Associate Professor Kai Gutschow Presents-School of Architecture - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, February 19, 2010

Associate Professor Kai Gutschow Presents

"Ernst May and Tropical Modernism"

Associate Professor Kai Gutschow presented his paper "Tropical Modernism" at the fourth htc.Workshop held on February 4 and 5.  The workshop was hosted by The Department of Architecture at the Florida International University and The Wolfsonian-FIU.

This paper investigates four housing projects by the German modernist architect Ernst May in East Africa from 1937-1953 with reference to what has come to be called “tropical modernism.”  Tropical modernism, a concept first popularized in the early 1950s, is in vogue again today as an example of so-called “green architecture” that often features passive and vernacular solutions to climate control and lifestyle.  The focus of much of this recent attention, however, has been aesthetic and stylistic, or purely technical.  This paper, however, shifts attention to the social aspects of tropical modernism.  May spent his career crusading to solve the world's urban and housing problems through large scale planning. In Africa he struggled to find commissions that went beyond the scale and scope of mere architecture.  Through an analysis of four modest housing projects this paper traces May’s changing definitions of an “appropriate” architecture for colonial East Africa’s diverse populations.  His first projects still clung to, and tried to impose foreign ideas that he himself had helped create in Europe.  But May eventually developed a much more climactically, racially, and socio-economically responsive vision for modern architecture in the tropics.  Although in the end still a colonial construct, May’s early efforts to introduce a new architecture to the tropics help make clear hurdles that would be faced by other architects throughout the world as European modernism eventually became an international style with regional variations.  May’s work foreshadows some of the problems, particularly social problems, that architects would encounter as newly independent colonies in Africa and throughout the world adapted a foreign modernism to their own region, people, and meanings.  In the process, it reminds us that tropical modernism was, and perhaps should again be, far more than a response to climate.

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