Tropical Architecture

‘I need 30 minutes to meditate before giving the lecture’ stated Balkrishna Doshi, ‘and a quiet room in which to do so, and, oh, some tea please’.

I’ve always been somewhat taken by this, my first (and only) meeting of Doshi. This was not the request of an architectural tyrant making petty demands, but an essential aligning of thoughts, removal of distraction, and focusing on how he might respond to the audience. It was a process he mirrored in his architectural work – bring forth a determined idea, eliminate any confusion and put the ‘audience’ or the ‘user’ at the centre. Doshi was in Liverpool to give a lecture to coincide with a Le Corbusier exhibition arranged as part of the European Capital of Culture year. The lecture covered parts of his biography such as his time with Le Corbusier in Paris (and surviving on a meagre subsistence) working on the monuments of Chandigarh, as well as his work with Louis Kahn at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad. Had his career ended there it would have been remarkable but he would go on to make significant advances in both formal and social aspects of architecture.


Mill Owners Association Building by Le Corbusier

On 7th March Doshi was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the first Indian to receive the award, and we send our hearty congratulations.

Together with his studio he has designed well over 100 projects in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad and many more throughout the rest of India. He has chosen to focus on India rather than developing an international portfolio of work, and he has contributed much to low-cost housing provision and town planning.



Ahmadabad, with its wealthy merchant class, has proved an eager patron of architecture and the city is astonishing for its quantity of bold design. They readily embraced Corbusier’s work and he received three commissions in the city. Doshi’s own work emerged out of this context. He wasn’t a mimic or somehow bound by Le Corbusier – on the contrary, he developed his ideas further and pursued the playfulness that is rarely discussed in Corb’s later commissions.

Working out of his self-built studios ‘Sangarth’ for the last 40 years, Doshi created a series of half-round concrete parasols clad with ceramic.  These vaulted spaces were quick to construct, eliminate complicated details and components, and offer flexible enclosures that can easily be extended. The vaults offer protection from the intense heat of the Gujarati summer as well as channeling the monsoon rains into a series of pools. The landscaping is equally important with large scale planting, shade trees, and a small amphitheatre carved out of the terrain. The campus is a lesson in how to design with care and beauty whilst minimising materials and maximising spatial impact.



Although more sculpted and at a larger scale similar themes were explored at the Centre for Environment, Planning and Technology [CEPT].  Here there is an encouragement of procession and movement through the various structures and landscapes. Gathering spaces open up amongst the strong, yet simple brick masses. The climate here permits few enclosures and the building envelope is perforated and rarely defined. Wandering through the campus exposes the students to the work of others, and one stumbles upon critiques, exhibitions, models being tested, and class discussions. Circulation is no longer a corridor or a staircase. There are elements of Kahn’s IIM, but the CEPT campus is more compact, more urbane and less of a‘set piece’ than IIM – whilst both use the humble brick and deep shadowed reveals to great effect.


Critique at CEPT

There are of course many more projects that we could discuss (see William Curtis or James Steele’s monographs for more on the work), but two that immediately spring to mind are Premabhai Hall (1972) and the Tagore Theatre (1963-65).


Premabhai Theatre

Premabhai was a brave project, situated in the heart of old Ahmadabad’s Badra, a large public square lined with historical works and old city gates. The theatre seems to leap up and cantilever out over the square.  It confidently dominates the space, rewarded for its quirky form, and the blank gables acting as a foil to its ornate neighbours.


Tagore Theatre, Vastu Shilpa Foundation 1967

The Tagore Theatre is a rigid frame, folded plate structure, and achieves an impressive 33m span enabling the interior to remain free of columns (as well as containing all of the services). At first sight it appears too much  – the scale and lack of surrounding context makes for a foreboding approach. But the delicate folds of the concrete and precision casting seems to soften and give the theatre a more starched-fabric feel upon close contact – plus it’s impossible not to smile at the acoustic clouds that line the interior.

