical modernism, which used the latest building and environmental science available then to passively cool buildings, serve as a useful guide?” asks the curator. Forged in the crucible of dying empires, modernism’s most enlightened moment may be yet to come.

“Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence” is on at the V&A London till 22 September.

Also read: The Healthy Planet School in Noida is a light-filled, graceful haven for learning and playing

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