Fry and Drew: Conference

‘The Influence of Fry and Drew’ Conference, Keynote 3

Jiat-Hwee Chang, ‘Contextualizing Fry and Drew’s Tropical Architecture: Climate as Agency’

Influence acts in both directions. While Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were indeed influential figures in the fields of modern architecture, town planning and tropical architecture, they were undoubtedly also shaped by various forms of external influences. This paper will explore some of these influences on Fry and Drew. The focus of this paper is, however, not so much on the influence of personae – such as teachers, mentors, patrons, colleagues and friends of Fry and Drew – but with the conditions of possibility – specifically historical structure, socio-political conditions and technoscientific infrastructure – that shaped the ways Fry and Drew produced tropical architecture in Africa and Asia during the mid-twentieth century.

Through a close reading of two books by Fry and Drew – Village Housing in the Tropics (1947) and Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956) – this paper seeks to understand what were the influences on Fry and Drew’s discourse and practice of tropical architecture. Broadly speaking, this paper will explore two main forms of influence on Fry and Drew. One, it situates Fry and Drew’s tropical architecture in the longer genealogy of European, particularly British, buildings in the tropics. While Fry and Drew’s work in the tropics contributed to the institutionalisation of tropical architecture in the mid-twentieth century and was posited as something new and modern, this paper argues that their work was inextricably linked to prior colonial “tropical architecture” and, in particular, carried historically sedimented meanings of tropicality. Two, this paper locates the influences on Fry and Drew’s tropical architecture within the mid-twentieth century moment. Specifically, it shows how Fry and Drew’s tropical architecture was undergirded by the technoscientific infrastructure of building research in climatic design. This paper also argues that the socio-political conditions of decolonisation and development in the British Empire/Commonwealth facilitated Fry and Drew’s production of tropical architecture.

Drawing on the notion of what science studies scholars James Rodger Fleming and Vladimir Jankovic call “climate as agency” that translates matters of concern into matters of fact, this paper seeks to show that, common to the two aforementioned broad forms of influence, the tropical climate in tropical architecture was more than a statistical index of weather trends. Tropical climate was elevated as a prime consideration in the design and construction of tropical architecture because it was seen as an agency and a force that informed social habits, affected health, shaped socio-economic progress and determined the welfare of a territory’s population.


Chang Jiat Hwee is Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore. He obtained his Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 2009. His interdisciplinary research on (post)colonial architectural history and theory, and the socio-technical aspects of sustainability in the built environment have been published as various book chapters and journal articles. He is currently working on a book titled A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonialism, Ecology and Nature (to be published by Archi-text series, Routledge). He is the co-editor of Non West Modernist Past (2011) and a special issue of Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography on “tropical spatialities”(2011). He is also the author of two monographs on contemporary architecture in Singapore.

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