A Hot Topic

Tropical Architecture and Its Aftermath

Ibadan, Capital and Seat of Government, postcard, 1960s.

In the spring of 2016 I sat down with Zvi Efrat, an architect, architectural historian and colleague from Tel Aviv to discuss a possible collaboration on a project that would later become bauhaus imaginista. I had been struck by the campus of Ife University (today called Obafemi Awolowo University), an impressive post-war modernist project in Western Nigeria, built between the 1960s and early 1980s by architect and Bauhaus graduate Arieh Sharon. As with most modernist buildings in Africa, the campus is relatively unknown within international architecture discourse. As Efrat is a specialist on Sharon’s urbanization programs and town planning dating from the years immediately after the declaration of Israeli statehood, our discussion of the Ife Campus became the starting point for a new film project realized within bauhaus imaginista’s framework. In my first vision, I imagined the film as a critical reflection on development aid programs and the top-down strategy of a European-trained modernist—in short, as an episode from the history of how a Eurocentric modernist colonial planning attitude was prolonged in Africa, one that included the various forms of anti-colonial resistance that informed it. But during Zvi’s research process it became clear that the history of the campus points us to an example of an architectural project taking place at a transitory moment of decolonization, a symbol and statement by the newly independent government against the colonial educational system, including that system’s curricula, as well as the architecture and infrastructure projects favored previously by the colonial authorities.

For the political leaders of Nigeria’s Western Region of the late 1950s, Israel had something in common with post-independence Nigeria. In both young states new infrastructure projects, including new university campuses, were understood as a cultural act of nation-building. The plan and design of the Ife Campus, was thus situated within a larger historical context of decolonization, nation-building and—as I wish to show in this article—a field of architectural and pedagogical discourse in which it was imbricated, differentiated from and, finally, chose to resist against. One of the reasons to build the Ife campus lay in the educational goals of the Western Nigeria regional government, which clearly differed from educational goals pursued in colonial times, as the post-independence government sought to create equal educational opportunities for the Nigerian population and to incorporate African philosophy and language into a post-independence curriculum.

But the Ife campus was also an architectural and political statement against former colonial building policy. In the case of the Ife University, this was due to the fact that the building complex initiated by the post-independence government was strategically situated not far from the Ibadan University Campus, built by the British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew—established in 1948 as the University College of Ibadan, an affiliate of the University of London, which supervised its academic programs and awarded degrees until 1967. The Ibadan campus is known today as a signature example of the ideas Fry and Drew expressed in their famous book, Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zone,1 developed within the British architecture circles of the MARS group (Modern Architectural Research Group, founded in 1933). Both the tropical architecture discourse in general and British notions of modernism in particular were both embedded in larger discussions on climatic and culturally sensitive approaches to building developed within the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne—CIAM) from the 1950s onward—notions rooted in the hygienic and medical discourses of colonial occupation.


Tropical architecture had become a topic within architectural discourse and practice before the study program’s foundation: large conferences—like the March 1953 conference on tropical architecture at University College London, or another which had taken place two years prior in Venezuela—had already established the issue internationally. In 1954 the Department of Tropical Architecture was founded by Fry and Drew, together with their colleague James Cubbitt, at the Architectural Association (AA) London. The AA Department of Tropical Architecture ran until 1971 and was then transferred to the University of London and renamed the “Development Planning Unit,” which remains active today. The AA program included lectures on colonial planning and housing, studies on the architecture of North-Africa, models of low-cost housing, reflections on British architects who had built in the tropics, investigations in the so-called field of African studies, as well as regional studies conducted by British scholars in the West Indies, India and West Africa. It taught and was a reflection of the “new” role of the architect in developing teaching methods, climate-specific materials and construction techniques in the era before decolonization, when international development aid programs had yet to emerge.

