by Alfonse Chiu

Illustration by Raphael Ganz for PIN–UP and Nieuwe Insituut Design Drafts #2.


Which was invented first: the tropical idea or the tropical subject?


The light falls like rain. Between them, through them, the air is a trickling thing, swollen with the vapors of the dense vegetation, embracing you like a cloak. The Sun is cruel and your back is beading with brine, the familiar dampness building at your temple, on your chest, under your arms. You inhale. You exhale. In the harshness of the light, you think of the shadow, the wind, how they cool and how they dry. There is a house in the distance, a small old thing that breaks the unbearable-ness of everything into its constituent pieces. Where the ancestors built the threshold — made, unmade, remade across a thousand lifetimes — sunrays filter in through the walls like the first of the morning mists, the floor, lifted from off the ground or not, cools your feet. You are in the house, and the Sun is hiding behind the clouds. Here, the weather is fickle. You shudder at the sudden chill and you know: soon, the rains will come and they too will fall like this light.


The light is scattered, splayed across the walls, cut to size by slats. The windows, the façade, are striped with shadows. Ozymandias is in the solar key and Le Corbusier says, “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Brise-soleil, sun-breaker in French, is his concrete answer to too much sun, cribbed from ancient histories — from Asia’s mashrabiyyas, jālīs, and sudares, which have, for centuries, tamed the sun and concealed dwellers behind latticed screens, and the Cobogó, a humble ceramic block meant to filter light, but not wind, patented by three Brazilian businessmen in 1929. Months later, Corbu visits Rio for the first time to raise the Ministry of Education and Health Building from dust and propose a seductive myth. The mononymous hero, Corbu’s vision is a siren song for king makers that conceals and forgets. How many designed this? How many built this? How many have bled into the foundation? Later, with a deft hand, are vision in his notebook is made, backdating a building sketch from 1946 to 1936, inventing a genealogy for the brise-soleil. In the gaps of things left out by the canon, one might be tempted to imagine the singular genius whose arrival on tropical shores has broken the Sun like history.


The tropics is not a tropical term.


They are not surviving this heat. Underneath the linens, your neck itches like it has never before. Your tongue dries in your mouth where you stand. Around them, you see the ones who are you but not you — scattered by their hands, on ships that sailed with the trade winds, the collection of bodies before you, after you, is a mosaic of earth-toned dominion. The pale burn beneath the Sun, and the pale burn the burnished beneath the Sun. It is rare for homes to not survive their guests, but on this land, as they issue their orders, you wonder if you can even call it home if you are not going to survive. You are moving and it is a dance made by power, the steps preset by the uniforms, by the paths, by the shiny new buildings that loom like a father, stern and ready to punish. You have learned this dance so well. It was as if you had been born with them, the movements hidden all along in the springs of the steps you once took to the markets, the jungles, the rivers. You do not think you are a good dancer, but when on top of burning coals, all beings must be.


In the last fraction of a century under the shadow of empires, young English architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were charged with a unique responsibility: designing British (colonial) infrastructures in occupied West Africa, even as fire and brimstone rained down upon continental Europe and the Asia Pacific. Fifteen years, 17 schools, and twelve structures later, Fry and Drew have not only made their mark across the Gold Coast — now Ghana — and Nigeria, but they have also stamped their marks in architectural history. Coining the term tropical architecture at the eponymous 1953 conference, they later established the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association School in London in 1954. As colonial agents, they saw the specificity of the tropical condition as something to be surmounted by the rational methods of empire and fashioned into a habitable environment for colonists. And what better tools with which to tame the tropics than tropical insights? Quietly absorbing and incorporating indigenous knowledges and building practices with only the slightest of colonial condescension, Fry and Drew would make an orthodoxy out of climate management over three books, which underwrote tropical modernity as the gift of a benevolent, departing (British) colonial power: but whose tropics, whose sovereignty was at stake? Who needed the climate to be managed? White washing the imminent failure of the British colonial project, Fry and Drew built the image of West African self-determination as the pre-calculated legacy of colonial benevolence. In this way, the political infrastructures of architecture vanish from sight and the field is once more neutral. With the dawning of the new globalized modern world order, the tropics has transformed from colony to consumer. The tropics may no longer be under the direct forces of imperial edicts, but the word, the concept, the book, and the historical imagination of tropical architecture will forever be attributed to these two visitors in the tropics.


Who owns the tropics — then and now?


You are the tropics. You are blood clotting on scattered leaves, the screams and explosions from a hundred wars trapped in your soils, bombshells buried and waiting. You are sand, you are silt, you are waters that run into rivers, into deltas. You are the forever rot that corrodes and renews. You are plantations, forests of oil palm, rubber, and sugarcane. You are tropicana — bright colors and bold spices. You are the tiger in the jungle, the jungle in the valley, the valley in the mountains. You are concrete, you are steel, you are machines razing landscapes. You are trash heaps. You are electronic wastes leaking lithium like a wound. You are burning, you are sinking, you are fever, you are wetness, wildfire, floods. You are not surviving this, not anymore.


We are all tropical.

Design Drafts in PIN–UP 35.

Special thanks to David Sadighian and Paola Antonelli.

Alfonse Chiu is a Singapore, Taipei, and New Haven-based writer, artist, and curator, working between text, space, and the moving image. They are the founder of the Centre for Urban Mythologies and current program director of SeaShorts Film Festival. Chiu was an e-flux fellow in 2021 and a 2023 Young Climate Prize finalist. They’re currently pursuing a master’s at Yale School of Architecture.

Originally published in PIN–UP 35 as part of the second edition of Design Drafts, PIN–UP and Nieuwe Insituut’s open call that invited invite up-and-coming and mid-career writers to investigate and manifest new design vocabularies.