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Tropical tropes: Irish Modernism in West Africa

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Irish missionaries in West Africa in the 20th century embraced the Tropical Modern of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew while encouraging the substantial input of indigenous builders

‘When the colonising nations of Europe first entered the tropics … they brought with them the architecture that they practised at home’, claimed Maxwell Fry in 1979. ‘So when, immediately after the war, we went to West Africa, what did we take with us? Certainly not the traditional architecture … Instead of that, we took a kind of apparatus of thought, of puzzling out the problems of architecture from the beginning, in a kind of logical way but with feeling.’

‘The station churches vary, emphasising the role of the architect as collaborator and instigator, and the design drawings as illustrations of what could be, rather than instructions for what should’

The ‘we’ Fry refers to here is him and Jane Drew, the most prolific and influential of the British ‘Tropical Modern’ architects. Fry and Drew designed schools, commercial buildings, housing and the celebrated University of Ibadan in what was known as British West Africa in a ferociously intense period from the late 1940s. Their ‘apparatus of thought’ was not only evident in their built work but disseminated through print, most influentially through their books Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956) and Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones (1964). The introduction to the latter asserted that architecture was ‘a personal art’, but the books presented examples and scientistic guidelines for building in specific ‘zones’ that, as the titles belie, were overwhelmingly defined by climate rather than geography or culture. This is the central content of the publications – climatic data, advice on tools for calculating solar radiation, and a ‘logical’ way of designing for specific physical conditions, with solutions to the ‘problems of architecture’ found through adhering to a programme underscored by specific technical knowledge. And it is as guides that these publications were understood and utilised by other architects, particularly those with little personal experience of ‘the tropics’, an abstracted concept with a scientific gloss.

12 church at uyo, nigeria under construction eb

12 church at uyo, nigeria under construction eb

Church in Uyo, Nigeria by Pearse McKenna

Coupled with other publications such as Colonial Building Notes by the Building Research Establishment, Fry and Drew’s counsel is evident in one little-known branch of Tropical Modern, the work of Irish architects who were commissioned by Catholic missionaries to design churches, schools and hospitals in West Africa. They had spread from Ireland throughout the world from the late-19th century to create what they deemed an ‘Irish spiritual empire’. Like other colonising entities, wherever the missionaries built they drew on European styles and materials and generally disdained the pre-existing building culture. By the 1950s, Irish missionaries had foundations throughout West Africa, most intensely in Nigeria, and by the middle of the 20th century, certain Irish missionary orders requested an architecture that would draw on the prevailing orthodoxy of Tropical Modern, a contrast with the conservative design commissioned at home. This was partly due to their desire to be seen as part of the modern infrastructure of the region, fi gured as most appropriate for newly decolonised nations. It also carried a religious charge – Catholicism had a shared language (Latin) and rites that had remained unchanged over centuries (until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s), with a totalising, universalising theology that married well with Modernism’s programmatic tendencies.

7 sketch design for church at uyo, nigeria, 1959 tc

7 sketch design for church at uyo, nigeria, 1959 tc

Sketch design for church at Uyo, 1959

Through the 1950s and ’60s, the missionaries ran an expansive enterprise, building mission houses, healthcare facilities, scores of churches and large seminaries to train future generations of priests. Their construction was almost all overseen by the missionary priests themselves to plans sent out from Ireland, and built by local labour, although the only occasional appearance of white clerks of works in photographic records suggests the likelihood of greater indigenous agency than typically described by the priests and architects.

Pearse mckenna archive 2 5 tc2

Pearse mckenna archive 2 5 tc2

In his design for the church in Uyo, Pearse McKenna combined and mobilised the orthodox components of Tropical Modern – for example, concrete louvres alternate with glazing in the angles of the walls

Sometimes the components of the buildings preceded their design, as with the commissioning of the architect Gerald Fay, who was asked by a holidaying missionary priest to design a church using 40,000 – 50,000 concrete blocks which (he was told) the parish of Ogbaku had been producing for the last couple of decades. ‘I’d describe it more like a Lego church’, Fay remembers. ‘It was remote control. I did a plan and model and sent them out.’ The resulting Church of St Kevin’s, the architect says, bore ‘a close resemblance’ to his drawings, an indication of the collaborative nature of the enterprise which ‘was done by the people themselves, I only gave them an idea’.

Pearse mckenna archive 2 13 tc

Pearse mckenna archive 2 13 tc

The blockwork of Pearse McKenna’s chapel in Amaechi is laid in a pattern that not only acts as rain-proofing, but also sets up a rhythm that signals the relative hierarchy of the spaces within

Such nonchalance contrasted with the very tight control the Catholic Church exercised over church design (and so much else) within Ireland. There, concrete blocks tended to be wrapped in traditionalist materials and styles until at least the early 1960s, spawning strange Historicist hybrids such as Lombardian Hiberno-Romanesque. While cultural modernity was viewed by some as a threat to the ‘traditional’ position of Catholicism in Ireland, the missionaries in Africa were working in a wholly different cultural context where their identification with infrastructure and ‘progress’ was most germane to their cause. And given the conservative nature of ecclesiastical work in Ireland, designing for the missions afforded architects the opportunity to experiment to a far greater degree than they could at home. For some of them, this work formed a substantial part of their output, and represents a not insubstantial aspect of the Tropical Modern movement.