At its onset, the Department of Tropical Architecture at AA London was lead by Otto Königsberger. In the 1930s Königsberger fled Nazi Germany for Cairo, and attained firsthand experience working in tropical India—initially as chief architect for Mysore State. After independence and partition in 1948, he became the director of housing for the government of India, designing the new city schemes for Orissa (later Bhubaneswar), as well as heading programs charged with designing and producing refugee shelters and pre-fabricated housing. He acted as a senior adviser to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the 1950s onwards, and was a speaker at the first UN Conference on Human Settlement in 1976.2 As Ola Uduku highlights:

“An offshoot of the AA Tropical School was the School of Architecture at Ghana’s University of Kumasi. Otto Koenigsberger, the then director of the AA Tropical School, had been invited by the University of Science and Technology Kumasi’s Vice Chancellor to redevelop the architecture course there. Most of the staff at the newly oriented architecture school had been lecturers at, or students of the AA Tropical Architecture course. This fledgling school was at the epicenter of architectural education in West Africa for its first decade of existence, with eminent architectural visitors such as Buckminster Fuller, and an international cast of academic staff.”3

University of Ibedan, postcard, 1960s.

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.

Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, B.T. Batsford limited, London 1956.

Britain’s post-war state-funded building projects in West Africa were situated within this larger economic and developmental model. In Tema, the displacement of the people to accommodate industrial development by relocating them to a newly built modernist village, as Iain Jackson and Rexford Assasie Oppong point out, were strenuously resisted by the local population, making it necessary for Fry and Drew not only to develop new housing for the villagers but also involve themselves in mediation efforts in order to convince the local population of the good design solution they had arrived at. When in 1957 Ghana became the first African nation to attain independence, the country’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, had previously been a negotiator with the British regarding the details of the step-by-step program that would lead to Ghanaian independence. Such an incremental approach precisely mirrored the indirect rule concept referred to above, which might be best understood as a low-friction way of transforming planning measures taken under colonial rule into development aid—a process anti-colonial thinkers have come to refer to as “neo-colonialism.”

As Hannah Feldman argues in her book From a Nation Torn, acknowledging that high-modernist discourses should be situated within the larger frame of decolonization necessarily includes discussing the term “post-war” itself. Feldman proposes to describe the time of high-modernism not as a post-war phase but, rather, as a “during-war” phase. This shift in perspective clarifies that the end of empires— the era of decolonization—entailed ongoing wars against decolonization, against anti-colonial, anti-imperialist forces. The independence struggles of former colonies as well as the wars conducted in the context of Cold War proxy struggles included wars against national and international political parties, against emergent political leaders, as well as wars against revolutionaries, revolutionary sympathizers and oppositional forces of all stripes. Korea, Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guinea Bissau, Zaire/DRC, Zimbabwe, Mozambique … This series of colonial and imperial wars, as well as the suppression of riots, demonstrations and struggles within the heart of the empire (such as the killing of Algerian protesters in Paris in October 1961) do not, as Feldman suggests, allow an easy differentiation between a time of war and a time after war. Indeed, the post-war period was instead a time of multiple wars, where territories, discourses and strategies shifted and continue to shift into the present day.

Jane Drew was still expressing in her 1963 article, “Indigenous Architecture: Architecture in the Tropics,” a specific paternalism enmeshed in the development aid ideology:

“Architecture for the developing peoples; as they are now well called—the millions in India, Africa, and the Middle East who are fast becoming part of the modern world—is a very great problem, particularly since education is acquired more quickly than wealth. An architect, if he wishes to devote part of his life to helping such people, should know the basic requirements of tropical building and the great difference in building for a hot-dry or a hot-wet climate. The subject is a complicated one, for there are differences not only in housing but town planning and the methods of siting buildings.”18

