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V&A's Tropical Modernism exhibition opens and explores unique architectural style

Updated: May 27

Tropical Modernism at the V&A is an exhibition all about an architectural style that 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 nonetheless gets a rare moment in the spotlight with this major exhibition at the London museum dedicated to art and design.

Throughout the gallery, visitors will see how it developed in the hot, humid conditions of West Africa in the 1940s, and how after independence, India and Ghana adopted the style as a symbol of modernity and progressiveness.

Titled Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, this detailed show runs for much of the summer in 2024. And as the UK's summer weather is notoriously non-tropical, it might be a the only way to try and get a hint of sunshine.

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It's a display 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 focuses on the colonial origins of Tropical Modernism in British West Africa (including modern-day Ghana, Nigeria and others), and in India. It charts the survival of the style in the post-colonial period in these 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 it 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.”

V&A Tropical Modernism reviews

But is the exhibition any good?

Well critics were very warm to the show, if not white-hot excited.

"A thoroughly absorbing reflection" is how Ben Luke reviewed the exhibition in the Evening Standard. His four-star review said it was showing how the style's "legacies and meanings are very much alive." But he did feel it was a shame the big three-screen finale film only concentrated on Ghana and not India.

Rowan Moore in the Observer says the show "presents a complex picture of power and freedom, and of modernity and craft." His overall verdict? It is an "intriguing exhibition."

Writing for Londonist, Will Noble said "the style leaves an invaluable legacy for us all" in his four-star review.

A large monumental replica sculpture without arms, representing a national leader
Replica sculpture in Tropical Modernism exhibition at the V&A. Photo taken by me. © maxwell museums

Tropical Modernism V&A ticket price

The V&A's Tropical Modernism exhibition is now open, and tickets can be pre-booked. 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 one of the V&A's exhibitions of 2024 not to have a sprinkle of celebrity sparkle. Two other major shows actually feature big cultural names, with Elton John’s photo collection on show, and a retrospective of the career of supermodel Naomi Campbell is opening in June. 

Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence runs at the V&A in London until 22 September 2024


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