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Tropical Modernism: Fry and Drew's African Experiment

Iain Jackson looks back at the AR’s 1953 coverage of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s projects in West Africa - its first appearance as a coherent body of work

The 1950s AR was renowned for Gordon Cullen’s Townscape series as well as the debates on functionalism, monumentalism and the British New Towns. Less prevalent but equally sustained through the 1950s were the articles on colonial, tropical and Commonwealth architecture − indeed, the decade saw the transition between these clumsy, heavily loaded terms. The inclusion of ‘world architecture’, such as the projects discussed in Brazil and South Africa, demonstrated the AR’s global agenda as well as presenting the novel, exotic and glamorous to a weary postwar Britain.

The journal also included reports on construction in British overseas territories, many commissioned as a result of the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts. In particular the West Indies formed an important incubator for developing and testing new ideas on state-funded housing. In 1950, Robert Gardner-Medwin’s wartime work was discussed along with that of his team, Gordon Cullen and Leo de Syllas, and the louvred boxes on stilts designed by M Costello in Guiana were revealed the following year.

This work formed the backdrop for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s work in West Africa, which featured prominently as ‘The African Experiment’ in May 1953. Fry and Drew had written about this work previously, but this was the first time their projects had been collectively presented and viewed as a coherent body of work.


Mfantsipim School, Cape Coast, Ghana (1958) Fry, Drew and Partners

The reportage presents us with a somewhat polished and resolved narrative. Photographs are wonderfully composed and carefully cropped, editorials and descriptions are rationalised and to the point. The AR often devoted an entire page to a provocative sketch and this edition included one by Gordon Cullen depicting a Fry and Drew African School. The plan and the photograph, frequently presented as ‘objective’, measured and scientific, somehow didn’t capture the qualities of the tropics, which Cullen attempted to portray through deep exaggerated shadows cast by the concrete screens, all rendered in bright contrasting hues. The drawing also stands in for the whole as a way of summing up not only Fry and Drew’s work in Africa, but changes that were taking place across the entire continent. A child represents Africa about to receive a modern education, to emerge enlightened and equipped to manage her own affairs − or so the story went.

The AR is, of course, just one account from the time and other sources discuss these projects, not least Fry and Drew’s own recollections, which give a candid account of their determination. Fry viewed the African work and Ibadan University in particular as the ‘crown of his career’. When he returned from Chandigarh, Fry immediately went out to Africa seeking further work, and described his practice as ‘The big firm with the solid rep’. The clients’ perspective is not often reported, but with Fry and Drew’s official architecture, detailed correspondence has been retained in the National Archives, and recently made available following a 50-year censorship. Here we see a different story. A catalogue of frustration emerges − due to overspends, dysfunctional architecture and threats of arbitration. A raft of letters were sent between the college principal, Kenneth Mellanby, in Nigeria, and the Colonial Office in London. Drew is picked out for the harshest criticism and described as being persona non grata in West Africa. Mellanby went as far as trying to replace them and commissioned PWD housing on the campus without informing Fry and Drew. In turn, Fry described Mellanby as ‘lowbrow’ because of his pragmatic concern for maintenance.


Above: detail of a balustrade at Adisadel College, in a photo accompanying an article by Maxwell Fry on the Ghanaian schools titled ‘The African Experiment’

Finally, a far cry from the white gloved and carefully pruned official archives, is a slowly emerging collection of documents retained by the architects who worked for Fry and Drew. Many were young, eager architects and their contribution is, rather sadly, only coming to light as their families sort their possessions and estates. A small group of Fry and Drew’s employees was sent to Africa from London to act as site architects and some are credited in the journal articles. Fry described a site visit in a letter to Drew, ‘We went, yesterday afternoon late, Lang, Geoff and Myself, up to Aburi and it is wonderful. There are mistakes, but in the main it is magnificent − strong, dramatic and human. As the light failed in a dramatic sunset it became romantic to a degree, with the hall porch lit with concealed lights, and all sorts of other surprises to be found. The three of us wandered around for a long time. Little Lang filled with the sense of what he had done … and when he got back in the house we drank Lang’s health in Asti Spumante, and well he deserved it because there never was a better finished job.’

Following meetings in Africa, Fry and Drew would work on the concept designs. In the main, Fry would draft his initial sketches ‘over the weekend’ which would then be given to a team of assistants to develop. The execution of those drawings was left to the site architect who was responsible for resolving problems and producing final working drawings for the contractor, many of whom were from Italy.

Duncan Horne, for example, worked with Drew in Iran in the late 1950s and created a significant photographic record. His dedication to the firm helped to ease Fry’s worries, and he wrote that he could ‘now sleep’ following Horne’s interventions. Another very junior architect who was plunged into the deep end was Anthony Halliday. Mellanby expressed surprise at such a young man arriving on site, and described him as ‘practically useless’; a very unfair critique as it was Halliday who replanned the campus and managed the construction admirably, if the buildings we still see today are anything to go by. Many letters to Halliday were sent from Chandigarh, and later on Fry described Ibadan to his colleague in militaristic terms, as if they were somehow at war with their clients, perhaps a throwback to the time they both spent in the military.


Concrete teeth adorn an entrance in one of many expressive gestures found in Fry and Drew’s African projects

By the end of the 1950s, many British colonies had won or were rapidly approaching independence, and Fry mused ‘the big spending era is nearly certainly coming to an end’. The AR published a special edition on Commonwealth Architecture in July 1960, quickly abolishing all former references to the colonial. Most of the editorial content was recycled from JM Richards’ book of the same name. The West African portion of the issue was written by Fry and included numerous projects from firms such as Godwin and Hopwood, Nickson and Borys and James Cubitt (whose Kumasi work was shown in AR May 1956). Fry’s article was heavily indebted to the West African Builder and Architect journal that had already showcased these projects under the editorship of his former site architect, Anthony Halliday. The networks of tropical architecture extended into publishing, and personal connections frequently determined which projects featured in the journals.

Although Fry correctly predicted the end of the Colonial Office spending, he didn’t anticipate the oil and bank building boom that was to come and generated considerable work for British firms in the tropics well into the post-colonial era. The Commonwealth issue concluded with hints on ‘designing with concrete’ and, of course, air conditioning.

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