Drew not only wrote many articles, she also produced manual-like publications and established, together with her husband (as mentioned previously), a study program in London that trained many African students. This last aspect of their practice is of some importance, for the idea of educating the colonized in order to enable local participation was a perspective followed by the modernization programs and modernist design solutions that after 1957, with respect to Ghana, came to be labeled “development aid,” even if their origins lay in British colonial rule. In fact, colonial administration and development aid were the two governance regimes within which the British tropical architecture discourse was embedded. What is left unsaid by Drew—although she was well-known for being the chief mediator on the couple’s projects (as well as for her social abilities in the building process)—is that, for the architects, it was likely a problematic situation to work in terms of an entirely top-down process of displacement. To be involved in a process that elicited strong resistance from the local population while simultaneously attempting to study local African ways of living and creating “habitat” might appear, at the very least, two-faced. The paradoxical undertaking of studying vernacular practices while simultaneously facilitating their destruction is important to note, as the Tema project, like Fry and Drew’s design for the University in Ibadan (their most famous building project in West-Africa), was conducted at a time when the clamor for independence and self-rule in West Africa had grown very loud indeed.

in: Illustrated, 18 February 1956.

University of Ibadan, Kutti hall, postcard, 1960s.

In the context of Cold War politics and the decline of colonial empires, the concept of development aid became politically powerful in this period. Conveniently, this discourse also mirrored the geopolitical and economic interests of the United States and its allies. But similar asymmetrical patterns are also to be found in the aid programs initiated by the Soviet Union to benefit so-called “brother states.” According to Aram Ziai, these post-war development discourses originated in colonial discourse and can be traced to documents such as the British Colonial Development Act from 1929 or throughout the official literature pertaining to France’s “civilizing mission” (whose origins can be traced back to the writings of Comte, the Saint-­‐Simonists and others). In the era of decolonization, the historical project of civilizing the uncivilized transformed “during-war” projects (aimed at soliciting the support of colonial subjects in the war effort) into the goal of “developing the underdeveloped” following the war’s end. In so doing, the United States and its allies divided the globe into two new categories, the developed and underdeveloped. This discursive division emanating from the heart of empire proceeds from a universal modernization ideal that understood the historical processes of social change in Western Europe and North America (and Japan) as mankind’s historical mission.

The development of a modern Western identity, as Stuart Hall put it, was already dependent on demarcating non-Western societies as backward and different. The basic pattern of postwar development aid derives from this figure of backwardness. As Ziai writes, the development discourse can be reduced to the following formulation: “The south has problems (underdevelopment, lack of capital, technology, etc.), the north has solutions (modernization, investments, experts).”19 To conceive other societies as backward implies the continuation of a notional Western colonial supremacy, Ziai claims, while the idea of modernization itself suggests such aid is a moral intervention. The materially developed societies in the West became an ideal historical standard and on the basis of this standard other societies were rendered deficient. The therapy implied is this: societies must become modern, industrialized, secular, and “productive.” The critique of capitalism as itself constantly producing underdevelopment stays out of the picture.

Modernist architecture and housing projects in non-Western contexts played a highly symbolic role in the shift from a “civilizing” to a “developing” colonial modernity. In French North Africa, so-called culturally specific low-rise building programs were developed for Muslim workers. High-rise housing projects were created for the Evoluee, a local group, which, based on French ideology, spoke French, followed French laws and usually held white-collar jobs (though rarely higher than clerks).20 When after the end of the Second World War decolonization began in earnest, the “civilizing” discourse had already turned into a “development” discourse—an effect of anti-colonial struggles and new concepts of colonial governance attempting to accommodate claims for independence. But the spatial and class divisions created by these building programs remained in place (the beginning of this development discourse might, in fact, be traced to US president Harry S. Truman’s second inaugural speech of 1949, when he promised to help people in “underdeveloped territories” with financial investment and by promoting technological progress to create better living conditions).

Some building projects adopted colonial building methods or a modernist vocabulary of forms—as in the case of Chandigarh—and in their realization employed local methods of building and materials based on manual labor. There was also at the same time a synthesis of regional architectural traditions and the modern language of form, which can be read as a new aesthetic mirroring the further political interest of the former empires in their former colonies—a rupture in the modernist language that, due to the decline of the empires, chose to adopt a more contextual approach. The asymmetrical power relation between the colonizer and the colonized was also overlaid with socio-political/cultural power relations in colonial and postcolonial societies, starting from ground floor schemes in Chandigarh, in which the relation between local inhabitants and their servants were reified, as well on the planning level between European “master” and Indian “office” architects.21 The division of labor kept intact—known today as the global division of labor—was already expressed in Jane Drew’s previously quoted article:

