Conference Paper

Tropical Architecture / Building Skin

Tropical Assemblages

Tropical architecture was fabricated to make modern architecture comfortable in Europe’s warm and humid colonial territories. The global history of its proliferation across the equatorial zones is often told through its techno-scientific agendas and the varying geographies where it was employed, cast as a reflection of the modern world’s increasing mobility in which common nodes of connection proliferated across metropolitan cities.1 But within Africa and in relation to the departures taken at the University of Ile-Ife, the identities embodied in tropical architecture offer a more intimate and ambivalent way of recounting the import of its genesis. The co-definition of building, bodies and education during tropical architecture’s West African moment from the 1950s to the 1970s involves an assemblage relevant both for processes of decolonization in general and contemporary critical design practice in particular.

Gordon Cullen, illustration for Special Issue of The Architectural Review.

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

“imaginary Mies van der Rohe house” from Fry, M. and J. Drew: Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, B.T. Batsford, London 1956, p. 60.

Modern bodies / exposing skins

An antidote to protect the vulnerability of human and architectonic skins in the tropics transplanted approaches previously applied to render Western bodies healthy. I am referring specifically to architecture developed after 1918 as part of a widespread project of modern public health policy with roots in European and North American trauma. The postwar influenza epidemic had left millions dead and endemic tuberculosis, a particular scourge of rapid urbanization, spread easily through human contact in the crowded conditions in many working-class dwellings.

John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood, Allen and Hanbury’s building, Lagos.

At the Bauhaus, as Torsten Blume explains,5 the building became an agent of health by facilitating the exposure of the body to the outside by bringing in sunlight. Katerina Ruedi Ray has discussed the inherent vitalism of postwar building tendencies—demonstrated by, for instance, an image of a student family popping out to the balcony of their apartment to meet the energizing sun.6 This “naked culture”7 was also realized and mediated through photographs taken of Bauhaus bodies. But the relationship between buildings, the containers of bodies, and sun and climate was not only a spontaneous reaction. It developed scientific rigor under Hannes Meyer’s research and practice around orientation, where he maximized human exposure to sunlight through the precise placement of apertures and the spacing of buildings. Arieh Sharon, future architect of the Ile-Ife campus, worked under Meyer as a draughtsman and project manager of the teachers’ residences at the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau-Waldfrieden from 1928–30,8 absorbing this technical knowledge during this assignment.

Exposure to sunlight as a “cure” for tuberculosis was no longer a design concern after the discovery of penicillin in the 1950s, but it has been shown subsequently to relate to the body’s production of Vitamin D and a heightened immune response that results. The healthful ideal of the glass dwelling had, however, taken root in diasporic modernist cultures and was taken to an extreme in the Farnsworth House, which provided merely a roof and some screening to conceal the most intimate activities. A diagram of this “imaginary Mies van der Rohe house” was to be used by Maxwell Fry to explain the core of the tropical house.9 In effect, however, this glass box failed in warm climates, as solar radiation changed frequency in its passage through different materials: this proxy skin of glass required further design modifications.

Training bodies / constructing skin

In the 1956 book10 that defined tropical architecture for a broad audience and which was addressed to the imagined future indigenous architects of the tropics, Fry and Drew collated diverse ideas of the healthy modernist buildings which served as references for their work in West Africa. They had practically concluded their major institutional projects in West Africa—mostly schools and the University College in Ibadan. While they were to undertake further work in the region as planners and commercial architects, the text was didactic in nature, with the forthcoming transition to independence in mind. Emphasizing the architects’ own mobility at a time when it was unclear where the office’s future commissions would take place, the book inferred that the tropical zones were somewhat equivalent in their climates.11 This form of techno-science, as Jiat-Hwee Chang explains, allowed for the replacement of indigenous or localized climate knowledge with what Latour calls the “immutable mobile,” referring to both the colonizing (or modern, colonialized) subject and the bubble-environment in which he functioned.12