Inside the Tagore Theatre

Inside the Tagore Theatre, Vastu Shilpa Foundation, 1967



Two New Buildings in Accra

How are we to build today in Ghana? What is our architectural syntax and how are we to generate form, meaning and qualities that somehow resonate with Ghanaians today? This is of course a difficult question, and not all architecture has to be reflective of the country in which it is built. Indeed, it is very problematic to think of architecture in terms of geo-political territories, especially when the architecture of the West is rarely presented like this. It is unusual to hear of architecture referred to as European, or Luxembourgian for example, but the architectures (and architects) of the global south are frequently labelled according to country or region of origin (Indian, South East Asian, West African for example – see, furthermore when ‘modern’ architecture is produced in those countries it is labelled as mimicry, inauthentic, or somehow borrowed, imported, or not belonging.

This is the difficulty architects face when working in places like Ghana. However, architects must take a stance and adopt a position. They should be self-conscious of the designs that they are making, and conceive of a direction, or ambition for their work. There were two recent buildings that we visited in Accra that are attempting to deliver a new response to architecture.

One Airport Square

One Airport Square

One Airport Square  (designed by Mario Cucinella Architects) has gone for the attention-seeking approach. A complex façade composition made up of diagonally arranged structure with horizontal fins. The fins and ‘columns’ project from the building’s envelope by almost 2m, acting as a vast brise soleil they provide much needed shade, as well as absorbing heat externally whilst reflecting sunlight light into the building.


Atrium of Airport Square One

Internally there is a large atrium space that holds the circulation as well as bringing light into the deep plan and pulling fresh air through the courtyard. This kind of building works well when set amongst other less adventurous forms. It is also helping to create a new context for that part of Accra, and is distinctive enough to become a reference point and landmark. I just hope it doesn’t become part of a silly form-making game with each bank trying to out-do each other in the quest for the next distinctive shape.


Ecobank, Accra

Another new building that has just reached completion is the vast Ecobank Headquarters located adjacent to the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park. This provocative building was designed by a consortium of Ghanaian and South African architects (, the local and site architects being Mobius, lead by KNUST graduate Augustus Richardson. A lightweight metal brise soleil is used to protect the glass façade where the sun strikes, and a perforated metal jali screen offers solar protection at the lower levels, as well as being used to depict a map of the world, and a larger drawing of Africa.


Augustus Richardson with the model of Ecobank

At ground level the building is clad with limestone firmly rooting it into the earth and forming tactile surfaces. The two forms reflect the public banking space, and the private offices of the bank HQ. The bank is orientated on an axis leading towards the concrete obelisk in Africa Liberation Square, and there is a real declaration of optimism in this building. Mobius are an exciting firm to follow, and Richardson kindly took us on a tour of the bank, giving behind the scenes access. The quality of the finish is exceptional and build quality excellent. Richardson clearly cares about architecture and his city; there is a charged excitement in the way he talks about design (see for more on this).

But what of the building envelope? Is it an appropriate response to design an almost entirely glazed building in Accra?

In 1957 Anthony Chitty gave the opening address to the new school of architecture at KNUST and posed this question,

‘Is a regional architecture, a truly African style, possible for West Africa; for Ghana in Particular? I believe the answer to this question is “yes” : not only possible but desirable, something to be striven for.’

In many ways the Ecobank is the perfect response to the clients wishes – they wanted a modern, international office space to reflect their brand, and clearly Ghanaian architects and engineers can deliver this type of work as well as anyone, but, if we are to be critical, are we guilty of what Chitty spoke about 60 years ago when he demanded,

‘Not just a pallid and mediocre edition of the international style, not just the half considered European solution trotted out to make do here, but a real and living architectural answer to your own local problems, social, technical and political, drawing the maximum from such origins as do exist here, a true Ghana aesthetic.’

I don’t think the Ecobank is at all mediocre, or half-considered, and Chitty was over-playing the Ghana aesthetic idea in light of the nationalist tendencies from the time-  but there must be an approach that can make the architecture of this region specific to this place. Other large projects are rapidly springing up (and unlike the Ecobank) they parade the hackneyed multi-coloured cladding approach that is tormenting every city, whereas Ecobank is clearly searching for something more.

