A style of architecture born in damp Britain for use in hot colonies would have been expected to die off when independence arrived, but it flourished until it was killed off by something we’re trying to get rid of today.

The style, Tropical Modernism, is universally recognisable. It adopts and adapts ancient building ideas to keep interiors cool in hot climates, but it strips away decorative flourishes to create a very obviously modernist look.

This exhibition at the V&A Museum focuses on two post-colonial countries that took on the Tropical Modernism vernacular and ran with it – Ghana and India – for a while at least. While the style was created mainly in Europe and did tend towards a one-size-fits-all approach across the Empire, the exhibition mainly looks at the local architects who learned the style and adapted it for local demands.

There are the plans for Chandigarh, the planned city in northern India. Although Le Corbusier created it, the exhibition looks more at the work done on the ground by local architects such as Balkrishna Doshi, Giani Rattan Singh, and Mahendra Raj. The city is famous for its modernist architecture in the central business areas, but it looks surprisingly European once you get into the suburbs, even down to the very British looking Victorian era park benches dotted around the place.

Over in Ghana, the independence politician Kwame Nkrumah was initially seen as a positive figure and introduced many modernising ideas, but he slowly became increasingly authoritarian until he was finally deposed in a coup.

Nkrumah promoted an optimistic vision of modernity and tapped the Tropical Modernism vernacular to create buildings which are, sadly, today more neglected than applauded and tend to find more fans on Instagram accounts of decaying ex-Soviet-style architecture.

Yet, the exhibition is uplifting.

There was a short period of optimism that architecture could lift a country up economically and culturally, even if it meant being imposed on people rather than a rising tide that lifted everyone.

It was also a short-lived period, thanks to wider issues that knocked back the expectations of independence, but also thanks to the arrival of the thing that would remove the need for shady walkways and open corridors.

The air conditioner.

Away with the modernist concrete and brick and in with glass and steel as the openness of buildings started to close in on themselves and turn their back on the environment they once co-existed with.

Yet, in more enlightened times, architects are looking back to how passive cooling can reduce the carbon emissions and cost of running buildings in which people live and work.

The exhibition starts young and hopeful, moves into shabby middle age, and emerges again hopeful about how good architecture can improve lives.

The exhibition, Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence is at the V&A Museum until late September.

Adults: £14 | Young people (12-26): £11 | Concessions: £9 | Members: Free

Tickets can be booked from here.


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