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TROPICAL MODERNISM DIARIES No.1

Accra Ghana – The Nkrumah Residential Towers

In the first of the quarterly Tropical Modernism diaries I take a look at a very special and unique modernist housing estate in Accra Ghana. Before we delve in, an introduction to Tropical Modernism as a concept is required.


Modernism in architecture or the idea of “Machines for living” has many fathers, and depending who you ask or what book or journal you read there may be variations in its origins.

Some trace its genesis to the timber framed Zen designs of Ancient Japan, others to the Arts and Crafts movement of the United kingdom, but many cannot deny that modernism as we know it now is firmly rooted in the ideas and philosophies of early 20th Century European designers such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe.

So where does Tropical Modernism come in?


In between WW1 and WW2 many of the European Super powers were transitioning out of their colonies and the independence movement was gaining significant momentum with many East Asian and North African countries leading the way, such as Egypt independence in 1922 and India independence in 1947. But it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that independence became a reality for the many with countries such as Ghana and Malaysia starting a new era in nation-building.

As part of this new paradigm shift, major infrastructure projects, government buildings, schools hospitals and housing were needed in these new nations to establish a common identity moving forward.


Tropical modernism enters the arena at this juncture, and how it differs from previous architectural expressions in the tropics such as the India Gate and Parliament House by Edwin Luytens which reference European classicism at their core, is that it takes significant environmental references and material context from its tropical/sub Saharan surroundings.


Pioneers such as Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry wrote important publications such as “Village Housing In the Tropics”(1953) and the seminal “Tropical Architecture in the Humid and dry Zones”(1956) which acted as manuals on how to design and construct in the newly created republics.

This movement continued through-out Africa, South America and the Tropics and this quarterly series will go into detail on many of the highlights and lessons this architectural philosophy has given us, and how they are still relevant as we move into the 2020s.

My parents are both from Accra Ghana and it is a city that I have visited on many occasions. On our way from my Grandfather’s home in Korle Gonno back into the centre of Accra, we always passed through Korle Bu where I was always curious about this group of medium sized tower blocks that nestled into the leafy street scene.

On my last visit in December 2019 I decided that rather than driving past these towers as I had done for the last 30 years, maybe I should take a closer look. In doing so I was rewarded to what can only be described as a true Tropical Modernist Masterpiece.

Designed by the Australian born Architect Kenneth Scott in 1964/65 and commissioned by the late great President Kwame Nkrumah, Nkrumah Residential Towers were built as residences for senior civil servants.

The first thing that strikes you is how serene and spacious the estate is, which is a rarity in central Accra. Large mature trees and sweeping vistas give you a real sense that you are in a special and well designed space, where Scott’s emphasis was on replicating the forms and recesses of Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de’l Esprit Nouveau (see image below) and stacking them in 8 storeys to create residential towers.

Between these towers are single and 2 storey dwellings with swimming pools and playing facilities for the residents which add to their well-being and reminds us of a forgotten time in design and master-planning where people’s happiness and welfare was at the top of the design brief.

Wandering around this estate for half an hour inspired me to write this series, but it has also inspired me to strive to replicate and honor some of the qualities and lessons that Nkrumah Residential Towers offers in some of my own work, that feeling of sanctity and escape, the simple yet effective and meaningful architectural forms and the creation of spaces that no matter how old – stay true to their design intent.