Tropical Architecture: Current Research

Tropical Architecture and the West Indies

The work undertaken in the West Indies during WW2 was to have a significant impact on the later works that followed in West Africa. Robert Gardner-Medwin was posted to the West Indies during WW2 whilst serving in the Corps of Royal Engineers. His mission, working with funding from the Colonial Development and Welfare legislation, was to undertake ‘research’ into building techniques, materials, indigenous housing and new educational buildings. The funding was triggered by riots and general unrest during the 1930s. The British West Indies was the name given to a disparate collection of islands, as well as two mainland territories, Honduras in Central America, and Guyana in South America. Gardner-Medwin plotted this on a map which he overlayed with European capital cities to emphasize the scale of the region he was responsible for.

002_plan_WI

A small team who accompanied him, including two of his former students from the Architectural Association, London, Leo De Syllas and Gordon Cullen.

Leo De Syllas is of particular interest as he was commissioned to design several schools in the West Indies, including Bishops High School, Georgetown. Here we see the use of local materials, simple but expressive detailing, the use of verandahs, covered walkways and courtyards – all deployed in an attempt to control the interior temperatures of the spaces and all indebted to the colonial architecture that preceded it. De Syllas would go one to work in Africa with the Architects Co-Partnership.

Bishops High School, Georgetown

They also proposed schemes that moved the existing dwellings from one place to another in an attempt to reduce density, which they believed correlated with better health.

When a fire broke out in Georgetown destroying the town centre, Gardner-Medwin was on hand to replan it, and noted how the local hardwoods were more fire-resistant than steel framed buildings. After the war he returned to the UK, working in Scotland and designing health centres before taking over from Lionel Budden as head of the Liverpool School of Architecture. His work in the tropics was not over however, and he joined a UN sponsored team investigating low cost housing in India in 1951. On this tour he met with and was shown Otto Koenigsberger’s work in Delhi as well as many other schemes throughout the country. India was a hotbed of planning activity at this time, with Chandigarh being constructed and the low cost housing exhibition being staged in New Delhi (organized by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt).

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Jackson has recently published a paper that discusses this topic in greater detail; it can be downloaded here.

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