Tropical Modernism

Is it possible to go more than a few steps in London (or any major city) without seeing a lush monstera leaf poking out from someone’s street-facing window, or a copper-fitted, houseplant-stuffed café? What about the radiant renderings encasing the construction site of another new luxury development—the sun-streaked interiors and sliding glass doors seeming to offer a tropical teleportation service alongside all the mid century modern furniture?

Tropical aesthetics are clearly having a moment in contemporary architecture and design, but this trend has a deep-rooted history, and a knack for cropping up in trying times. It once materialised as the beloved pink lawn flamingo of the 1950s—a plastic Prozac for America’s post-war suburban dream—and before that, the emblematic tiki bar, whose origins can be traced back to California amid the great depression of the early 1930s. Peeling back that outer layer of escapist kitsch, we land at tropical modernism.

Although the term is thrown around lightly today—having become a favourite catch-all phrase for open-plan concrete crash pads overflowing with exotic greenery and luxury beach houses featured on the likes of Dezeen or ArchDaily—there is a darker history to this supposedly easy breezy buzzword. Tropical modernism emerged in the mid-20th century as a colonial architecture style imposed on the tropical world by European protagonists fleeing the dangers of WWII, eager to craft a better world in its destructive wake. Although the movement kicked off in British colonies across Asia from Sri Lanka to India, the most precisely articulated examples stem from Jane Drew and Max Fry’s work in British West Africa.

Here, Drew and Fry had the opportunity to cut their teeth on large-scale public and social projects including hospitals, schools, and housing schemes fresh out of school. Upon their return to England, the duo established the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association in London in 1954. It was here that they set about teaching a new architectural style already ripe with contradiction.

“Beyond its exercise as a form of cultural colonialism, tropical modernism essentially ignored context,” explains David Robson, expert on the Sri Lankan regional modernist architect Geoffrey Bawa, and a close friend of the movement’s head honchos. “Fry and Drew would make these gestures to local art forms, but largely, the result was Bauhaus-inspired, International Style architecture that used imported materials like glass and reinforced concrete.”

The only architects who recognized the absurdity of developing an architectural style reliant on European production methods inside countries with no industry were locals like Minnette De Silva and Geoffrey Bawa. Returning from their overseas studies at the AA in 1948 and 1957 respectively, they set about developing a distinctly Sri Lankan strand of modern architecture that rejected the international style.

This movement would eventually come to be known as regional modernism. Emphasising local craft and materials—stone, timber, clay tiles—regional modernism placed an emphasis on the pitched roof (which tropical modernism had flattened). Vernacular motifs were infused with modern design to create warm yet open interiors. Broadly understood in Sri Lanka as total failure, tropical modernism was abandoned after the European expats returned home.

Knowing this complex history, what do we make of the resurgent interest in the aesthetics of tropical modernism today? Where do we place its modern and contemporary offshoots in South America, Australia, and Florida? Do yesterday’s utopian dreams of a clean slate amid the hangover of global warfare overlap the present tiny house movement amid the sweltering stakes of the Anthropocene? Do both not entertain the idea of a simple and enlightened lifestyle as an attempt to escape the crisis of which it is a direct outcome?

Or perhaps our love of plants and surface appeal is tied in with the return of postmodernism and design trends of the 70s and 80s? Speaking to architects and interior designers whose tropical modern inspired projects dot urban jungles and mountainous rainforests from Amsterdam to Australia, certain commonalities emerge that defy the restrained palette of old-school tropical modernism. A push for plush, liveable spaces that blend styles and reveal the personalities of their makers sets the pace for the present.

“We are all travelling more for sure, and exotic species of plants are more available nowadays,” says Esther Stam, founder of the Amsterdam-based interior design studio, Studio Modijefsky. “But I believe greenery is becoming more popular in interior design because people are looking for a softer and constantly evolving environment. We want a space that is less controlled, something that breaks all the straight lines.”

Esther cultivates these design ideas with Bar Botanique, a tropicana-infused café bar that opened in Amsterdam East in July 2016. Royal palms and monstera abound while philodendron dangle from the double-height ceiling and wrap around the art deco-style balcony leading up to the mezzanine dining area, where millennial pink emerges from the prevailing shades of green. Marble abounds: pink at the bistro tables flanking 1950s furniture and in moss green for the bar, its bottom half bedecked with patterned tiles. With its ready Instagrammability, Bar Botanique is one of the clearest examples of contemporary riffs on tropical modernism as a fully heterogeneous affair.

Some 14,000 km southeast in the remote tropical region of Cairns, Queensland sits the Planchonella House: the first project by local practice Jesse Bennett Studio. Completed in 2015, Planchonella is a mixture of pared-back concrete and glass foundations with jazzy furnishings, including a u-shaped powder pink sofa and a wriggly lemon-yellow ladder leading to the greenery-covered roof. “It’s an eclectic blend of different styles; we call it Tropical Bizzaro—maybe it’ll stick,” Bennett jokes of his architectural frankenstein.

The undulating L-shaped structure is sandwiched between two chunks of curving concrete, curling around an inner courtyard that provides the necessary light and ventilation between the house and the tropical rainforest surrounding it. Sliding glass doors keep the modernist dream alive, while overhanging roof gives much-needed shade.

