Everything I do in terms of photography is rooted in my background as an architect. I have worked for the past decade as an architect in China before turning into an Architectural Photographer. In this way, my photographs are really taken in a way an architect would look at a project. I mean with that, that I focus on context, proportions, lines, textures, and most importantly how people interact with the building or city in general. In my personal work I tie the photoseries back to a contextual, socioeconomic story.
My long term project “Beautified China” has been an embodiment on the topics I always cared about deeply in my work as an architect. It was an elaborate study in proportions, patterns, color and shape used in architecture. The tie back to our society for this project has been to document the architectural revolution that happened in China over the past 15 years. Leading up to the 2008 olympics and the 2010 world expo, towards the present time where architecture is used to establish new cities or districts. It has brought me to many cities across the vast distances in this country. The overal journey has shaped me in thinking deeper about architecture and architecture photography.
Besides personal projects like ‘Beautified China’ and ‘Human vs City’ I do a lot of commercial work. I had the opportunity to work with many interesting architects and engineers where I looked up to during my studies to become an architect. It always fascinates me to spend a few days at a project to really understand it, to capture it in different conditions and see how people interact with it. Even though I dont practice architecture anymore, I always felt that photographing a project makes you a better architect. Over the years I have photographed musea, culture center, sport stadiums, large scale mixed use developments, etc. Each typology has different challenges but in the process of shooting these projects I always fall back to my keywords I stand by: context, user interaction, proportion and lines.
With my background as an architect, I find myself more and more documenting large scale construction sites. I found them fascinating because of the roughness, because they are only in this state for a very short time and because they offer at times already an exciting glimpse at the finished state. Construction sites can offer geometries that would later be covered. I documents these moments.
What prompted the transition from architect to photographer?
For me it has always been my aim to understand what effect architecture can have on how cities develop, how society can get better through architecture and how it can influence peoples life. When I was still practising architecture I designed a variety of types of buildings, paring this with visiting of architecture as much as I could to understand how it works. I have always been very eager to know whats going on in terms of architecture and urbanism around the world. It had a big impact on how I designed these buildings. But my urge to understand couldnt be met when I was tied to a desk all the time. Thats why I picked up architecture photography. Tying my urge to better understand architecture with visiting architecture. There is something special spending 2 or 3 full days at 1 projects trying to really understand it and take photos of it. The better I understand the project the better the photos get. Patience is really important in this.
How did the project Beautified China start?
I started the project when I first moved to China in 2010. While working in Beijing I started visiting all the icons of the 2008 Olympics at first, before setting of further in land. During my studies as an architect I became aware of all the extraordinary architecture that was being planned to be built for the Olympics and generally to uplift the cities. I followed the Olympics from home, in Belgium, and was stunned to see China which was so unknown before the Olympics. At that time I vowed to at one point to visit all these buildings in real. When I graduated in 2010, which was also when Shanghai hosted the World Expo, I went to China to travel around for 6 weeks. I also took the opportunity to search for a job, which succeeded quite well, and the rest is history. Over the years I had the opportunity to work for Zaha Hadid Architects, Ole Scheeren and others. This brought me in contact with a more critical thinking about architecture in China. I started visiting more and more architecture and documented my visits. The term ‘Beautified China’ only came to me in 2015 when I started putting my documentation together. The images in the series have a distinct style, this is done because focused on a few keywords: proportion, patterns, shape and color. The images are currently put into 2 series and there is a future book in the making (out end of 2019)
What informed the specific architectures and urban environments that you choose to capture? How do these relate to one another?
The architecture chosen for the project were first the ones I was interested in. The buildings that spark an interest because of their allure, their capacity of really captivating a city, or by its color. Later on the project took a larger aim to document a large part of the iconic buildings around the vast lands of China. I ventured out to cities that were unknown in the west: Harbin, Beihai, Nanning,.. The book eventually shows photos taken in 15 different cities in China, from the known to the unknown. Giving a wide overview of the different architecture that can be found in China.
How is the project structured and organised? What is the organising parameter?
