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Book review: When Modernism landed in the tropics with Concrete Jungle

What happens when rational, Modernist architecture puts down roots in a lush, tropical setting? Concrete Jungle, a new book by gestalten, explores locations across Asia and the world to find some of the most visionary residential adaptations of an international style to distinct local settings.

Book review: When Modernism landed in the tropics with Concrete Jungle

Concrete Jungle book cover

The 20th century was in many ways defined architecturally by the long emergence, struggle for (or against) and broad victory of Modernism. With by an emphasis on rationalism, applied using modern construction techniques and materials, it was a movement that claimed universal validity. Whether the requirements were a house on the outskirts of Paris or a whole government-administrative precinct in an Indian or Brazilian city, the same principles supposedly applied.

Art Villa by Formafatal and Refuel Works featured in Concrete Jungle book
Art Villa by Formafatal and Refuel Works, Costa Rica, photograph by BoysPlayNice.

Concrete Jungle: Tropical Architecture and its Surprising Origins, recently published by gestalten, keys in to an important counter-current that has always accompanied debates around Modernism. With an emphasis on residential architecture across countries such as India, Vietnam, Brazil and Mexico, the book asks how the universal ideals of Modernism actually came to exist in the reality of tropical settings in these countries. How did the timelessness and even placelessness of those rational principles play out in reality?

One immediate answer is offered directly through the beautiful photography on show in the book – tropical greenery. The concrete that defines many of the houses is set apart in the way that so many of these buildings are integrated with the flora of their surroundings. At Padang Linjong Residence by Daniel Mitchell and Patisandhika Sidarta, located in Bali, for example, a large selection of plants softens the exposed concrete while a tree quite literally grows out of the living room floor.

Padang Linjong Residence, Bali, Daniel Mitchell and Patisandhika Sidarta, photograph by Tommaso Riva
Padang Linjong Residence, Bali, Daniel Mitchell and Patisandhika Sidarta, photograph by Tommaso Riva.

The topic brings to mind wider debates in architectural theory concerning the tension between universalism and local context, most famously in Kenneth Frampton’s notion of Critical Regionalism. One of the subtexts of reading Modernism in tropical settings is a reclamation of unique local identities that often experienced Western claims to universalism as, in reality, more like an erasure of cultural specificities.

The book engages with this level of thinking by including essays on Modernism as a nation-building exercise and its more contemporary manifestations. It includes examples from the work of globally significant architects such as Oscar Niemeyer, Luis Barragán, Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes de Rocha.

Related: A Tropical Oasis For Digital Nomads In Bali

Zoncuantla Apartments, Mexico, RP Arquitectos, photograph by Onnis Luque.

The topics and case studies are also highly relevant to Southeast Asia as a whole. Planter Box House by Formzero in Kuala Lumpur, for example, showcases tropical vegetation with its cascading concrete boxes used for gardening local vegetation.

Concrete Jungle is a journey across many more examples like this. Published in 2023, it is available through gestalten.

Fortunata House featured in Concrete Jungle book
Fortunata House, Brazil, Luciano Lerner Basso, photograph by Manuel Sá.

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