“We found in India that it was cheaper to use seven hundred people to excavate than to employ an excavating machine! Le Corbusier’s High Court and Secretariat were built with the aid of donkeys, men, women, and children. For our own work in West Africa, mammies, as the mothers are called, often laboriously broke the stones used as aggregate for the concrete.”22


The founding of the Department of Tropical Architecture in 1954 takes place in the midst of successful anti-colonial uprising all over the world and new governing strategies and/or counter-insurgencies undertaken by the former colonial empires and their allies. Maxwell Fry was in his early years a staff officer of the Royal Engineers, who first brought him to West Africa: when Otto Königsberger returned to Europe in 1953, before taking over as head of the Department of Tropical Architecture at AA he was first a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This relationship between hygiene, tropical medicine and architecture was no accident. Discourses on sanitation and hygiene had explicitly been part of colonial settlement planning and remained at the foundation of development building projects in the mid-twentieth century.

One of the most enduring themes in the history of European global imaginaries is the tropics, which since the Enlightenment has been associated by Europeans with a whole set of fantasies, fears and imaginaries. In contrast to Europe’s temperate climate, with its associations with cultivated, civilized society, the tropical climate was perceived as exaggerated, unhealthy, debilitating and conducive to degeneracy. Hence, governing in the tropics presented many problems for colonial rulers, some real and some ideological. On the one hand, the “tropical” as such was perceived as possessing a distinct set of natural, climatic and socio-cultural attributes that were simultaneously fascinating, enigmatic, dangerous and irrational.23 The tropical environment caused unknown diseases in the colonizers and due to its climate and terrain was hard to conquer. British (as well as French and Belgian) colonial administrators in the tropics all had to confront the difficulty of permanent settlement. Colonial officers were stationed for brief periods of time; their families only came for short visits, if at all. The emergence of tropical architecture under colonial rule was an attempt to make the unfamiliar familiar, the alarming harmless, the unexpected calculable.24

Hygiene measures and new building techniques were charged with solving the biggest problem in the tropics for the Western colonial project, that of tropical diseases such as yellow fever, typhus, cholera and malaria. Not coincidentally, the period in which Europeans conquered most of tropical Africa (between 1880 and the First World War) was also a time of rapid advances in tropical medicine. Fahim Amir states that an essential role in colonial town planning was to control the spread of diseases caused by the mosquito and other parasites. Separating European reservations from African settlements with a non-residential area, a “building-free zone,” was promoted by tropical medicine at this time. Such “defensive” belts became an integral part of colonial planning, assuring the division between the urban and the rural, native quarters and the colonial hill stations that were implemented in West Africa (as well as in India), which overlooked swampy regions and the local population.25 The aforementioned colonial administrator Frederick John Lugard was one of the promoters of this urban apartheid concept:

“The green belt or Zone Sanitaire is a tool to defend against all things coming from ‘outside’ such as robbery, wild animals, fire, migration, and diseases with the aim to encourage a high standard of living and promote a sense of citizenship, pride and enterprise.”26

Green belts became an essential tool of tropical colonial governance. As colonization advanced, the forms of these belts became more sophisticated. One method of ensuring separation between colonizers and colonized that found favor was to create parks around the colonial quarters: “All the entrances to every town should be through a park, that is to say a belt of park of about a mile or two in diameter should entirely surround every town. ... This would greatly contribute to the health and pleasure of the inhabitants; it would render the surrounding properties beautiful and give a magnificent appearance to a town, from whatever quarter viewed.”27 Another colonial imaginary was to create a health or tourist resort out of the “swampy jungle,” transforming a threatening climate into a nice place to visit. Moreover, the discovery of mosquitoes as disease carriers inspired large-scale terra-forming projects. As Amir highlights: “The U.S. military expansion in the Caribbean, especially with the building of the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, was now possible. The chief of the US Bureau of Entomology and longtime permanent secretary to the American Association for the Advancement of Science celebrated this success as ‘an object lesson for the sanitarians of the world and has demonstrated the vitally important fact that it is possible for the white race to live healthfully in the tropics.’”28

