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Tropical Modernism exhibition opens at V&A in March 2024

Updated: Jan 22

A Tropical Modernism exhibition is coming to the V&A in London this summer, and it promises to explore whether the architectural style might offer solutions for a world facing increasing climate change.

While perhaps not as well known as other architectural styles such as Brutalism, Tropical Modernism is nonetheless get a rare moment in the spotlight with the major exhibition treatment at the London museum dedicated to art and design.

Titled Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, the show will open in March 2024 in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Porter Gallery.

Visitors can expect a show packed full of fascinating objects including models, drawings, letters, photographs, and archival ephemera documenting the key figures and moments in the movement’s history.

A photograph looking towards the sky and up the facade of a building with palm trees alongside
Film still of Unity Hall, KNUST, Kumasi by John Owuso Addo and Miro Marasović © Victoria and Albert Museum

What is Tropical Modernism?

Tropical Modernism is a style of architecture that blends modern design with practical solutions for tropical climates. It developed in the 1940s, and it was shaped by visionary architects who prioritised both functionality and aesthetics in their work.

The buildings created in this style responded to the unique climate and cultural conditions of tropical regions, including in South America, Africa and South East Asia.

Features of buildings created in this style include things such as natural ventilation and cooling, substantial shading, and water features. Above all, it was an adaptation of a Modernist aesthetic that valued function over ornament in hot, humid settings.

But the V&A exhibition will focus on the colonial origins of Tropical Modernism in British West Africa (including modern-day Ghana, Nigeria and others), and in India. It will chart the survival of the style in the post-colonial period in newly-independent countries, and how it came to symbolise the independence and progressiveness of these nations after severing UK rule.

In the late 1940s, much of the style was forged through British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who developed the tools of Tropical Modernism in West Africa. India subsequently embraced these ideas too.

Other newly-independent countries went on to commission major new projects in this style too, using Tropical Modernism as a tool for nation-building and as a symbol of their internationalism and progressiveness.

Graphic image showing a woman standing in a streetscape with yellow shading on buildings and a purple sky
Illustration from The Architectural Review, 1953. Courtesy RIBA Collections © Gordon Cullen Estate

Collectively the artefacts on display won’t just speak to architecture, but also about modernism’s wider role in narratives about decolonisation and the construction of national identity.

The final section of the exhibition will examine the legacy of Tropical Modernism and will include an immersive three-screen installation film shot in Ghana, featuring panoramic portraits of 16 key remaining buildings including a Community Centre in Accra by Fry and Drew and Unity Hall at KNUST in Kumasi by John Owusu-Addo.

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The exhibition’s curator Christopher Turner says that “The story of Tropical Modernism is one of colonialism and decolonisation, politics and power, defiance and independence; it is not just about the past, but also about the present and the future.”

He added that the V&A with this show “deliberately set out to complicate the history of tropical modernism by looking at the architecture against the anti-colonial struggle of the time, and by engaging with and centring South Asian and West African perspectives.”

Tropical Modernism V&A ticket price

Tickets to see the Tropical Modernism exhibition are on sale right now. Adult tickets are £14, while under 26s and students will get in for £9. V&A Members will have access for free. 

This is the only V&A exhibition of 2024 not to have a sprinkle of celebrity sparkle. The other two major shows feature big cultural names, with Elton John’s photo collection going on show in May, and a retrospective of the career of supermodel Naomi Campbell opening in June. 

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence will run at the V&A in London from 2 March until 22 September 2024

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