Maxwell Fry (1899-1987) and Jane Drew (1911-96)

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Fig. 1. Mfantsipim School, Ghana - 1950

By Jessica Holland, Donald Insall Associates - The Commonwealth Heritage Forum is interested in all aspects of the built heritage of the Commonwealth. In the late 1940s and 50s there was a resurgence of interest in ‘tropical architecture’ by some of the leading modernist architects of the day. Jessica Holland highlights the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who left a fascinating heritage of important buildings in West Africa and India….

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Fig. 2. University College in Ibadan, 1947-1951

Fry and Drew’s work overseas spanned nearly forty years, taking place in a period of significant change post World War Two. They built a variety of projects in at least sixteen countries, the majority of which were British colonies or, later, newly independent states. Their most extensive work took place in West Africa following Fry’s wartime posting to Ghana. From 1944-1946, they served as town planners to the Resident Minister in West Africa. School building programmes in Ghana from 1945-1955 led to numerous commissions for schools, teacher training colleges, and in Nigeria, they designed University College in Ibadan.

Fry described their work as a combination of local and modern: ‘we were fated to make a new architecture out of our love for the place and our obedience to nature, and to make it with cement and steel…’ Fry and Drew built throughout West Africa and India, producing work that was similar to many buildings constructed by other colonising powers at that time. What makes their work readily identifiable is their recurring use of sculptural brise soleil using a different motif at each school or college project. Drew said of their attempts to bring regional character to the modernist buildings: ‘the particular architectural character comes… from the sunbreakers, grilles and other shading but breeze-permitting devices… which are rhythmical and strong, not spiky and elegant, but bold and sculptural.’ These sculptural forms photograph particularly well, displayed especially well in strong sunlight, and these images were prevalent in articles by the British architectural press at the time.

Fry and Drew were part of a cohort that included Ove Arup, James Cubitt, The Architects Co-Partnership, Otto Koenigsberger, Godwin and Hopwood. These practitioners of ‘tropical architecture’ working throughout Anglophone West Africa had links with the Architectural Association, and ideas were shared and disseminated through education and publications. In 1954, a course on tropical architecture was established at the AA under Maxwell Fry’s direction and in 1961, Jane Drew set up a similar course at MIT during her visiting professorship. In 1959, Architectural Design published a special edition of Commonwealth Architecture and two years later JM Richards published a book on New Buildings in the Commonwealth with a contribution by Fry on West Africa.