The difficulty is how to scale-up ‘tropical’ design. Tropical architecture stems from the bungalow, barracks, and hospitals – it works well for small-scale low-rise buildings, as the Children’s Library, George Padmore, KNUST Senior Staff Club House demonstrate – it wants to be a ground hugging solution set within leafy gardens and evaporation pools.

A bank today however cannot rely on loggias and verandahs, and rising land values and the ability of buildings to generate substantial rental incomes stimulates the high-rise approach.  This was something that Fry and Drew encountered in West Africa. They worked for the Co-op Bank in Nigeria and placed louvres on the facades of multistory buildings, a technique also used by John Addo at Cedi House in Accra. The library at Ibadan presents another alternative – with its delicate screen and effectively double-façade-cum-circulation zone. Fry found the façade too ‘lace-like’ and pursued something more strapping and formal in later works, such as the library at Girls College in Chandigarh’s Sector-11.


Cedi House viewed from Ecobank roof garden

Fry also set himself the challenge of using a glazed façade in a hot climate, again in Chandigarh. At the Government Printing Press he used glass on the north facing façade only, and included adjustable louvres on the interior to reduce glare. The south facing façade was protected by the walkways and an external aluminium louvre system based on the traditional jalousie reduces solar gain.

There is perhaps just the germ of historical precedent in the two recent Accra buildings – and both reveal a confidence in the city, as well as an ambition to test this type of architecture. The next step will be to put some data-loggers into these buildings and to see how they perform. Their critics might be pleasantly surprised.


Ghana’s housing – an historical retrospective.
Ola Uduku writes:

Visiting Ghana gives one the chance to step back through time – there is an abundance of housing which has survived the vicissitudes of the temporal, physical and socio economic life of more than fifty years; and in certain cases an entire century of existence in the unforgiving tropical climate which comprises much of Southern Ghana’s landscape. In two weeks we came across these special gems.

 Timber housing: Colonial Ghana, then called the Gold Coast along with Nigeria had significant swathes of forests which were sources of tropical hardwood. The Colonial government established significant agro-forestry concerns in both countries, which resulted in timber research stations. The two houses in this post are examples of experimental worker housing that these research stations were responsible for developing. We think that the Kibi house, near the market town of Koforidua,  is over one hundred years old. The other lapped wood house was found at the Aburi botanic gardens, which had previously been the site of a sanatorium. Interestingly both buildings have substantial elements preserved including; walls, casement windows, wooden flooring and roofing elements. Generally only the non ‘wood’ roofing sheets have had to be replaced.

Brick Housing: At Kibi also across the road from the ‘forestry’ house we found an example of a demonstration brick building. This was a semi detached pair of worker quarters set out as a single depth bungalow with a wide verandah and walls one brick thick. The first building retained the balcony format whilst the second had its balcony appropriated to create more space for the larger families who now occupied these buildings.


Experimental Brick Housing in Kibi

Experimental Brick Housing in Kibi

Impregilo Prefabricated Housing
Going to Akosombo Community One  – which was where the elite staff and also the contractor Impregilo had its staff quarters revealed a further rare find.  Built on a higher part of the Community One hill ridge are the original staff quarters for Imregilo staff, we assume these would have been for the Italian foremen and remain in near pristine condition. The original prefabricated lightweight wall-panels can be seen clearly in the neat avenue of houses which looked in some ways like a re-created Italian village scene. A number of the houses had the individually built ‘sit out’ verandah areas with views to the Akosombo landscape and the staff club below.

Impregilo Housing in Akosombo

Prefabricated housing for Italian contractors at Akosombo

View of the Akosombo Dam

View of the Akosombo Dam from Community 1

Today’s domestic architecture in Ghana as in much of West Africa unfortunately seems to have not incorporated much of the ‘environmental design rules’ that these and other residences of this early post independence era were able to employ. The site orientation, use of lightweight materials, utilisation of large areas of operable fenestration, and shading, have all contributed to make these now historic houses exemplars of how domestic buildings could be built to ensure thermal comfort without reliance on today’s ubiquitous air conditioning systems. Surely it is now time to re-evaluate the principles so aptly demonstrated in these houses and use them as a basis for developing a more sustainable response to tropical housing in Africa today.