8 drawings for ogoja diocesan seminary, nigeria, pearse mckenna architects, 1961 tc eb

8 drawings for ogoja diocesan seminary, nigeria, pearse mckenna architects, 1961 tc eb

The highest volume of designs came from the office of Pearse McKenna (1917-2002). Although he visited Nigeria only a handful of times, he became responsible for the configuration of hundreds of buildings there. For domestic and institutional work such as mission houses or colleges, he mobilised the typical components of Tropical Modern architecture in a systematic way, using concrete construction, pierced screen walls, flat roofs, louvres for shading and outdoor corridors. McKenna’s office developed their own special ‘African details’ for these projects, generally versions of those found in Tropical Modern manuals. Formal complexity is evident at his church in Uyo that involves zigzagging side walls and an undulating facade, the Ogoja seminary chapel at Amaechi with a shallow quadripartite roof, and the Kiltegan Fathers’ church at Abakaliki that has deep bays projecting out from the central sanctuary.

125 chapel +seminary eb

125 chapel +seminary eb

Seminary chapel at Amaechi

These landmark churches were orbited by hundreds of smaller ‘station’ churches built to one specific prototype involving a simple longitudinal plan, pitched roof and bell tower. In the drawings where McKenna set out the building we can see his awareness that it is not the absent architect but the builders of these churches who will be making key decisions about materials and form. Rather than highly detailed drawings and measurements that assert the authorship and control of the designer, we see a pragmatic flexibility, so drawings included options for the builders – for example, that openings in the blockwork could be either left open or glazed. The station churches as built vary one from the other, particularly in terms of construction materials and roofing, emphasising the role of the architect as collaborator and instigator, and of the design drawings as illustrations of what could be, rather than instructions for what should.

191 arch building adaziani church eb

191 arch building adaziani church eb

Arch building at Adazi-ani church

These drawings also comprise an interesting visual record of how Irish architects envisaged sites that they would never see in person. Those that were typically drawn by McKenna’s students generally depicted palm trees, bright blue skies and the sun. His buildings in Africa were a clever response to the particular circumstances of a distant architect designing for amateur builders thousands of miles away in uncertain working conditions, and his designs largely the result of a consensus on how one should build in certain climates.

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57236968

If one is to understand architectural history within a teleological, Modernist paradigm, this Irish Tropical Modern genre suggests that the Catholic Church liberated architects to experiment outside Ireland at a time that Catholicism was a repressive cultural force at home, allowing them to advance along a more enlightened trajectory. However, while the modernity of this missionary architecture may have given greater freedom to its designers than they were used to, this doesn’t necessarily mean it was liberating for the users. Their hospitals, schools and churches were sites not only of healthcare and education, but also of religious conversion that required spiritual discipline and adherence to the demands of the faith. As such, both architects and missionaries were involved in a regulatory project.

6 chapel at junior seminary, abakaliki, nigeria, c.1961 tc

6 chapel at junior seminary, abakaliki, nigeria, c.1961 tc

Chapel at junior seminary, Abakaliki, Nigeria, c.1961

135 entrance door abakaliki church

135 entrance door abakaliki church

Formal complexity displayed in Pearse McKenna’s Kiltegan Fathers’ church at Abakaliki where deep bays project from the central sanctuary.

If one of the most evident liturgical changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965 was the admittance of vernacular language instead of Latin, in Nigeria this turn from universalism to local particularity extended to built form. By the later ’60s, there were more indigenous architects in practice, and coupled with theological change this led to more exacting and exciting religious architecture and design being created in Nigeria, by Nigerians. The masterwork of this period was another missionary building, the Dominican Chapel in Ibadan by the artist-architect Demas Nwoko (consecrated 1973). Using local and traditional materials, techniques and motifs, it is read as a meaningful synthesis of Christianity and local culture, not least for its craftsmanship and open response to the landscape which make earlier churches seem unassailable objects by comparison. By being so deeply rooted in the history and terrain, Nwoko’s approach contrasts with that of the Irish architects responsible for so many religious buildings in the same region whose work manifested a response to a prespecified set of technical rather than cultural matters.

Dominican chapel entrance

Dominican chapel entrance

The Dominican Chapel in Ibadan by Nigerian architect Demas Nwoko

Fry and Drew stressed that, as well as European architects building in tropical climates, they also wrote for those who ‘inhabit these regions’. In an admission of the limitations of an approach rooted in tools and data, and mindful of the decolonising context, they imagine how architects building for ‘their own tropical people’ will bring to their architecture ‘emotions, sympathies and knowledge denied to us who come from outside’. Written at a time when there was greater certainty about the correct approach to design, we might now read these words refracted through a perspective formed by subsequent championing of critical regionalism, and an emphasis on place rather than programme as generating meaning in architecture.

All images Lisa Godson, except lead image by Andrew Moore of the Dominican Chapel in Ibadan, by Nigerian architect Demas Nwoko and consecrated in 1973, deploys traditional materials, methods and motifs to fuse Christian and local values

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today