The diagrams in Tropical Architecture show this mobile subject’s body as liberated from any specific racial identity. He is defined, rather, through a climatic response gained through acclimatization, state of health and clothing. But the “clothing” with the greatest impact on the colonial subject’s comfort was, in effect, a model of shelter reduced to a thin, single plane on the sides and a hat-like double skin above, filtering and shielding the body from the sun. In translating concerns from the temperate north, tropical architecture become more about shade than solar ingress. The dynamism of the sun, in turn, created a challenge for design, as it was needed to illuminate a modern, bright interior while becoming a source of discomfort in excess. This was addressed through the techné of mechanical shade devices requiring constant adjustment. To manage this additional skin—as used by the Architects’ co-partnership in school commissions, by John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood in the Allen and Hanbury House, as well as the Christ Church Cathedral School in Lagos—young tropical bodies required training in temporally precise movement.

Proxy bodies / vital skins

Fry Drew partnership, the Library at University College, Ibadan, © Iain Jackson.

At the same time as disciplining the bodies of West African subjects to manage the built envelopes of their modern lives, the visual schemes used by these projects began to cite diverse subjects who acted as more than bio-technical agents. The murals that began to appear on the facades and in the lobbies of modern buildings, often executed by the Nigerian artist Yusuf Grillo,13 showed transitional urban dwellers: streetwise newspaper sellers who tracked the spread of literacy or basket carriers who transported fresh produce to the city. This search for transitional metaphors to indigenize modern design is also found in the references to stamped fabrics and basketry design in the patterning of the brise soleil of the major commission by the Fry Drew partnership—the library at University College, Ibadan.

A photograph of the University College library block appears in an issue of Architectural Design,14 with the ventilation walkway between the ornamental solar skin and the storm shutters for the stacks overlain with an image of a man in Hausa dress. By associating the building’s skin with northern Nigerian robes, this montaged image suggested that the building technology could compensate for an education system where some students were expected to dress in colonial uniforms.15 This anonymous indigenous body, wrapped in ethnic fabric, was appropriated as an architectural metaphor for the vital agency of climatic forms.16

Independent bodies / fabricated skins

In the architecture that emerged during the post-independence era, colonial practices were critiqued, perhaps unconsciously, through the appropriation of the liveliness of local bodies comfortable in their own skin and clothing. Ulli Beier, the German-Jewish editor, writer and scholar who worked closely with Nigerian artists was an outspoken critic of the “sterility” of tropical architecture. In one photograph he poses with the Ataoja of Osogbo Oba S.A. Adenle I in front of an aluminum panel embedded with the anima of symbolic creatures.17 In another image the architect Olumide Olumuyiwa, comfortable in his dress, stood on the threshold of his own modernist design. While developing his design for Jaja Hall at the University of Lagos, Alan Vaughan-Richards extensively researched the ergonomics of future students’ traditional dress. In northern Ghana, Max Bond did away with the conventional use of the wall as the building boundary in his design for Bolgatanga library, reverting to defining a zone of shade where use alone would mark the edge the building’s programmatic function.

Oluwole Olumuyiwa, Crusader House.

Despite the creativity of this transitional period, since the late 1960s, air-conditioning equipment designed in cooler climates became a substitute for mechanically engaging with the tropical climate. An exception to this ubiquitous trend is the Dominican chapel designed by Demas Nwoko in Ibadan.18 Nwoko inducted flows of cool air by placing evaporative ponds at the ground level of the chapel’s spiraling interior space. In this project, the crosses inscribed in the thick walls allude to another form of embodiment, in which the Christian icon replaces Yoruba spirit bodies.