Notes from Tema, Ghana

We visited Tema, the new port and town built 10km east of Accra in the 1950s and early 1960s. Planned as part of a suite of infrastructure projects including, an aluminium smelter, docklands, and hydroelectric dam, the town was to provide model housing in a series of self-contained neighbourhoods, called ‘Communities’. Each has its own central market area and Community Building surrounded by a series of residential areas. The houses are set around schools and recreation areas, and grouped according to size and occupant income.

We began at Community 1 and explored the market area, complete with extended community centre, before finding some of the distinctive ‘Type iv’ housing. The housing has been extended and in-filled but the original basic form is just about discernable. Other housing had been supplemented by gardens and painted facades. The low-rise flats with central access staircase have been well-maintained and there is a strong sense of pride in the neighbourhood here.

Michael Hirst designed the Type iv housing. He studied at the Architectural Association in the Department of Tropical Architecture before moving out to Ghana (then known as Gold Coast) in the mid 1950s. He worked for the Tema Development Corporation, and lived in the Denys Lasdun designed flats in Tema. We had a good look for these flats and hoped to track them down – but alas, they eluded us….

Community 2 Housing

Community 2 Housing

At Community 2 we saw some grander properties (surely inspired by Maxwell Fry’s work in Chandigarh), as well as a market with vaulted roof and carefully detailed concrete and guttering system. The structure is, however, badly corroded and in need of urgent repair. The traders informed us that the market is likely to be demolished and replaced shortly.

Community 2 Market

We moved on to Tema Manhean, the ‘replacement fishing village’ built to house the Ga People who were displaced with the building of Tema (see our paper for more detail). The settlement wraps around the light house and is made up of a series of compound houses designed by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. We found one compound that was built in 1961 (as noted by the date etched into the concrete during construction) and barely modified since. It was a perfect example of just how successful and adaptable the compound typology can be.



The Transnational Architecture Group Blog is 5 Today!

It’s five years since our first tentative blog post. Since that day we’ve posted over 200 articles, calls for papers, and general research updates on all things architecturally transnational.

One of our major research interests has of course been the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, with the publication of the monograph in 2014 and international conference. But that was just the start. Since then we’ve covered Shama Anbrine and Yemi Salami’s PhD work in Pakistan and Nigeria respectively, as well as Cleo Robert’s PhD work in India. Rachel Lee tested and developed our Timescape App in Bangalore and also published a wonderful monograph (with TAG Press) on Otto Koenigsberger. She was also responsible for a major heritage symposium in Dar es Salam. Ola Uduku has been our most prolific ‘commenter’ as well as providing many research updates on our findings in Ghana and organising numerous workshops on the Architecture of Africa. Our current research project has been sponsored by the British Academy and we’re delighted to be collaborating with Rexford Assasie Oppong (KNUST) and Irene Appeaning Addo (Legon University) on this work.  There is going to be a lot more research stemming from this initial project, not least the cataloguing and archiving of the major drawings collection at KNUST, with Łukasz Stanek from Manchester University.

Other forays have taken us to Thailand and the work of Nat Phothiprasat, as well as to Sri Lanka and the plans of Patrick Abercombie.  We’ve posted abstracts and links to many other papers and projects, not least Johan Lagaes and Kathleen James-Chakraborty’s papers. Killian Doherty and Edward Lawrenson’s film on Yekepa promises to be one of the highlights of 2018.

More recent posts have revealed the rich architecture of the Middle East, including Levin’s paper on Ashkelon, William A. Henderson‘s work at Little Aden,  Ben Tosland’s research into Kuwait, Alsalloum’s moving paper on Damascus and Jackson’s paper on the PWD in Iraq. There’s surely a lot more to investigate here.

It’s been great fun, and here’s to the next five years of exciting research, difficult questions, dusty roads and even dustier archives, and of course new discoveries that make everything worthwhile.

We’d like to thank all of the blog contributors (please do continue to send us your updates, research findings and short articles). Thanks also to our committed readers and for all of your kind comments and emails.

Iain Jackson.


William Anthony Henderson (1914-1998): Projects in the Middle East with Farmer and Dark

Bill Henderson

Bill Henderson, c.1980s.

