Like the modernist architecture that preceded it, tropical architecture was co-defined with modern bodies and the bodies of the tropics: initially those of colonizers but soon colonized bodies as well. The layered graphics by Gordon Cullen that introduce one section of a 1953 issue of The Architectural Review2 devoted to West African educational buildings codify the dimensions of this genre. In the foreground, the shaded figure of a dark-skinned girl wearing a dress is rendered in profile. She carries a book, denoting Western learning, and stands between the rendered wall of a building with a balustrade and the staggered grid of a freestanding screen—sandwiched, but not enclosed by their forms. The pattern of her dress, suggestive of Adinkra symbols, is significant, a transitional element in an ornamental sequence: wall parallels fabric, fabric parallels identity and the building parallels skin, articulating the aspirations of both colonized people and colonial architecture.
Shifting definitions of bodies and buildings, identity and architecture, are often expressed in tropical architecture through the use of an epidermal metaphor. Initially, the colonizer’s skin was differentiated from that of indigenous residents, requiring protection from climatic discomfort and biological risks. The technologies of tropical architecture, based on a modernist rationalism adapted to tropical climatic conditions, were, in turn, offered as a developmental asset to colonized subjects, especially young people. Tropical architecture related the body to the building through climate performance, narrating that relationship—an articulation similar to that espoused at the Bauhaus. In this way the bodies of the Bauhaus met the bodies of the tropics through architecture. This representational pairing, and the metaphors and binaries that underscored its development, unfolded during West Africa’s short century.
Tropical bodies / vulnerable skins
Colonial era reportage by Western journalists and officials suggests a perception of African bodies as vulnerable to the extreme weather of the tropics, expressed through images of near-naked skin exposed to torrential downpours. Tropical architecture was to turn this embodied knowledge of weather into a site of change, sensual reaction and, potentially, pleasure—expressing its impacts as a matter of health concern. When Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry were appointed as town planning advisors to the Gold Coast in 1944, they brought both domestic planning experience—particularly around food preparation and sanitation—and a connection to modernist rationalism through the couple’s membership in the MARS group (Modern Architectural Research Group). Their first projects involved village planning, both at a territorial scale to connect ports and productive hinterlands, as well as within domestic spaces.
Jane Drew’s representation of the Gold Coast village house3 portrayed it as a scene of impoverishment and wasted resources, both human and material—with the weather stripping off organic layers, bringing the risk of illness through a loss of boundaries. An image from their guidebook depicted the peeling wall of a house built with too little cement, underscoring their calls for the pressing need for more permanent forms of housing. Local residents were portrayed as equally at risk—as in the horrified and offensively graphic descriptions by Maxwell Fry of the skins of people in the tropics being penetrated, like organic material, by insects and fungi.4