How modernity came to the equator

10. Januar 2024

The title of our current exhibition is dazzling: Tropical Modernism – How did this architecture reach the equator? The photo exhibition by photographer Jean Molitor provides an insight on how a broad stylistic, avant-garde architectural approach conquered the world. The art historian Andreas Butter was invited to the opening. Here are a few thoughts from his introduction.

The term „modernism“ describes more than just a form. For a long time, it was associated with a parting from the burdens of the past, with free thinking and good living conditions for each and everyone. This was particularly true in the 1960s, when the idea of progress was particularly evident in wide highways, high-rise buildings, space travel and pop culture – and, in our part of the world, in remotely heated homes for small families.

This optimistic interpretation has since been shaken. Multiple crises have contributed to this: the systemic crises of capitalism and socialism, a return of the anti-modern in the form of re-emerging fascism, anarcho-capitalism and religious fundamentalism. Contributing to the disillusion was not least the ruthless treatment of historical testimonies in the post-war decades. The promises of technological modernity are now also on shaky ground, whether due to the challenges of global warming or the decay of infrastructure (the speaker’s heating has been out for 14 days in freezing temperatures).

And yet modernity also had a lasting impact on the tropics. Like “ modernism“, the term “ tropics“ also has ambivalent connotations. On the one hand, it is associated with the exoticism of places of longing, the „dream beach with palm trees“. On the other hand, it resonates not only geographically but also epochally with the foreign, which is also interpreted as „wild“ with a colonial gesture of superiority. To some extent, the equatorial regions today are indeed crisis-ridden zones, characterized by poverty, violence and natural disasters (all of which can and do happen to us in Europe). In any case, “ Modernism“ appears here as a foreign body, the „other“: „Tropical Modernism“ could come across as the result of a well-meaning missionary idea or represent exploitative colonialism – and this certainly with transitions. At the same time, and this is not reduced to outward appearances, the universalist concept of modernism, with its awareness of its non-exclusively European roots, offers anchor points for a reception of the regional, even from afar. And this opens up the possibility of a reinterpretation in the sense of self-discovery for people in the global South.

But how did this modernism come to the tropical latitudes? Not only in these regions does this raise questions about the builders and planners, the power structure, the circulating ideologies – but no less about the people who used and changed the buildings. The answers vary depending on the time and place. But the more critically you look, the clearer the shadows of colonial history become.

Jean Molitor’s photos bring us closer to this diversity. Here are six basic ideas to inspire us:

1. The arrival of concepts of modernism in the tropics began with the import of European ideas, whether through architecture for the white elites, as in the case of Eritrea under Italian fascist rule, or as an independent modernization movement, as took place in Latin America or Japan. This happened not only through conquest, but to no small extent through world trade – or as a show of solidarity, as in the GDR’s involvement in the „young nation states“ (e.g. Ghana, Guinea, Zanzibar). In each case, impulses from outside met a complex architectural landscape of indigenous and pre-modern-colonial approaches.

2. Traditional everyday architecture was displaced in many places, but it often proved to be typologically durable and anchored in the social framework and continues to have an effect in a modernized form to this day. Much of what was planned on modern drawing boards and built under palm trees (despite in-depth functional analyses) failed to meet the cultural needs of the people, could not be maintained or changed in the course of appropriation through bricking up, patching up and demolition.

3. As early as the 1930s, local clients and architects from the South began to turn modernist ideas into reality – sometimes even more radically than in Europe in terms of format and design.

4. Modernism has an inherent emancipatory impulse: modern architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s stood for a new beginning in the spirit of progress. This can be read as a genuine emancipatory social project (whether successful or not), not only in relation to the global South, as in Brasilia. Or as a form of private separation from power – like the ultra-modern townhouses in the face of the „old Spanish“ state architecture of the Ubico dictatorship in Guatemala. Paradoxically, and this was very often the case, the iconographic statement of the architecture could be read as an exclusive claim to civilization by the colonial upper class, as in the Belgian Congo. The modern „image“ was even suitable for providing a utopian cover for an oligarchic regime of terror, as with the shell buildings in Duvalierville (now Cabaret) in Haiti.

5. Modernism as a movement in the industrialized nations benefited from non-European sources from the very beginning. Thus it was the Expressionists who learned from African art, reform art around 1900, which drew on structural Japanese minimalism, or Cubism, which absorbed influences from Arab architecture – the Tunis paintings by Klee, Macke and Delaunay spring to mind. All of this flowed into the variations of modern architecture conceived in Europe and in Molitor’s work shining in the light of the South, in organic-dynamic, crystalline or reductionist conceptions of form.

6. Looking beyond the skyscrapers of Dubai or Singapore, we find a history of modern architecture in the global South, and not only there, that struggles to incorporate traditional approaches to functional fulfillment and design. While this was already evident in the 1950s, for example in Mexico, in spatial arrangements and the lively expression of façades, today it is the inclusion of low-tech solutions in climate-optimized, subsistence-oriented construction methods, for example in the adaptation of clay architecture or through superstructures for energy-saving air circulation.

The achievements of „Tropical Modernism“ represent more than a collection of sometimes bizarre building forms in their exuberance. They still have their practical value (in the best cases), are a source for the critical reception of an often painful history and are nevertheless inspiring in their forward-looking verve. The output of „Tropical Modernism“ represents more than a collection of sometimes bizarre building forms in their exuberance. They still have their practical value (in the best cases), are a source for the critical reception of an often painful history and are nevertheless inspiring in their forward-looking verve.

Despite the colonial injustice that weighs on some of these testimonies: Like Maschinenstürmerei, „Modernestürmerei“ is the wrong approach. Rather, it is important to make the achievements of modernity available to all with care.

This is not the worst reason to value and protect these buildings as a legacy of the 20th century.