Tropical Architecture: Current Research

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Following up Yemi’s post on the RWAFF, I noticed the uniforms of the African soldiers and reflected on how this apparently insignificant peculiarity has been a sign of the different methods with which Europeans confronted with Africa. The uniforms of colonial military force in Africa are a clear sign of the development of climate-adaptive sensibility, they played a major role in the history of Tropical Medicine that I see as the cultural base of Tropical Architecture. Noël Coward in 1931, while travelling from Hanoi to Saigon, wrote the famous lyrics “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun“. It’s amazing to see how the idea that tropical climate was unhealthy and dangerous was so deeply rooted in the European culture to even generate popular folk songs.

The solar topee (shown below) that “the simple creatures hope he will impale on a tree” was the most famous symbol of how scientific knowledge could help the Western man cope with the dangerous tropical climate. Yet we must avoid tracing the history of Tropical Medicine as the simple linear progression of reason over superstition. Even if significant progress were made, they did not sweep away the suspicion that climate itself was a biological harm for Europeans. In 1930s Nigeria one cadet refused to wear the hat until he got a letter from the government saying that if he become ill from not wearing the hat he would have to go back home and end is career. It is easy to imagine how the whole life of colonialists in early decades of XXth century were influenced by the concerns on tropical climate. The idea that black and whites needed different treatments opened up to the idea that they were biologically different which easily ended up in racial theories.

Towards a genealogy of tropical architecture: Historical fragmen

However the systemic approach to climate that many studies of Tropical Medicine show, one for all the monumental work by Aldo Castellani and Albert Chalmers, posed the basis for the development of studies on climate that were strongly influential on Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s work. It is perhaps possible to trace a history of the relation with climate that links together solar topees, military barracks and bungalows all the way to the tropical modernism. A history that will be able to recognize the debt that Fry and Drew had with previous experiences in Africa even in disciplines not immediately linked to architecture.


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