‘The Influence of Fry and Drew’ Conference, Abstract 10
Rachel Lee, ‘Searching for the Social in the Tropical’
Tropical architecture was institutionalised as a professional field in the metropolis of mid-twentieth century London. Drawing on theories developed over two centuries by military and medical experts, and augmented by the experiences of modern architects and planners who had worked in Britain’s colonial territories, tropical architecture is generally understood as a climate-centric approach to building in the ‘tropics’.
This conception, however, may be too reductive. Several of the key protagonists involved in the institutionalisation of tropical architecture were not exclusively concerned with the climatic aspects of building in tropical regions. Perhaps in contrast to the hygiene engineers who preceded them, they shared a commitment to creating buildings that attempted to understand and respond to the social needs of the users e.g. in the West Indies Robert Gardner-Medwin endeavoured to create buildings that suited the social customs as well as the climatic conditions and the building materials; in Chandigarh Fry and Drew made social surveys, the results of which influenced the designs of buildings such as shops, houses and cinemas; and in 1950, as the Federal Republic of India’s Director of Housing, Otto Koenigsberger began conducting an extensive social survey of Delhi.
With a view to creating a more nuanced understanding of the history of tropical architecture, this paper will attempt to illuminate the role that social issues played in the development of the field. While taking into account recent scholarship that has highlighted tropical architecture’s inextricable links to decolonisation, it will address to what extent tropical architecture was stripped of social concerns and examine why, despite the more inclusive interests of some of the figures key to its development, it was reduced to a climate-based technoscientific field.
Rachel Lee is a research associate at the Brandenburgische Technische Universitaet Cottbus and a lecturer at the Technische Universitaet Berlin, where she is currently completing her doctorate on Otto Koenigsberger’s works and networks in exile. She is also a member of MOD Institute – an urban research and design collective based in Bangalore and Berlin.