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Tropical Modernism: Ghana's architecture and independence

If you schooled in Ghana, it is highly likely that you would have come across examples of an architectural style that took root in the country, prior to its independence, Abena Sɛwaa of AKADi Magazine writes.


Independence Day Dr Kwame Nkrumah flanked by Casely-Hayford, Kojo Botsio, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah and Krobo Edusei (just cloth visible). Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Independence Day Dr Kwame Nkrumah flanked by Casely-Hayford, Kojo Botsio, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah and Krobo Edusei (just cloth visible). Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Buildings including Aburi Girls’ Senior High School, in the Eastern Region, the Senior Staff Club House, KNUST University, in Kumasi, Asante Region, and the Mawuli School in Ho, Volta Region, are all examples of structures developed using an architectural design known as Tropical Modernism.


The design style was developed after the Second World War by the British architects and husband-and-wife team Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.


Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their many buildings for the Gold Coast, 1945. Image courtesy of RIBA
Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry with a model of one of their many buildings for the Gold Coast, 1945. Image courtesy of RIBA

Characteristics of Tropical Modernism

Tropical Modernism is rooted in climate science and focusses on adapting buildings in ways that mitigate excess heat and sunlight, and promote cross ventilation.


Tropical Modernism was embedded in India and in parts of West Africa, including Ghana, in the 1940s and 1950s, where it was adapted to suit the hot and humid climates.


Diagram of a brise soleil at Aburi Girls' School, Ghana, from Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, 1956, publisher B.T Batsford, Courtesy of RIBA
Diagram of a brise soleil at Aburi Girls' School, Ghana, from Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, 1956, publisher B.T Batsford, Courtesy of RIBA

Buildings would include verandas and long foyers but probably one of the most visible examples of this style of architecture in Ghana is the brise-soleil.


Think of those buildings with patterns – often Adinkra symbols - etched into the walls. Apart from looking pretty, they were and are designed to limit light and cool the building down.


Background image: Brise Solieil at the Opoku Ware School based on an Ashanti stool, designed by Drew and Fry. Photographed © Iain Jackson
Background image: Brise Solieil at the Opoku Ware School based on an Ashanti stool, designed by Drew and Fry. Photographed © Iain Jackson

Pacifying the natives

According to the London V&A Museum's exhibition entitled: Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence , the design style was used as a symbol of modernity and progressiveness.


Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The style was also designed to be distinct from colonial culture and was used to counter growing calls in West Africa and India for political independence from colonial rule.


‘The British government sought to offset growing calls for independence by funding modern education and public infrastructure projects’, one of the displays at the V&A’s ‘Tropical Modernism’ exhibition reads.


Film still of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast by Fry, Drew _ Partners © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Film still of Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast by Fry, Drew _ Partners © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Examples include Mfantsipim School, in Cape Coast, Central Region, and Wesley Girls' High School, Cape Coast, which were originally small missionary establishments. However, with investment from the colonial development welfare funds, these institutions were extended by Fry and Drew, using Tropical Modernism design.


Fry and Drew actively dismissed indigenous building traditions and according to notes showcased at the exhibition, the couple said: ‘There seemed to be no indigenous architecture, we therefore tried to invent an architecture which specifically met the needs of the West Africans and dealt with climate and the diseases it brought with it.’


We, of course, know that this was not the case as ancient structures including Manhyia Palace in the Asante Region, and Larabanga Mosque in the Savannah Region, prove otherwise.


Larabanga Ancient Mosque © Kwaku Griffin/ Pexels
Larabanga Ancient Mosque © Kwaku Griffin/ Pexels

But I found it refreshing that this exhibition did not shy away from highlighting colonial/racist attitudes of the time while also centring counter narratives from indigenous people on the ground.


Social and political change

The exhibition provides a vivid social and political backdrop to the transition Ghana took to becoming an independent nation in the run up to 1957, and where Tropical Modernism was situated within that.


As soon as you step through the entrance, the dulcet tones of E.T Mensah, the lauded King of Highlife, flood the ears with those familiar words: “Ghana, the land of freedom…” played on repeat.


'Ghana Freedom, Tea Samba and Abele' written and performed by E.T Mensah. His song played during the exhibition
'Ghana Freedom, Tea Samba and Abele' written and performed by E.T Mensah. His song played during the exhibition

It had the desired effect on those of us that hail from Ghana. I not only felt a sense of pride on seeing most of the exhibition (there is a section dedicated to India) dominated by Ghanaian history, but I also witnessed the impact it had on those that were new to Ghana.


Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant as a 70s icon posing in front of the United Trading Company HQ, Accra, 1971. © James Barnor. Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.
Sick Hagemeyer shop assistant as a 70s icon posing in front of the United Trading Company HQ, Accra, 1971. © James Barnor. Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

I saw excited architects feasting on the history of this Tropical Modernism style, parents with their children fascinated by the explosion of colours, and architectural designs on show.


Others were happy to pick out familiar names such as photographer James Barnor, Highlife musicians including the Uhuru Band and author Ama Ata Aidoo. There was even one man that was visibly toe-tapping to the ET Mensah soundtrack by the end of the exhibition.

 

Independence struggle

Resistance to colonial rule and the role of the soon-to-be president Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah features heavily in this exhibition.


Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Samia Nkrumah, daughter of Dr Nkrumah, points to the 1945 Pan African Conference in Manchester, UK, as a gamechanger in African politics. “It shaped the independence struggle and the beginning of decolonisation on African soil,” she says in the exhibition *documentary: ‘Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa.’


The growing tension and opposition to colonial rule through boycotts and strikes is also referenced in the display.


There’s a copy of the report on the enquiry into disturbances in the Gold Coast in 1948, and an image capturing a demonstration outside Trafalgar Square on 7 March 1948 in response to Britain’s handling of the ‘Gold Coast Riots’ aka 28 February 1948.

Demonstration against the handling of the Gold Coast riots, Trafalgar Square - 7 March 1948. Unknown photographer
Demonstration against the handling of the Gold Coast riots, Trafalgar Square - 7 March 1948. Unknown photographer

On 28 February 1948, former WW2 soldiers tried to bring a petition to the Governor of the Gold Coast requesting the dispensation of promised pensions and other compensation for their efforts during the war. 


Three veterans: Sergeant AdjeteyCorporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey were killed by British police Superintendent Colin Imray. This incident kickstarted the riots and accelerated the push of Ghana’s political independence.

 

Tropical Modernism reclaimed

Ghana’s emergence as an independent nation on 6 March 1957 might have spelt the death knell for this modernist style of architecture. But like Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, Nkrumah embraced and adapted the architectural style to reflect the identity of the new nation.



So where, traditional Tropical Modernist architecture rejected cultural symbols, under Nkrumah, these were encouraged and increasingly became a feature in building designs.

And on Nkrumah’s insistence, Ghanaian architects were required to take a lead in the work of new building designs.


These architects benefitted from training from the UK, where Fry had established a department of Tropical Studies at the Architecture Association in London.

A department was also created at KNUST.


As a result, many of the post-independence structures were collaborations between Ghanaian/ African/ African American architects and European, Israeli or Chinese partners, according to documentary narrator Professor Ola Uduku.


“A building from Ghana must show the evidence that it is Ghanaian: the people’s culture, the economy, circumstances - these have significance that the British architects did not take time to understand,” said Emeritus Henry Nii-Adziri Wellington, one of architects of the period who features in the documentary.


Emeritus Henry Nii-Adziri Wellington featured in the documentary: Tropical Architect Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa. © V&A Museum
Emeritus Henry Nii-Adziri Wellington featured in the documentary: Tropical Architect Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa. © V&A Museum

Other architects included Max Bond Jnr, who built the Bolgatanga Library and John Owusu Addo, who collaborated with Eastern European Niska Ciko to design the Africa Hall at KNUST.


The International Trade Fair, a series of pavilions, was created to “showcase Ghana’s mineral wealth and investment opportunities”.


The International Trade Fair, Ghana. Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The International Trade Fair, Ghana. Installation shot of Tropical Modernism - Architecture and Independence at the V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The African Pavillion was designed by Polish architects Jacek Chyrosz and Stanislaw Rymaszewski under the direction of Victor Adegbite, who Dr Nkrumah had convinced to come to Ghana to lead on government design projects.


For the building, they chose a round form with an aluminium roof - a reference to two symbols of power in West Africa: the umbrella and the baobab tree. The aluminium sheets for the round roof of the Africa Pavilion were shipped from Britain.


However, Dr Nkrumah was not in power by the time the Fair was publicly unveiled in February 1967. A year earlier, he had been overthrown by a military coup.


Future of architecture in Ghana

After such an upbeat start to the exhibition, I felt quite sad to see the dilapidated state of some of the buildings that had been a symbol of hope and a new Africa. Dr Nkrumah’s Trade Fair being one of those that has fallen into disrepair. In 2007, the Fair’s iconic round roof collapsed and most recently one of the pavilions (not part of the original design) was reported to have been demolished, according to Adom TV.

 

But like the documentary asks, is this an opportunity for today’s architects to revisit the Tropical Modernist style of architecture?


Will the march of global warming encourage a revival of Tropical Modernism that replaces the need for fans and air conditioning? And is this Ghana’s opportunity to revive ancient architectural practices such as the rammed earth technique (used to build the Larabanga Mosque) that went unacknowledged by European architects during the 1940s and 1950s?


Black Star Square, Accra by Ghana Public Works Department - film still from 'Tropical Modernism_ Architecture and Power in West Africa’, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Black Star Square, Accra by Ghana Public Works Department - film still from 'Tropical Modernism_ Architecture and Power in West Africa’, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 The exhibition ends with a salute to a current generation of architects, some whose parents were active during that pre-independence and independence period. Included among them is Professor Lesley Lokko.


Lokko was announced by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as the recipient of the Royal Gold Medal, one of the world's highest honours for architecture, given in recognition of a lifetime's work to people who have had a significant influence either directly or indirectly on the advancement of architecture.


She is the first African woman and only the second black architect to be chosen for the award since it was first presented in 1848.


*The documentary was directed by Christopher Turner, Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohammed and was first presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 as part of the V&A’s exhibition: Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa.


Has this review whet your interest in visiting the exhibition. If it has, the display is on until 22 September 2024. Click for more details of the event.


This article is an original piece written by AKADi Magazine. The contents of this page cannot be reproduced without permission.

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