Modernism, but Make It Cool

If you’ve spent a recent summer in Britain, where the mercury can now climb past 100 degrees, you’ve probably noticed how inhospitable the buildings are in hot weather. And good luck finding air conditioning, which only accelerates climate change, in any case.

And yet the principles of “tropical modernism,” a postwar architectural movement born in West Africa and India, were pioneered by two Britons, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. An archival exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, “Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence,” running through Sept. 22, charts how these regions ultimately made the style their own.

Across four rooms painted in bright hues of burnt orange, mustard yellow, fern green and cobalt blue, the show vividly illustrates — in photographs, artifacts, models, architectural plans and art works — the importance of architecture and aesthetics for two newly independent nations transitioning into their postcolonial eras.

Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their Ghanaian buildings in 1945.Credit…via RIBA

Fry and Drew were part of a group of architects in mid-1930s England who imagined radical new buildings and urban planning methods. Influenced by the Swiss-French Le Corbusier, and the German Walter Gropius, who arrived in London in 1934 fleeing Nazi Germany, these designers saw the new materials, minimal ornamentation and sweeping, simple lines of modernism as the way forward.

Few in Britain agreed, including the painter Wyndham Lewis, who described the spare modernist aesthetic as “cod-liver oil to the sweet Anglo-Saxon palette” — an odd statement in an artistic period dominated by grubby grays and muddy browns. Gropius left for the United States in 1937, proclaiming England an “inartistic country.”

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