Henderson studied at Liverpool School of Architecture commencing his studies during Prof. Charles Reilly’s final year as Head of School in 1932. He described it as, ‘exciting times for me both in student work and in vacations when, twice with my friend Roger Ward, I travelled by cargo boat on cheap mail fare in Italy, Germany and Scandinavia and worked in the USA [for William Lescaze] and Canada in 1936’. Reilly would often arrange work experience for his students in New York during the summer before their final year and Henderson recorded the sojourn in his sketchbooks.


He returned to Liverpool and completed his thesis entitled, ‘A Residential group for the University of London’ before being awarded both the prestigious John Rankin Prize and Honan travelling scholarship that funded a research trip to Chile, the findings of which were later published in the Architectural Review. Although professing ‘little experience of nitty gritty’ he worked for Grey Wornum and was about to start work for Shepherd & Partners when war was declared on 1st September 1939. After signing-up to serve, he was posted to Turkey on a troop ship via Sierra Leone, round the Cape through the Suez Canal to Ismailia, with the final stretch by air. He served in the Royal Engineers designing roads and airfields (the illustrated diaries from this period are now housed in the Imperial War Museum).

Returning to the UK in 1945 he worked at Hertfordshire County Architects on their radical school building programmes. He joined the firm of Farmer and Dark in 1951, becoming partner in 1954 until his retirement in 1980. The practice was renowned for handling large complex projects and as their 1955 practice brochure notes, ‘there can be no casual atelier character for a team over a hundred strong’. Many large-scale projects were overseen by Henderson during this period, including the Automobile Association HQ and he was Consultant Architect to Kent University (taking over from Lord Holford), where amongst others he designed the Senate House, Keynes College, the Gulbenkian Theatre, as well as shaping the Master Plan – but what interests us here is the work at Kuwait, Aden and Lebanon.


Henderson set up the Farmer and Dark Middle Eastern Office in Beirut to handle the large number of projects being commissioned in the region, including in Turkey and Cyprus. He first visited Kuwait in 1952, following the commission to design a power station and water distillation plant at Kuwait Town. Prior to the water plant, all fresh water had to be imported from Iraq. Building materials, including bricks, were imported from the UK, but post-war building rations resulted in the steel being sourced from Belgium. The large mass of the power station is dispersed through projecting triangular cornices and sloped vertical fins, that add shadow, texture and rhythm to the substantial volumes.

The Kuwait water towers, as drawn here by Cyril Farey, show a similar concern for using climatic modification to inform the character and formal composition. There is a restrained pragmatic approach to their work, as well as a concern for bold outlines and a clarity in the formal layout and planning. Further work was won including two primary schools, and an Engish Public School in Lebanon (subsequently abandoned following the 1958 Lebanon Crisis).

The Kuwait Team at Farmer and Dark

The Kuwait Team at Farmer and Dark – note the power station photo on the right hand side

L: Bill Henderson, M: Frankland Dark; R: T. A. Eaton

L: Bill Henderson, M: Frankland Dark; R: T. A. Eaton

Farmer and Dark also designed a new lavish palace for the Sheikh Jabir Al Ali. There were many references to local patterns and decoration, and bold colours deployed to resist the strong sunlight. A series of hyperbolic arches forms a parasol over the main building, offering some shade to the structure below as well as adding a sense of grandeur and civic stature to the design.

Construction at Little Aden, 1960-1965

Construction at Little Aden, 1960-1965

Perspective of the proposed town of Little Aden

Perspective of the proposed town of Little Aden

The Church and Clock Tower at Little Aden, 1965

The Church and Clock Tower at Little Aden, 1965

Church Interior, Little Aden, looking up into the lantern, 1965

Church Interior, Little Aden, looking up into the lantern, 1965

Perhaps the highlight of this work is the British Army Cantonment at Little Aden designed and built between 1960-65 to house 4500 servicemen and their families. A small town was planned including a variety of different housing types for the various army ranks, as well as a school, sports facilities, cinema, clubhouses and a church. The entire town was designed around a modular system ensuring minimum site work, quick construction and standard details, as well as a progressive approach to data management and standardised drawing processes.

