Fry and Drew likewise had experience working in Ghana during British colonial rule, and in 1951 became part of the planning committee for the new town of Chandigarh, working together with Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier on its urban planning scheme. Chandigarh has since become one of the most well-known example of the modernist approach to tropical architecture.4 But Fry and Drew not only developed a study program in London and, due to their work in India and West Africa, were influential figures in developing the tropical architecture discourse, they were also influential on account of their writing. In 1956 the couple published the aforementioned book, Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, which offered a broad array of practical tips and aimed to be both an educational tool and a technical manual.5 For decades it had a paradigmatic influence, especially upon modernist European architects, who came to recognize that a building’s climatic and cultural context were relevant to new building methods and concepts in non-European localities. Together with urban planner Harry L. Ford, the couple also authored Village Housing in the Tropics: With Special References to West Africa, based on their empirical studies in British West Africa during the Second World War. Today their books are often discussed as forerunners to green architecture due to their contribution to knowledge about regional low-cost housing in the tropics.
This new climatic and “culturally-responsive” approach within modernist architecture was, in fact, introduced by a younger generation of architects, many of whom had gained experience assisting Le Corbusier on projects he realized in colonial and postcolonial spaces, including Marseille, Casablanca, Algiers and Chandigarh. This colonial-modern and proto-global architecture resulted from the search for a new synthesis between modern/industrialized and vernacular building practices marked as indigenous or regional—a perspective that was heavily debated at the ninth CIAM congress, held at Aix en Provence in 1953, a year before the Department for Tropical Architecture in London was founded. After the Second World War, CIAM became increasingly international, with new members joining from a broader range of regions. Congress meetings had also begun to host project presentations by young architecture, as well as urban proposals sited in non-European localities. This internationalization process is reflected in a 1947 letter Josep Luis Sert wrote to Siegfried Giedion: “I think, we cannot continue to consider Central Europe as the main field of interest for CIAM.”6
Central concerns and debates at the 1953 CIAM meeting centered around new building approaches, marking a shift from architecture-as-urbanism (new towns) to cultural and climate-specific design solutions. This shift from more homogenous architectural solutions to broader concepts of climate, culture and emergent new town planning paradigms was expressed by the wish to create a Charter of Habitat to serve as a future CIAM guideline, a discussion begun the previous year at a meeting of younger CIAM members held in Sigtuna, Sweden, which focused in part on formulating a notion of “habitat”—a task complicated by the differing associations participants brought to the word, as well as to the related terms “logis” and “dwelling.” The meeting had ended with a call by Parisian architect Georges Candilis that CIAM should create a “Charte de l’Habitat” that, as the Athens Charter previously had, would guide the development of modern urbanism. This general discussion represented a paradigmatic shift that is today associated with the “Anthropological Turn” in architecture and planning discourse.7 At the 1953 CIAM congress, the younger generation of modernist architects presented not only architecture or modern infrastructure projects, but also ethnological and sociological studies of Mediterranean dwellings and building traditions, as well as improvised self-built practices of the sort to be found in the shanty towns of colonial cities such as Algiers and Casablanca. By presenting self-built environments, Gamma Group (Groupe d’Architectes Modernes Maroccain) and street usage in working class districts (Alison and Peter Smithson) as models for understanding the interrelation between the public and private sphere, these young architects were also offering an alternate interpretation of the CIAM’s official conception of a planned Charter of Habitat. For members of the older CIAM generation—architects and planners such as Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, Luis Sert and Siegfried Giedeon—the charter would have meant:
“Walking radius as a universal problem; means of expressing the connection and interaction between the human cell and the environment; necessary degrees of privacy; value of vertical integration of age groups; advantages of compact planning versus continuous scatter; relation of the Habitat to the core; means of expressing this continuity with the past; need for gaiety in the Habitat.”8
The new understanding of the built environment developed through qualitative and quantitative studies, instead presented dwelling as a social practice, representing a radical shift in the modern movement’s conception of housing. For instance, habitat meant for the Gamma Group an idea of housing as an evolutionary, adaptive process suited to local climate conditions and building traditions. Their premise was to start with basic infrastructure and grow flats/houses according to an anticipated rise in the standard of living. As Christina Linortner notes, the MARS Group also objected to the official idea of a universal habitat charter, based as it was on the assumption that diverse societies and locales possess identical needs. As members of the MARS Group, Fry and Drew were already studying low-cost housing designed on the basis of specific local building practices.
