The V&A’s Tropical Modernism exhibition highlights the challenges around communicating ideas on architecture to a non-architectural audience, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Ellie cropped

I recently visited the V&A’s latest architecture exhibition, Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Independence. It is a fascinating exploration of the way modernism was used as a symbol in two newly independent countries - India and Ghana. However, it is a terrible exploration of the architecture.

There is no real explanation of who its main profiled architects, Le Corbusier, Maxwell Fry or Jane Drew are; there is no real explanation of what modernism is; how it fits into the history of architectural styles; why it was ideally suited as a style for a newly independent nation; why it was unpopular in Britain; its main materials, details or tropes. There is no explanation of how the buildings profiled were used; lived in; whether they were loved or hated; or how they have aged.

It is however, a decent exploration of how buildings were used as a symbol of a new political regime. It is interesting, beautifully put together and has some wonderful drawings in it, but it is not an architecture exhibition. Perhaps I expected too much, but I left disappointed. The friend I went with isn’t an architect, they walked out slightly bewildered - “I think that went over my head”. On the same day we had also visited the Chanel exhibition. Neither of us work in fashion, or know much about clothes, but both of us left educated and inspired.

It is perhaps unfair to compare a small exhibition on architecture with the year’s blockbuster exhibition. The budgets will have been supremely different. However I think the point I wish to make is fair. Exhibiting or communicating architecture is difficult, and architects are notoriously bad at it. Architects were involved with Tropical Modernism - but I think they maybe forgot their audience was wider, and would need more background in order to understand it.

If we wish people to value architects and architecture, then we need to communicate it more effectively. It wouldn’t have taken much for Tropical Modernism to be more about the architecture than the politics; but it would have been harder.


Source: Eleanor Jolliffe

Boards from the Tropical Modernism exhibition at the V&A

Very few people can extrapolate buildings from drawings on paper, or experience those spaces mentally. To build spaces at 1:1 scale - or even models, is very expensive. There is also the fact that good architecture acts as a canvas to life and blank canvases don’t make for good exhibitions. However, 1:1 mock ups, historical context, a few extra facts on materials and construction techniques would have made a big difference to Tropical Modernism.

Perhaps it would also be possible to explore the process: how long something takes to build, how much it costs, how it works in relation to the site and physical context, how many people were involved in its construction. Perhaps even more interesting is the life that happens in a building over time, how it has been adapted and aged. What worked, what didn’t, if the architects reused details, or abandoned them here.

Alongside my reservations about the way architecture is so usually exhibited I am nervous that even the little architecture we can see at major museums like the V&A is destined to become even rarer. I foresee that architecture will become even more niche, even more elite, with even less interest or investment in exhibiting it well.

The parting of ways between the RIBA collections and the V&A is something I do not understand, something I cannot think is wise, and something I believe will further entrench the isolation and paucity of architectural exhibition. The RIBA’s ‘House of Architecture’ plans seem well intentioned - but people will have to search architecture out, it won’t be stumbled across during a day out in South Kensington; and in the way we currently exhibit architecture I just don’t think they will.

There are a thousand stories around each building, stories of the concept, the construction, the everyday life around it, and the people in it. If we talked about buildings in a fuller way we may find that more people are interested in them, investing in them, and paying for the services of the people who design them.

>> Also read: MoMA’s exhibition illustrates the rich legacy of south Asian modernism