What is Tropical Modernism?

October 07, 2022

Tropical Modernism Geoffrey Bawa Furniture interior design

Before we go into Tropical Modernism, it's important to understand what modern is first. The Modernist style was an important and highly influential international movement of architecture and design. In the 1931 book Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos outlined his highly critical view of Art Nouveau, the ornamental and decorative art style. He said that the ornamental approach would fall out of fashion and eventually become obsolete. Germany was experiencing a massive banking crisis and the entire world was affected. Modernism was pioneered by Le Corbiusier–his architecture is stark, austere, and without ornamentation. There was a group with the opposite ideals of the modernists and that was the Art Deco movement that developed from Art Nouveau but wanted to reflect the modern world. It was decorative and luxurious and also became an international style. However, even some of the Decos turned more modern during the 1930s due to the worldwide depression. The Tiong Bahru flats are an example of a modern Deco style–stark and austere but with the curved lines of Art Deco.

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudi in the style of Art Nouveau 
A Tiong Bahru Art Deco Modern Building
Chandigarh’s High Court, a Modernist building by Le Corbusier

Tropical Modernism is a style of architecture and design that was invented by Geoffrey Bawa (23 July 1919 – 27 May 2003), an influential Sri Lankan architect. Similar to the Black and White styles of architecture in Singapore, it is a mix of styles from West and East. He took modernist architecture, an international style, and mixed it with traditional Sri Lankan design. What resulted was a unique style called Tropical Modernism that became beloved and influenced many architects in his generation and beyond. His approach to “sustainability”, before sustainability was even talked about, was his use of local materials and buildings that are designed to work with the climate; that meant allowing for air flow, shade, protection from the winds and rain as well as incorporating nature into the overall design that brought beauty and the calming quality of foliage and flora. Tropical Modernism brings the starkness of modernism architecture, while incorporating the lush, floral beauty of the tropics.

A Geoffrey Bawa in a Tropical Modernism interior in Sri Lanka
The Ratnasivaratnam House, 1979, a Tropical Modernism building in Sri Lanka

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