“Australia’s tropical regions are sparsely populated and the architecture hasn’t really progressed from the postwar ‘Queenslander’ style,” suggests Bennett. By contrast, he believes Brazil’s dense population was the catalyst for the country’s speedy development of its own strain of tropical modernism, as seen in the mid-20th century works of Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi. The country’s drive for urbanisation also had an impact, with 20 million people moving from urban areas into cities between the 1950s and 1970s.

Modernism quickly seeped into Brazil’s national identity, with dozens of concrete structures popping up in the public realm. Niemeyer’s Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro (1936-43) was a paragon of the International Style applied to a tropical climate with its use of brise-soleils and jacking the building up on piloti to create a shady undercroft below. .

But Brazil’s current run of tropical modernism has veered away from these concrete civic landscapes—shifting, like most others, into the residential sector, but continuing to draw heavily on their modernist heritage. The work of São Paulo-based practice Terra e Tuma has garnered international attention for their new spin on Brazilian tropical modernist principles. “We sail the same ocean, but we have the conscience to find our own course,” says Danilo Terra of his practice’s relation to Brazil’s modern masters.

Taking as much aesthetic inspiration from the concrete jungle as the real one, Terra’s own dwelling, Casa Maracanã, is caught somewhere between a Manhattan loft and Bo Bardi’s rural glass house. A largely open-air, open-plan space meets minimalist furniture, exposed lightbulbs, metal fence balustrades and concrete brick walls. Decorative tiles by local artist Alexandre Mancini enliven the facade, while a bike is posed for the camera indoors, asserting the coexistence of contemporary life and modernist design.

Other examples are not so compact. One of Brazil’s most prominent contemporary practices, Studio MK27, has become synonymous with luxe modernist mansions that make John Lautner’s Hollywood crash pads look like dinky guest homes. Like Lautner’s space-age Elrod House, the studio’s 2013 Jungle House appears to rise out of the dramatic landscape of São Paolo’s lush coastal mountains. Quoting the tropical modernist values of site-specificity and a deeper connection to nature through a pared-back aesthetic, the Jungle House offers barefoot luxury for clients yearning for a piece of nature along with their infinity pools and designer furniture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, MK27 is big in Miami, where their latest modernist mansion featuring a sky bridge and an “authentically manicured” lagoon-filled tropical garden sits on the market for a cool £20 million.

Some 70 years ago, a young Paul Rudolph, fresh out of navy service, settled down on Florida’s other coast in the sleepy seaside town of Sarasota, Florida. The lay of the land was much the same as tropical modern’s other spawning spots: largely undeveloped and cheap. Opportunistic property tycoons and a booming tourist economy demanding quaint beach homes for the northern snowbirds meant Rudolph could perfect his tropical modern style through seasonal micro-cabins made from bare-bones and oft-experimental materials: from the crushed seashell reinforcing and rooftop cooling system of the Lamolithic House (1948) to the Cocoon House’s (1950) concave plastic spray-on roof—a technique Rudolph picked up in his navy days.

Although Rudolph was destined for bigger things, exiting the subtropical Sarasota to head-up Yale’s Architecture Department in 1952, his innovative guest houses left an enduring impact on the contemporary tropical modernist movement. “Rudolph was the first one to make the made international style contextual—he knew a glass box in Florida was not a good idea,” explains Miami-based architect Jacob Brillhart..

Fusing modernist design principles with local styles—including the Florida Cracker and Dog Trot, the simple wooden house on stilts with a central staircase and front porch—Brillhart and his partner, Melissa, set out to build a 21st century tropical modernist home. Completed in 2014, the Brillhart House is a true “tiny home” that sits on a 20 meter-wide lot. With all the modern materials like thermal glass, icynene insulation and hurricane-proof sliding doors, the house switches concrete for ipe wood sourced nearby in Fort Lauderdale, plus steel and glass. Brillhart sees the material upgrade as a natural evolution of Rudolph’s beachside bungalows and Mies’ glossy pavilions into a year-round habitable home that retains all the tropical modernist principles.

But with the cost of a decent plot of land in Miami-Dade county often clearing £800,000, says Brillhart, the drive to build big has resulted in the overgrowth of tropical modernist-inspired mansions. Brandishing LEED certifications (the US equivalent to the UKs BREEAM system) and quoting values of humbleness and sustainability, these multi-million pound homes claim to offer a deeper connection to nature, effectively manipulating the eco-friendly symbolism of tropical modernism in order to enable the grotesque lifestyle of Americas wealthiest to carry on as usual. “Everyone says they want a sustainable house, but when it’s time to trade in the Sub-Zero fridge for solar panels, they choose the fridge nine times out of ten,” laments Brillhart.

As much as contemporary tropical modernism turns its back on the movement’s dark colonial origins, it can be a richer, more eclectic style that values the soft and delightful over the cool and uninhabitable elements of the modernist fantasy.

But as the aesthetic is increasingly co-opted for the sale of luxury apartments, and the phrase ‘tropical modern’ is used to describe McMansions with sea views we should look twice at this trend. What colonial history are we taking on board, or attempting to erase, by replicating this style? What does the resurgence of these dazzling and occasionally eye-watering designs say about the experience economy and distraction culture? What are we hiding beneath all the jungle wallpaper, indoor tropical plantscapes, and plush mid century modern furniture—or what, rather, are we hiding from?

(Published on: ICON )