Character Defining Design: The Case for Capturing People in Architectural Photographs

Buildings are made to be inhabited. So, why don’t more of our architectural photos use people to tell stories about architecture?

Nidhi Upadhyaya Nidhi Upadhyaya

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Much like figures in renderings and human silhouettes in architecture models, people in photos play a significant role in understanding the function, dimensions and experience of spaces. The addition of just one character can help weave stories around structures and also convey strong emotions through just one plane. It can also help establish how people can interact with these spaces without actually being there.

These are just some of the reasons why photos that include people feature heavily among the Finalists and Winners in each season’s One Photo Challenge, Architizer’s popular annual photography contest. The following images, all stunning finalist entries, show just how powerful a human element can be in creating architectural narratives in photography.

The roofscape of the obscure by Venla Rautajoki
Non-Student Winner, 2021 One Photo Competition

Amos Rex, an art museum in Helsinki, is made up of dome-like structures with large peepholes that allow visitors to explore their subterranean exhibits. One of the visitors, a young boy, kept climbing over these peepholes above ground, creating shadows on the wall of the dome. When viewed from the inside, the boy’s body resembles the hands of a clock. It not only shows the interactive nature of the space but also how these interactions can transform how we experience it from within. As people around the world are struggling with feelings of isolation, Rautajoki wanted to capture this moment of curiosity and freedom of exploration.

Yoga by Edmund Sumner

This photograph depicts a space designed by Enter Projects in Bangkok, Thailand. The volume for the Vikasa Headquarters was modeled using Rhinoceros 3D and then brought to life with rattan. The fluidity of the form is even more evident when it is being used by yogis. Having master Yogi Konstantin Miachin, the owner of the center, standing in the center not only gives an idea of scale and function but also allows viewers to see how the lines of the walls work in harmony with the contours of a human body in motion.

Simple Fun by Kai Ping Wan

Games like hopscotch have been played by children across the world. But with the availability of modern toys and gadgets, these simple games are slowly becoming a thing of the past. To address this, a walkway between two structures in Genting Highland, Malaysia has been equipped with colored windows and floor designs to bring back the curiosity and fun of childhood games. Stumbling upon the hopscotch pattern as you walk through the path can bring joy and a momentary break from routine, as evident in the photo above.

Voluntary insomnia by Mili Sánchez Azcona

While there are some people who are unable to sleep due to stress, continuous thoughts or insomnia, Marco’s sleeplessness is governed by the worry that he might not be a part of this world and all that it has to offer someday. This also drives him to sacrifice sleep to ensure he can bask in the beauty of every single sunset. Here, he is shown observing the sunrise from the O Fournier Winery, near Mendoza, Argentina, framed by the sloping roof. The architecture becomes a stage for a character whose emotions are visible even through a simple silhouette.

Do not trust in… by Igor Karwacki

The Fujian Province of China is well-known for its Tolous — ring-shaped earthen buildings that were once family homes of the Hakka community for over 700 years. The newer generations of these communities have moved to cities now, letting these homes turn into tourist attractions. Here, an old man watches over these structures, sitting next to a board that ends with “do no trust in”, perhaps thinking about how times have changed.

The gate to a magical land. by Yi-Hsien Lee

Glowing lights from within a doorway can bring to mind thoughts of magical lands or alien invasions. In this case, the illuminated gateway is a path to the history of an old sugar factory. A man stands on the threshold, dwarfed by the massive arch, surrounded by wall that was once covered in sugarcane bagasse. The abandoned sugar factory was to start making paper from waste but was shut down and the project buried both physically and history textbooks. The architects stumbled upon this piece of history when digging the site to create a public park and the chose to preserve its context for all to see.

Echo by Philippe Sarfati

The photograph features an installation by American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres set in a gallery designed by Tadao Ando. The way into the space is through the artwork — a large curtain composed of red and white beads. It is only through interaction with the installation that its true meaning can be learned. It represents the progression of HIV in the human body. The woman entering the space has to push aside multiple strands of beads and consequently have a physical connection with the art.

Running To Safety by Mazher Udaipurwala

A lot can be said by what is in a photograph but even more can be said by what is left out. This image is a great example of how a narrative can be changed by simply repositioning the frame of the photo. During the 2020 wildfires in California, houses were burned to ash and the sky was lit up with a burning orange hue. Here, it seems like a child is running to a lifeguard tower on a beach in Santa Cruz. But in reality, he was running to his mother, outside the frame, who was preparing for their evacuation.

Zip by Wachsler Tamás

The cuboidal blocks outside the old Hungarian Parliament building almost look like an assembly line in motion. Add to that the entry kiosk and the grey floors and it looks like a scene from a video game. But the presence of a solitary photographer breaks the diagonal lines in the frame and adds a human element and some softness to the cold stony structure.

Feast your eyes on the world's most outstanding architectural photographs, videos, visualizations, drawing and models: Introducing the winners of Architizer's inaugural Vision Awards. Sign up to receive future program updates >  


Nidhi Upadhyaya Author: Nidhi Upadhyaya
Nidhi Upadhyaya is an architect and journalist from Mumbai, India. When not working, she can be found binging on DIY videos, experimenting with art mediums or making a dent in her large to-read list. She has previously worked as Features Writer for Elle Decor India, Assistant Editor for India Inc, Art Director for the print edition of Bombay Binge and is currently the Editorial Assistant at TED-Ed in New York.
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