The 1953 Aix-en-Provence conference can be understood as a paradigmatic event, a shift in building discourses that in time became the blueprint for a broader approach to architecture-as-urbanism, encompassing the relationship between modern building strategies and socio-politics. But in these new analyses of a climate-responsive cultural/contextual or local/sociological approach, the unjust system of colonial occupation and governance, in the very moment of its decline, was frequently overlooked. Both colonial condition and anti-colonial struggles frequently became blank pages in studies of so-called local climate and culture, as if the concept of dwelling as a social practice, improvised construction practices and vernacular architecture were phantasmal indicators of critical local engagement. The new research methods introduced into architectural discourse were mainly guided by the interdisciplinary approach of structuralism, which had become a central theoretical reference point in the 1950s and 1960s, when anthropology had become the predominating social science. In this school of thinking, the interrelationships found in human activities were studied within a comparative semiotic framework, but when deployed within CIAM presentation displays and housing design proposals such frameworks were also abstracted and failed to reflect the concrete historical or contemporary social condition for which they were developed.
Unto the present day, the insights and presentations of the younger generation who participated in the ninth CIAM meeting are perceived as a critical intervention, and this is certainly true with respect to their critique of the functional separation in urban planning expressed in Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter, which classified and divided cityscapes under the categories of housing, work, leisure and transportation. It was the proposals concerning dwelling as a social practice—growing houses and regionalized schemes—that caused the most heated debates between the younger architects and the leading figures of CIAM. The Charter of Habitat was thus never finished nor written. This famous dispute was also formative for a group of younger architects of differing backgrounds charged with organizing the tenth CIAM congress in Dubrovnik, who would later meet under the name Team 10.9
The conceptual opposition to the proposed Charter of Habitat was a sign of the dissolution of CIAM as a leading organization of the modernist movement. This process was not only remarkable as a “modernist scandal” but also seemed to mirror a broader shift in the subjectivity of those architects and planners who were increasingly starting to acknowledge—alongside extant techno-scientific approaches—local cultural and climatic conditions as well as premodern building practices. This increased interest in vernacular forms of building in modern architecture that arose in the decades after the Second World War—a turn towards usage, everyday practices, vernacular and self-building techniques of inhabitants, as well as towards the relationship between private and public sphere—is indicative of this change in perspective.10 These discourses were also popularized by Bernard Rudofsky’s famous 1964 exhibit Architecture without Architects at the Museum of Modern Art New York.
After CIAM disbanded in 1959, Jaap Bakema, a former member of the Dutch CIAM delegation and a Team 10 member, established The Post Box for the Development of Habitat, a newsletter Bakema began in 1960 to maintain international correspondence, including ties with the UN and UNESCO.11 As Christina Linortner argues, with the end of CIAM as an organizational structure, these debates, promulgated in a global exchange of planning ideas through direct and indirect connections with international organizations (e.g. the Ford Foundation and Delos Symposia) led to Habitat I, the important UN Conference on Human Settlements held in 1976 in Vancouver—the first international UN conference to fully recognize the challenge of urbanization on a global scale. The Habitat discourse and the broader climate and culturally responsive approach within architecture thus began to increasingly correspond with UN concerns over housing for “developing countries” at a time when urbanization and its impacts were not prominent priorities for the UN. Habitat I resulted in the creation, on 19 December 1977, of the precursors of UN-Habitat: The United Nations Commission on Human Settlements (an intergovernmental body) and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (commonly referred to as “Habitat”), which served as the executive secretariat of the commission. Urbanism was treated here as a problem of uncontrollable forces as well as a bio-political problem—as a consequence of widespread migration from rural areas to cities and of global population growth. Models for low-cost housing that would suit this emerging global and post-colonial context were debated, giving European modernists a new platform to realize and adopt their ideas, again mostly on an aggregate scale.