The organizing parameter at the moment is that they first of need to be interesting (in terms of their shape, proportion, texture,…) secondly I’m interested in photographing buildings that are in cities more unknown. Cities that offer a new sort of architecture, architecture that is optimized to specific needs for the region,… Usually I plan a bit ahead when going to a city on which buildings I can capture as part of Beautified China, but very regurlarly I stumble on projects that instantly capture my attention and I try to include in the project. So it is a mixture of known projects because of their international allure, to projects that are unknown in the media. At first, the majority of projects I included were designed by well known international architects, later on more and more local chinese extraordinary architects joined the list.
Where do you see the project developing?
As the book is almost coming out the first big chapter is complete. After that I might let it rest for a while and brainstorm on how it can continue without being just more of the same. It could possibly expand to other countries or take on a more deeper documentarian approach. For now everything is up in the air. The book is the end point after 9 years of exploring Chinese architecture.
I’m also thinking to perhaps rethink or revisit the same projects in a new way.
What role do the citizens and individuals play within these images?
In the Beautified China project I deliberately took out any humans. Because this project is not about that. In my other photography work the human factor plays an important role, especially in my work Human vs City.
There is it foremost about humans with a city as backdrop. In my commercial work I also include people to show a certain interaction with the building, give it a human scale to break down the at times massive volumes due to the China scale.
How and to what extent is the project Human vs City a direct consequence of your investigation with 'Beautified China'?
It might have subconsciously influenced eachother, but I see it as 2 very distinctly different. When photographing for these 2 projects I have a different mindset. It takes a bit of time to adjust. My eyes and my focus is compeletely different for these 2 projects. In Beautified China I take an almost graphical design approach to photographing architecture, with an attention to the tiniest details. While in Human vs City, I actually couldnt care less about how the architecture is portrayed in it. Because humans take the forefront.
What informed your choice to frame the relationship between the citizen and the built environment he inhabits?
The idea for the series only came to me when I was endlessly walking around Chongqing. I have visited the city before and I was completely in love with the city. It is perhaps my favorite city in China (besides Hong Kong, my home, which still amazes me everyday) Chongqing has an immense density, roughness, complexity while still being peaceful. After my first visit I vowed to come back and take time to try to capture its essence. Which I did earlier in the year and I’m very happy with the result. There is this duality in a city, where the city is build by and for people but the actual physical buildings look so inhumane. There is a need for the city for its infrastructure but it acts hostile to the people because of its scale or density. And in Chongqing this is visible. So for me I wanted to capture people in this environment but sort of indifferent to it. Each photo has people (in)directly interacting with the city but its like human and city are just in coexistence, perhaps not even liking each other. I found this an interesting premise to build the series around.
We are accustomed to being presented with utopian images of architectures which seem almost inhabited and untouched, what is your take on this way of portraying and capturing architecture?
It depends what the aim is of the photographs. As I do shoots for architects and engineers, the focus for these are quite different. When architects commision me to photograph I focus on the project, the context and how people interact with it. However when I photograph for engineers, the focus is diffirent, there it is more about the structure, about the clean details, the joints,… While I usually still include some photos with the larger context, it is not the main aim.
How and to what extent does your work with the project of construction sites help compensate and challenge this aesthetic?
When photographing construction sites, there is a different aesthetic. These photos are at an intersection point between architecture and engineering. They show something unique at that particular time before they elements get covered up by glass or metal panels.
What is for you the power of the photograph in relation to the very notion of architecture from construction to final and inhabited 'artefact'?
Photograph are only from one particular moment, at times an ideal moment. But as a photograher I want to capture the real condition hence why I focus on the context and the interaction between buildings and their users. The process of capturing buildings from construction to an inhabited building shows a transition between an inhumane object to a humane object. Which in its own contradictory because the projects are designed and build by humans but because of their scale can feel inhumane.
Kris Provoost is a Belgian photographer and architect. He has been active in Asia the past decade capturing buildings and cities, to better understand the built environment. After graduating with a Master in Architecture, he relocated to Beijing where he started his architecture career contributing to buildings spread around Asia. He worked for highly respected design firms including Zaha Hadid Architects, Buro Ole Scheeren and gmp. As a photographer he has worked with some of the most well-known established architects and engineers.
Focus: Architecture and Infrastructure, through the different stages of construction and completion.
Kris is based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He works internationally.