It is a fact that due to colonization indigenous populations throughout the world were exploited, murdered and subjected to foreign pathogens that killed them en masse. But West Africa was also known by the British as the “White Man’s Grave” well into the twentieth century, since great numbers of colonists and soldiers fell ill and died there. New technologies promoted at the time, including architectural solutions, were attempts to ensure the survival of a sufficient number of colonial officers to successfully colonize the region. The aim was to create a settler colony, but climate acted here as a counterpart. This also explains the many studies conducted by colonial administrators in West Africa, such as the reports R.J. Gardner-Medwin penned from Sierra Leon. And this also explains why West Africa and India were so central to the teaching programs of the 1950s: knowledge about the tropics and settlement planning was a prominent undertaking for the British Empire long before it became a teaching tool for modern architects in the era of decolonization.

Two institutions in Britain were important for promoting this knowledge and bringing it into practice: the Royal Engineers and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which Fry and Königsberger had also worked for. These two colonial techno-scientific institutions had designed and campaigned for improved sanitation, new building forms—such as elevated housing and methods of cross-ventilation. Malaria, from the Italian Mal Aria (meaning bad air), encompasses all the central paradigms of modernist architecture found in these studies and proposals: light, air, circulation.29

But even if West Africa became known in the West as the “White Man’s Grave,” the imaginary that went with it belongs to the myth that contributed to creating the colonial apartheid regime. Justified with disease and healing metaphors, prolonged within the concept of indirect rule Lugard promoted, the spatial imaginary colonial science and architecture promoted was that Western technology could reliably protect everyone from every body, including mosquitos and other disease-carrying parasites. 30 As Franz Fanon has rightly stated, the two worlds that colonialism created, with the corridors of division separating the native from the colonial, still haunt the postcolonial city and its environs. After independence, the green belts/sanitary zones in many African countries were the first areas to be settled and connected to other settlements—a field of intervention in which the modernist vocabulary was re-introduced by European as well as the African and Indian architects who had matriculated through the colonial education system or were able to establish new ones on the campuses of their now-independent homelands.

This is a new version of an article first published in the framework of the artist project Fall Semester, first edited by Odalis Valdivieso in 2013.