As a result, a number of regionalist concepts utilizing vernacular architecture and regional building traditions emerged around the globe.12 Different planning concepts and a diversity of practices became a style or basis for “climate sensitive” approaches within modernist housing programs. In the colonial context, references to the vernacular also contained bio-political implications serving colonial/apartheid politics by refashioning official colonial architecture, with all its legitimizing connotations, in another guise; in post-war Britain they effected non-plan movements celebrating the self-builder and local building practices. Focusing on the specificity of the contextual frame makes it possible to understand the discourse of the vernacular as an agent facilitating very different outcomes.13 Thus, it is important to reconsider and revisit the various contexts, materials and discourses which emerged in this period, as “regional modernism” (or “Third World Modernism” as it has been called lately) reflects or even can be identified as a genealogical precursor to today’s sustainability paradigms, which still operate partially under the flag of development aid programs. Texts penned by different contemporary authors present tropical architecture in particular as an ecological forefather to the contextual/regional approach, one mindful of locally available resources and prevailing economic and environmental conditions. It is debatable if this was tropical architecture’s core concern at the outset, as I will discuss later in this article. Nevertheless, what was foregrounded within the discourse of architecture and planning was that most unpredictable agent: climate. But as the saying goes: “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.”14
The decline of European colonial empires not only entailed the repression of revolts or wholesale military interventions but also introduced a whole new set of governmental strategies partially embedded in the paradigms of the Western democratic welfare state, including public programs for housing, education and healthcare. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the modernist discourse had become the dominant urban planning discourse and, consequently, the social role of modernist architects changed significantly. Architects in France, Sweden, Germany, England, Switzerland and Austria transformed themselves into planners of the Nation, building large-scale social-housing projects and new town schemes. With this development, modernist architecture became an instrument of the nation state, and the success or failure of architectural and urban planning schemes a matter of politics. Seen from another angle, this shift in the societal and political function of the architect is mirrored in new studies of the usage of public space, the environment and dwellers as such. In the “during-war” phase, modern architects became governmental bureaucrats: in the post-war-war period, architecture was hailed as a profession that could devise solutions to social problems, with the result that solving societal concerns became one significant part of the architect’s brief. Often the ascendency of modern architecture is seen as one aspect of overcoming and belatedly acknowledging the Nazi ban on modernism. But it is rarely considered that tropical architecture’s discourse is itself an aspect and effect of colonial occupation; even after 1945 much of the sub-tropical and tropical belt, with the exception of most countries in Central and Latin America, were still governed by a small group of Western European countries or the United States.
As the architectural historian Mark Crinson and other contributors to the reader, Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past; Rebellions for the Future makes clear, during the inter-war years, many architects and planners learned their craft not only on the European continent but in the global South as well, under conditions of colonialism and anti-colonial rebellion. Whether at home or abroad, this generation of architects mostly worked for the same nation-state, for it was the European nations’ respective colonial offices which designated colonial territory as an “urban laboratory”—as the French did in North Africa—where building “for large numbers” was developed and tested.15 Findings arrived at under colonial or postcolonial conditions in Africa and India produced knowledge that flowed into European suburban planning, as in the housing projects designed by Georges Candilis and Shadrach Woods. Colonial mass housing approaches wandered over continents to the edges of Europe’s cities;16 large-scale residential complexes in Europe remain transnational contact zones, where the encounter between a development’s inhabitants and the architects, planners and national and/or local governments who seek to “manage” their everyday existence continue frequently to possess a conflictual tenor—one indication that the power relations created by the colonial techno-scientific approach to planning has had a lasting effect.
A little-known project by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew is instructive in this regard. This is the late colonial village development of Tema Manhean in Ghana (1947), where other central figures of the tropical architecture and UN housing discourse were later involved—namely Konstantin Doxiadis, who would develop a complete new scheme for Tema in 1961, four years after Ghana gained independence from Britain. But before him, Fry and Drew had been contracted to create a new housing scheme for a village population living near the seafront. This was a state project, initiated by the colonial authorities, just as later Fry and Drew would design school buildings and university campuses for the now independent states of Ghana and Nigeria. The master plan was designed by the colonial office, as the British planned to build a new harbor in the Gulf of Guinea, necessitating the relocation of villagers to a new housing estate. Financially, the new port was an important infrastructure project, being that Britain exported a variety of natural resources from Ghana, including cocoa, ivory, diamonds, gold, grain, metal ore and timber. The kingdoms residing on the so-called Gold Coast, a British colony since 1901, were considered a single unit, and its territorial administration regarded it as a model colony, where experiments with new methods of governance, including housing projects, might be undertaken.17
To maintain productivity in the colonies, the British learned they needed local cooperation. They gave partial autonomy to local populations and considered (or imagined) they had a civilizing mission to perform—one even the military went along with. Formative to this governmental approach was a book published in 1922, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa by Frederick John Lugard, who proposed indirect rule and state-sponsored colonization, dividing and protecting the colonizers from the colonized, the missionaries from local chiefs, the local people from each other and Britain from neighboring foreign powers. An important consideration for Lugard was the fact that West Africa was home to both the Ashanti and Dahomey kingdoms, each of which had been involved in the slave trade and for many centuries were thus in contact with different European and African powers. Lugard’s scheme also proposed taxing the entire population—of vital importance for both British commercial interests as well as to underwrite a regional industrial development program that would also include funding for education and health programs for the local population.