On Architectural Photography. Or: Where are all the people?

I cannot remember when it was or in which context exactly. But some time ago, somewhere, somehow, someone mentioned to me how odd it is that architecture is always photographed and presented under certain conditions: 1) perfect weather, i.e. blue skies, or alternatively: 2) at night or dawn, 3) no trace of usage, 4) no people to be seen. It struck me immediately how true it was (and mostly still is, but more on this below) and how obediently architects, publishers and journalists seemed to comply to these unwritten rules. For me, this is disturbingly wrong for a simple reason: where are all the people? Why does architecture have to be removed from everyday life and treated as a sanctuary that shall not be touched?

Much later in my architectural career – I was already a researcher – I found this written down in ‘Lessons for Students in Architecture’ (1991) by the remarkable Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger, whose argument is compelling, urgent and wonderful:

“When you look at one of the vast number of books on architecture that are being published nowadays and you see all those glossy photographs, taken without exception in perfect weather conditions, you can’t help wondering what goes on in the architects’ minds, how they see the world; sometimes I think they practice a different profession from mine! For what can architecture be other than concerning oneself with situations in daily life as lived by all people; it’s rather like clothing, which must after all not only suit you well, but also fit properly. And if it is the fashion nowadays to concern oneself with outward appearances, however cleverly vested with references to higher things, then architecture is degraded to sculpture of an inferior sort.” (Hertzberger 1991: 174)

More than twenty years later, a quick look on the web confirms that not much has changed since Hertzberger’s criticism. Most architectural photography is still free of usage traces and doesn’t seem to depict situations of daily life, although some images at least show people, for instance the ‘Offices’ pinterest board of dezeen magazine features 74 images, of which 20% show people in them. Still, people are either in the background, hardly visible, or look like actors, not like real users. Why do I think they’re actors? Because the people in the pictures are too stylish to be ordinary users. And they look too much as if architects with their own aesthetic preferences had placed them there. Of 15 pictures with people in them, 11 show people dressed in black (hey, another cliché about architects verified – they always wear black!). Here’s a screenshot from dezeen’s pinterest board to give an impression:

Typical workplace design photography with hardly any people and no trace of actual usage

So why is it so important for architects to have pictures of their projects published in a pure fashion, undisturbed by usage? I have listed a few possible reasons in my 2007 paper ‘Changing the Architectural Profession‘ – they include accountability of architects through peers (architects only get judged by other architects, for instance through awards), the ephemerality and project-character of the industry (architects normally work on a one-off basis and don’t typically establish long-term relationships with clients), or the fee regulations and payment practices for architects (that typically do not consider post-occupancy studies for instance). So in essence, architects simply do not have to bother with usage very much and can afford to detach themselves from the mess that usage and everyday life is going to bring upon their lovely buildings. It seems that architects try to capture the purity of the form at least in ever-lasting photographs before the users make their mess. It means seeing architecture as sculpture and denying its social nature.

There is also a more recent book on the topic and I’ve very much enjoyed reading ‘Architecture Depends‘ by Jeremy Till (2009) for all his witty and sharp-tongued criticism of the vanity and detachment of the architectural profession. He maintains that architecture tries to see itself as autonomous, an abstract world of order, beauty and perfection. Usage, human needs, everyday life, time and mess all seem like a horrible threat to the white-washed aesthetics of Le Corbusier and his apostles. It’s also a threat to their feeling of being in control, Till argues.

So where does this leave us? Will we always have to accept that usage and life simply won’t be featured in architectural imagery? That real people with real needs, leading real lives don’t matter?

I have to say that personally I find real beauty and richness in pictures of usage of buildings. True, the pictures I have in mind tell stories, pictures like this one of a workplace, which shows what people really do at work, how they work, who they are, and what works for them (and what doesn’t – maybe these guys have too much paper and too little storage cupboards?!):

A real workspace used by real people (and lots of real paper)

Of course I appreciate that this is hardly suitable for advertising purposes and architectural photography seems to be all about marketing these days. However there’s hope: the photographer Iwan Baan and his approach of ‘Bringing Buildings to Life’ (as reported for instance by the NY Times) deliberately includes everyday situations in his stunningly aesthetic photography of famous pieces of architecture. This is incredibly refreshing and it looks good, too. Of the examples shown by the NYT, this one is clearly my favourite (but the ones of the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas on Baan’s webpage are simply gorgeous, too):

Academic building for Cooper Union, NYC by Morphosis (Iwan Baan photography)

So this is where the people are: enjoying great architecture as part of their everyday life, captured in a wonderful image by a talented photographer. Can we please have more of this?

5 thoughts on “On Architectural Photography. Or: Where are all the people?

  1. Pingback: What Buildings Do and Don’t Do | spaceandorganisation

  2. Ugh, not again… Let’s not pretend that Iwan Baan invented the “people-ing” of architectural photographs. This was done long ago by Julius Shulman with his photograph of Case Study house #22, for example. As with everything, these aesthetics are trends, not doctrine. Can’t we just have both?

    • Hi Jon, thanks for pointing this out. I had not heard of Julius Shulman before. My bad… indeed beautiful pictures of House #22.
      I’m fine with having both types of architectural photography, but my point was that photography devoid of any traces of usage is clearly the norm and those including people are but a few exceptions.
      As soon as architectural media (websites, magazines, books) represent both in roughly equal parts, I’ll shut up.

  3. I’d like to add a related issue on to this one, similarly related to realism.

    It’s not just the people which are missing, it’s a lot of the necessary additions. Most rooms in the UK will have curtains, not just because we are more overlooked, but also for heat retention in Winter, even with modern double glazing. I know that ‘drapes’ are far less common in the USA, and they are apparently a nation of budding exhibitionists happy for their most private moments to be witnessed from outside, but still, it is clear that often the curtains/drapes are being removed for the photos, or the photos are taken before the room is fitted out realistically. Yes, this does allow the portrayal of an ultra modern, sleek, 21st century style, but … the problem with all lies and deciet is that eventually you trip yourself up.

    Would a hotel happily market its rooms, with naked windows and the prospective guests wondering how they are going to sleep off their jet lag after 5am? No, so in consequence you see carefully engineered solutions where the rails are hidden and the curtains slide away into a recess. This process is analogous the way electric car windows slide away into a recess, due to a hidden mechanism. I remember as a child, some rear windows that, even when fully wound down manually, were still projecting out of the door frame. I guess if you did that now as a car designer, you’d be shot.

    Does anyone know of a kitchen that doesn’t have a kettle and a toaster (and maybe a bread maker, a water jug, a knife rack a coffee machine and a radio)? I have seen executive penthouse kitchens where clearly there are not enough electric points, never mind space for even the minimum worktop appliances.

    In the bedroom of these expensive fantasies, you see a 3-single-door wardrobe. Can a couple with £2m to blow on an apartment, really fit all their clothes into 1.5m of wardrobe space?

    Do you know of a bathroom that doesn’t have toilet paper? So why is the holder just stuck on as an afterthought, and preferably before the photo is taken? More to the point, why isn’t toilet paper (if we aren’t going down the electronic Japanese route) fully integrated into the fabric of the design? The same goes for the toilet brush.

    What we are seeing is sloppy, incomplete design, where the designer indulges in the conceit of glamour, producing a final object which purports to be something it is not. Yes, it looks clean, simple and ultra-modern in the photo, but in reality, after a few months of use, it looks messy, disorganised and dated – the antonyms of the those 3 superlatives. A truly complete modern design would photograph the property with its lived-in look, yet still display those 3 superlatives.

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