In stark contrast to the earlier reserved work the square timber trusses of the church are alternately stacked at 45° to the layer below to create a dramatic interior, as well as responding to the mountainous backdrop with its external form. It was a roofing technique dating back at least to the time of Vitruvius, who mentioned its use at Colchis. The church was subsequently converted into a mosque after the British were evacuated in November 1967 following attacks from the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). The press speculated that the settlement was designed with Arab occupation in mind from the outset – a claim rejected by the architects who designed ‘for the conditions of Arabia and in character with the terrain, so the buildings are bound to be apt for other use, than by the British army’. The arrangement of the church sited on a rocky spur of the Jebel, ‘not only proves to have an affinity with the stone forts of South Arabia but also to the traditional relationship of mosque to minaret.’ Indeed, the architects considered the possibility of the church being converted into a mosque in the event of the British departing.

There’s a lot more to discuss about Farmer and Dark, and the significant contribution made by people such as Bill Henderson to this practice. We hope to post a lot more images and details on the blog in the next few months to bring more of this work to light.

I’m extremely grateful and indebted to Tessa and Kathy Henderson for generously sharing their father’s archive with me.





It is with great sadness that the AA has learnt of the death of former AA Principal Professor Michael Lloyd (AADipl 1953). The following obituary, written by Svein Erik Svendsen, Hans Skotte and Patrick Wakely is translated from Norwegian by Desmond McNeill and originally published on the AA website.

Architect and multifarious professor Michael Lloyd was buried in Oslo on 16 June 2017.

With him we have lost one of the foremost architecture educators of our time; not just in Norway – his work and influence were global. He was born in England in 1927 and studied at the Architectural Association (AA) in London. Whilst still a student he took part in the post-war reconstruction of Finnmark, Norway, and after graduating, Alvar Aalto arranged work for him in Helsinki. He then practiced in Oslo and taught at the School of Art & Craft where he met Catharine, who became his wife and lifelong companion.


In 1959 he was appointed first year master at the AA, in charge of all new students to the school. In 1962 Kwami Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, approached the AA for assistance in re-organising and running its faculty of architecture that had been established in 1951, but had become moribund. The AA responded to this and gave the job to Michael Lloyd, who was appointed professor and dean of the faculty in 1963. He immediately appointed several new full-time members of teaching staff, several of whom were drawn from the AA Department of Development and Tropical Studies – later to become the Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London, and radically reorganised the curriculum and teaching style of the faculty. Over the following five years, Michael brought a number of interesting short-term visiting professors to the faculty, including Buckminster Fuller, Jane Drew, Keith Critchlow, Paul Oliver and Joseph Rykwert. The faculty gained an internationally acclaimed reputation for its innovation and educational and architectural excellence.

In 1966 he was appointed principal of the AA School of Architecture, where he also initiated new and challenging educational and administrative reforms. These were turbulent times for higher education in the United Kingdom and he left the AA after a few years. He then restored the School of Architecture in Kingston-upon-Hull and joined the DPU where he directed a Master’s degree programme in design teaching methods, as part of which he was instrumental in reforming the faculty of architecture at the University of Costa Rica in San José.

On leaving the DPU in the early 1980s, he assisted local efforts in establishing new schools of architecture in Bergen, Norway, where he remained a professor for several years and in Reykjavik, Iceland. Thereafter he was appointed professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, where he, among other things, conducted a project at Makerere University in Uganda, which eventually encompassed the whole of East Africa.

As a teacher, and as the sympathetic man that he was, his work was based on the idea of “the responsible human being” that one learns through taking responsibility for one’s own professional development, and that one’s skills are a personal social responsibility. As an educator Michael was unorthodox, inspiring and very much present as a teacher. He was inquisitive, courageous, and knowledgeable and had highly respected friends all over the world. His international position remains outstanding. To become principal of the AA School of Architecture, which many regard as the world’s best school of architecture, one must possess very special qualifications. Michael had those. As was said during his funeral, “Michael was a truly good man”.

Image: Michael Lloyd at his home in Spain in November 2016, by Mónica Pacheco, Dip. Arch., MA, Ph.D., Department of Architecture and Urbanism, University Institute of Lisbon