Why architects make the best photographers

Colors, patterns, proportions: See the world through an architect’s eyes.

Belgian architect and photographer Kris Provoost moved to Beijing in 2010 to work for the prominent firms Zaha Hadid Architects and Buro Ole Scheeren. Now, based in Shanghai and working for GMP Architekten, he has been photographing the country’s architecture for nearly a decade, and his photos are unmistakable: Cropped and stripped of all context, they render buildings as intricate patterns that could easily pass for wallpaper.


It’s an unusual way to photograph architecture, particularly in a country whose contemporary buildings have captured the popular imagination for their scale and ambition. In Provoost’s hands, size matters less than texture. His series Beautified China I and II celebrate the details that architects slave over–whether the frenzied facade of Herzog & de Meuron Bird’s Nest Stadium or the demented cross-hatching of OMA’s CCTV building–and remind us to appreciate the patterns all around us. We caught up with Provoost to discuss his sui generis approach to architectural photography and why architects make great photographers.

[Photo: Kris Provoost]
Co.Design: Your images show an incredible angle on China’s architecture. They feel like vignettes of an urban civilization from the future. What’s your impression of contemporary architecture in China?

Kris Provoost: It’s been incredibly exciting to live and work as an architect and photographer in China over this decade. It seems like every week a new building or development opens that makes the cities more interesting. Architecture, it feels, has always been an important tool for Chinese city developers to structure cities or establish new ones. In the past decade, Chinese’s architecture has been bold, massive in scale, and not afraid to do things differently. Perhaps through my photos it is hard to have some sort of scale reference, but many projects depicted in the series are huge and city-transforming.

What’s interesting nowadays is that these bold and iconic projects are not as common. These flamboyant buildings were used to get some attention to Chinese cities, but they also provoked a lot of criticism both from the Chinese authorities and Western critics. Although China is known for wiping out lots of their heritage–like Hutong areas in Beijing [alleys formed by lines of courtyard residences]–this is now changing. Old areas are being restored and repurposed. Before, the iconic architecture [depicted in my photos were] the destination. Now, these regenerated areas draw the huge crowds.

CD: Do you think the architecture in your photos reflect a Chinese or a Western sensibility?

KP: Perhaps a bit of both. The architecture in China is a combination of both Chinese and Western influences. If you look at certain projects, there are definitely elements in them that refer to Chinese history by way of stacking, intertwining volumes. Chinese architecture has always had distinct elements that you can find in its modern architecture, either to pay respect to its heritage or to give people a link to the past. But the iconic buildings designed by Western firms also have some clear Western elements. [No matter what, however] the Western-designed buildings are scaled up to Chinese proportions. Everything here is bigger, bolder, and eye-catching.


CD: Your photos have a definitive unifying aesthetic quality. How do you approach your subject matter? What’s your creative process?

KP: Since I’m an architect myself, I’d like to stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the Chinese architecture world. When traveling around the country, I like to check out these projects with my own eyes and see if it lived up to the ideas and concepts of the architect.

I photograph the projects from different angles with special attention to the elements that I, as an architect, put focus on when designing a project. I’m particularly interested in patterns, color, proportion. Much of the work happens in post-processing. Once I return from a trip, I select certain angles to edit. The images are always part of a series, and not so much stand-alone products. Each time I like to get a collection of various building typologies and different focus points. The photos have no context, because for me it’s purely about the project itself. I focus exclusively on the object–this helps me as an architect to study the projects purely from an aesthetic point of view.

CD:  What is your driving visual force?

KP: I focus very much on contrasts. That can be either in the use of different patterns (calm vs. busy), the colors used (certain colors to make elements stand out), and also the light (which facade catches light and which doesn’t). These contrasts can be subtle or totally the opposite. It’s always interesting to walk around buildings and search for those. And that ties back again to my work as an architect. Contrast is something that gets brought up in one way or another daily.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.