  • 1 Ola Uduku: “Modernist architecture and ‘the tropical’ in West Africa: The tropical architecture movement in West Africa, 1948–1970,” Habitat International, Vol. 30, Issue 3, September 2006, pp. 396–411.
  • 2 Königsberger was also the editor of Habitat International until 1993. See: Vandana Baweja and Diana Dunn Morris: A Pre-History of Green Architecture: Otto Koenigsberger and Tropical Architecture, from Princely Mysore to Post-colonial. Proquest, Umi Dissertation Publishing, Ann Arbor, Michigan 2011.
  • 3 Uduku: “Modernist architecture and ‘the tropical’ in West Africa,” p. 2.
  • 4 See: Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland: The Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics, Routledge, London 2016.
  • 5 The first version of the book titled Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone was published in 1956 and only differs for a few details from the final version: Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones, B.T. Batsford, London 1964.
  • 6 Quoted by Susanne Kohte: “Tropical Architecture,” in: Archithese, No. 6, 2009, pp. 66–71.
  • 7 Monique Eleb argues that the notion of habitat “was borrowed from ethnologists, geographers and anthropologists, who addressed the issues of shelter, housing and environment, the concept of geography and terrain, and the links with civilization as opposed to rural areas.” Further, Eleb states that prior to the 1950s the term habitat was already in use when referring to dwellings in non-Western societies. Monique Eleb: “The Concept of Habitat: Écochard in Morocco,” in: Tom Avermaete, Serat Karakayali & Marion von Osten (eds.): Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past; Rebellions for the Future, Black Dog Publishing, London 2010, pp. 153–160.
  • 8 Quoted in Eric Mumford: CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928–1960. MIT Press, Cambridge 2000, p. 226.
  • 9 See: Alison Smithson: Team 10 Primer, MIT Press, Cambridge 1968.
  • 10 After the last CIAM conference in Helsinki, a multidisciplinary group met and started to publish Le Carré Bleu, a magazine concerned with these new perspectives. The publication moved its editorial offices to Paris in 1963 and began publishing in French and in English, adding Italian in 2001.
  • 11 Christina Linortner: Charta of Habitat, (accessed 28 March 2019).
  • 12 See: Bruno Stagno, Alexander Tzonis & Liane Lefaivre: Tropical Architecture: Critical Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken 2001.
  • 13 See: Model House Research Group: Transcultural Modernism. Sternberg Press, Berlin 2013.
  • 14 Quoted from: National Weather Service Office Tucson, Arizona, (accessed 27 November 2018).
  • 15 See: Mark Crinson: “From the Rainforest to the Streets,” in: in: Tom Avermaete, Serat Karakayali & Marion von Osten (eds.): Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past; Rebellions for the Future, Black Dog Publishing, London 2010, pp. 98–111.
  • 16 See: Paul Rabinow: French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1995.
  • 17 See: Mark Crinson: Modern Architecture and the End of Empire (British Art and Visual Culture Since 1750, New Readings), Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot 2003.
  • 18 Jane B. Drew: “Indigenous architecture. Architecture in the Tropics,” in: Perspecta, Vol. 8, 1963, pp. 57–58.
  • 19 Aram Ziai: “Zur Kritik des Entwicklungsdiskurses,” in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, APuz No. 10, 2010, (accessed 27 November 2018).
  • 20 Pierre Bourdieu: Algerien. Zeugnisse einer Entwurzelung. Camera Austria, Graz 2003.
  • 21 See as well: “Home/Nation/Gender: Modern Architectural Practices in Sri Lanka — Anoma Pieris and Moira Hille in Conversation,” in: Model House Research Group (Ed.): Transcultural Modernisms, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2013.
  • 22 Drew: “Indigenous Architecture,” pp. 57–58.
  • 23 Climate as a problem and ventilation and hygiene as a solution were thus, respectively, the substrate and architectonic preoccupation of the global modernist movement. In the worlds of tropical architecture, the notion of the modern architect-as-healer became a central component of the popular imagination informing development aid programs and continues to haunt them to this day. This theme is illustrated in Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), based on Thea von Harbou’s 1918 novel, Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). In Lang’s film, a German “modern” architect commissioned to build hospitals and schools for an Indian maharajah confronts tropical irrationality in the form of a bloodthirsty wild tiger (a metaphor for the excessive climate and untamed emotions of the tropics, its heat and diseases). After saving a beautiful temple dancer with whom the Maharajah is infatuated from this tropical “tiger,” the architect falls in love with her. One can ask of this film: whose desire is the more excessive and untamed: the German architect or his erstwhile patron, who he forsakes for the love of a woman.
  • 24 Conversely, the unpredictability of the tropics also influenced anti-colonial counter-narratives, a thought articulated in Eduard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse see: Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays I, Michael Dash (ed.), University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville 1992.
  • 25 Anthony D. King: Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment, Routledge, London 2012.
  • 26 Frederick John Dealtry Lugard: The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, Cornell University Library, Ithaca 1922.
  • 27 Robert K. Home: Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities, Taylor & Francis, London 1996, p. 17.
  • 28 Howard 1916: iii–iv, quoted in Paul S. Sutter: “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal,” in: Isis, Vol. 98, No. 4, December 2007, pp. 724–754.
  • 29 Thus the colonial tropical architecture discourse caused and promoted many new studies, research topics and sciences, but as well knowledge on architecture and planning that would directly flow into modernist building concepts and ground floors. Perhaps not by chance, one of the most emblematic buildings of modernism is the building of the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro, built by Julio Costas and Le Corbusier.
  • 30 See: P. D. Curtin: “‘The White Man’s Grave’: Image and Reality, 1780–1850,” in: Journal of British Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 1961, Cambridge University Press, pp. 94–110.
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