Tropical architecture / building skin

The specific quality of tropical architecture’s practice lay in its capacity to be a proxy skin. This codification had conceptual roots in Gottfried Semper’s elemental theories,19 was articulated in Bauhaus construction knowledge, and was a function of architecture’s environmental role as the frontier of bodily comfort. While tropical architecture came into being as a way to adapt and disseminate the iconic naked modernist box, somewhat uniformly applied through its codification within colonial knowledge infrastructures, at the end of the colonial project and into independence it mutated into diverse iterations of the envelope form. In this later period, a more complex range of bodies were exposed, patterned or concealed through the building’s skin. The epidermal identification is not lost but rather comes to mirror the condition of ambivalence that Bhabha identifies as a central aspect of the appropriation of colonial culture by the formerly colonized.20 Over time, tropical architecture’s function as a building skin marked differentiated and shifting identities.

  • 1 See Anthony D. King: Urbanism, Colonialism and the World-Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System, Routledge, London and New York 1990. Jiat-Hwee Chang: A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience, Routledge, London and New York 2016. Hannah le Roux: "The Networks of Tropical Architecture," pp. 337-354. In: The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2003.
  • 2 Unattributed Author: "Recent Educational Buildings in the Gold Coast." In: The Architectural Review, May 1953, pp. 298–310.
  • 3 See “Typical Poor Village House” in Jane B. Drew and E. Maxwell Fry with Harry L. Ford: Village Housing in the Tropics with special reference to West Africa, Lund Humphries, London 1947, p. 31.
  • 4 M. Fry: Learning from the Tropics, Pidgeon Audiovisual Library, M. Fry. London, Pidgeon Digital, 1979.
  • 5 Torsten Blume: "The body must no longer be disregarded," pp. 10–19. In: Bauhaus magazine, No. 5, Seeman Verlag, Leipzig 2013.
  • 6 Katerina Ruedi Ray: Bauhaus Dream-house: Modernity and Globalization, Routledge, London and New York,  2010.
  • 7 Blume, 2013, Op.cit.
  • 8 See Anja Guttenberger: The “School in the Woods” as a Socio-pedagogical Ideal – Functional Analyses and Photographs by Peterhans. Available at: Accessed November 20, 2018.
  • 9 Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, B.T. Batsford, London 1956, p. 60.
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland: The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics, Routledge, London and New York, 2014.
  • 12 Chang: A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture, p.104.
  • 13 Yusuf Grillo was a member of the Zaria Art Society, a group of artists who developed a regionalist approach to representation of the newly independent country. See: P. Chike Dike and Paul Oyelola: The Zaria Art Society: A New Consciousness, National Gallery of Art, Lagos 1998, pp.87–96.
  • 14 Unattributed Author: “Recent Work and Some Projects by Fry Drew & Partners and Fry Drew Drake & Lasdun in West Africa.” In: Architectural Design, May 1955, pp.137–174.
  • 15 See, for instance, the image of trainee nurses in: Robert Coughlan: Tropical Africa, Time-Life Books, New York 1963, pp. 136–137.
  • 16 Lately, as narrated in Hannah le Roux: “Building on the Boundary: Modern Architecture in the Tropics” Social Identities, July 2004, 10/04 pp. 439–453. The library and residences are crowded with more bodies than imagined. These edge zones have been reclaimed as lived space in real terms, eclipsing this symbolic representation.
  • 17 The background and positions of Beier, Olumuyiwa and Vaughan-Richards are further developed in Hannah le Roux: “Architecture after Independence,” pp.131-142. In: Manuel Herz and Ingrid Schröder (eds.): African Modernism: The Architecture of independence. Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia. Park Books, Zurich 2015. See also Eckhard Breitinger: “In memory of Ulli Beier,” pp. 67–70. In: Centre for African Studies, University of Leeds 2011. (accessed 16 February 2019).
  • 18 Information on Demas Nwoko’s Dominican Institute Chapel (1977) is available at: (accessed November 20, 2018).
  • 19 Gottfried Semper: The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.
  • 20 Homi K. Bhabha: "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817," pp. 144–165. In: Critical Enquiry, No. 12, 1985.
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