Jotting 5*: ‘Tropical Modernism’ at V&A

1st April 2024

John Wyver writes: V&A South Kensington is hosting, until 22 September, Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence, a comparatively small-scale exhibition about the fascinating topic of, as the website says, ‘a unique style of mid-century architecture which fused the clean lines of European Modernism with the hot, humid conditions of West Africa.’ Developed by British architects including Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, its exemplary buildings were created for Ghana as the country was approaching independence from the British Empire, and also in India, most notably by Le Corbusier and colleagues in the city of Chandigarh.

In three spaces plus a viewing area, there is a rich collection of drawings, photographs and other documents, as well as a handful of models, elements of furniture and an extract from Alain Tanner and John Berger’s 1966 documentary Une Ville à Chandigarh. More details about the show, including some terrific photos, are here; also, do read ‘What is Tropical Modernism?’ But with a paucity of objects the show struggles to make the topic captivating, and it inevitably feels like a scholarly presentation in showcases and on the walls.

Except, that is, in the final area, where, as is illustrated below, there is a 30-minute film projected across three screens. Originally presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, this features interviews with architects John Owusu Addo and Henry Wellington, as well as Samia Nkrumah, daughter of Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana, and a narration by Ola Uduku, Head of the School of Architecture at Liverpool University. There are fine sequences shot in many of the key buildings as they are now (often in a rather sad state), as well as additional archive elements.

What I found especially interesting about this is that the film straddles in a way that I’ve not seen before the line between a standard ‘educational’ film accompanying an exhibition, often screened in a space adjacent to the main galleries, and a multi-screen ‘artist’s installation’ of the kind that figures such as John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien have made their own. The images complement, echo and contrast with each other in an especially rich way, and suits the subject perfectly.

There is a substantial single-screen extract from the film here:

• There are lots of things – films, books, plays, much more, that I enjoy and appreciate, and that I want to comment on or recommend. I can do that on Facebook and Bluesky, but I’m interested to see if that very modest social media activity can benefit from something just a tiny bit more substantial and less transient. So I am experimenting with what, for the moment at least, I call ‘jottings’ – occasional, random bite-size posts about anything and everything that appeals to me, which I have also decided for no particular reason to number.

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