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Where have all the people gone?

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Architects must do more to communicate the power and value of good design to people. And that means using them in photography, writes Amanda Spence

Flick through any architecture magazine, or scroll through the galleries online, and you will most likely be enticed by photography which shows off the beautiful forms of the latest buildings to be completed. But where are all the people?

Architects design places for people.  People commission architects to design homes, schools, hospitals and offices; and people use the finished buildings. Yet all too often architectural photography leaves out the people and possessions which fill spaces in everyday life. The sculptural forms of empty buildings might excite other architects, but these bare images do little to communicate the benefits of good architecture to the wider public – something designers are notoriously bad at.  In fact, much architectural photography and the language used by architects to talk about their work serve to reinforce the stereotype of the aloof egotist.

However, we are starting to see a shift in focus to the ethics and humanity of architecture and its ability to contribute to wellbeing. Architects can make homes more comfortable, help children concentrate better at school, reduce patient recovery times in hospitals and increase productivity in workplaces. Perhaps a few architects design to satisfy their own desires, but it is difficult to believe that most do not aim to meet the demands of their clients and make better places for the people who will use the end product.

Since 2009, the Design Commission for Wales (DCFW) has supported Wales’ most valued award for excellence in architecture, the National Eisteddfod Gold Medal for Architecture, which is awarded annually for outstanding achievement and design excellence. This year DCFW, along with the Royal Society for Architects in Wales (RSAW) and the National Eisteddfod of Wales, commissioned photographer James Morris to capture the work of the short-listed projects being considered for the Gold Medal. 

All too often architectural photography leaves out the people

Morris was invited to interpret the projects using ‘Inhabitation’ as his theme and his stunning photography was exhibited to the public at the Eisteddfod in August.  The focus on how places are inhabited demonstrated how design influences the lives of the people and communities who live, work and meet in the buildings. His pictures show that images of architecture in use with people and their possessions in shot can be remarkably captivating. So why don’t we see more like this in the architecture press?

Perhaps it is magazine editors striving for their publication to be the sleekest; but they only publish what they are provided with. Or maybe it is the photographers seeking a bstract, artistic shots; but they are usually commissioned by the architects, with strict instructions on what to include. It could perhaps be the way we consume information today, and that a stark, striking image is quicker to digest than one with lots of information and detail.

This, then, is a call to the architectural profession to do more to communicate the power and value of good design to people.  After all, this is what architecture is really all about – people and how they inhabit the places we create

Amanda Spence is design adviser for Design Commission for Wales – the Welsh Government’s design champion for the built environment 

View from the art desk

I enjoyed Amanda’s essay and understand why she is justly proud to have commissioned James Morris as Eisteddfod Gold Medal photographer. But I felt she wasn’t being quite fair to architects and photographers, two professions I work closely with in my job at the AJ. Sometimes even James – and for good reason – takes pictures with no people in, such as his marvellous pictures of Hugh Broughton’s remote Halley VI Antarctic Research Station.

It is broadly true that architects do have some funny ideas about what makes a good photograph, and yes, they sometimes do need reminding that, as designer George Nelson remarked, ‘they are around to keep the rain off your furniture’.

I think it’s important to look at the full picture here, and it’s not black and white. There are lots of factors that determine how a building is photographed: the weather, the typology, the fee paid for the commission, the house style of the magazine or website where the pictures will appear. If a photographer takes a picture of the interiors of a house, for example, it can often be empty for clear reasons: because it looks less cluttered, or not so small. Photographers have seen digital photography eat into their livelihood, so they might be looking to sell on their pictures to other magazines, therefore neutrality rules. Some clients favour the Elle Decoration approach and want to be in the frame, along with their carefully selected coffee table books, while others do not.

The point is: it’s a subjective view. Architects pay for the pictures; they can do what they want. Photographers sometimes hedge their bets and take several exposures from the same view, ‘layering’ people in if required using multiple exposures.

At the AJ we often receive quite average photography supplied by architects, sometimes free of charge, so if they lack people in shot our hands are initially tied. We then decide whether to reshoot, using our AJ contributing photographers, and anyone who reads the magazine regularly will see that, in the shoots we control, people, lamp posts and so on – all the stuff of everyday life – is in the shot. It’s part of the AJ’s grittier approach. After all, why pretend this street furniture doesn’t exist? 

Architecture’s ability to ‘make life better’ is difficult to measure. Of course an architect can do this in simple way, by putting the coat rack nearer the front door. But wherever there is an end product there will be market forces. As for whether architecture can contribute to our future wellbeing, I’m going take that with a pinch of salt.

Brad Yendle, AJ art director  



James Morris’s commissioned exterior shot of The Nook, Monmouthshire, by Hall & Bednarczyk. Note the kids, cars and service covers in clear view


Cefn Castell, Criccieth, north Wales, by Stephenson Studio: a long shot showing the owners. Photographs of pavilion-style houses usually benefit from added human scale, and this shortlisted scheme is no exception


Another shortlisted private house, in Cardiff, by Loyn & Co Architects: Previously supplied interior by Ståle Eriksen. Ståle photographs a variety of architectural forms and does materials boards for Specification and AJ special issues. His picture does look a little gloomy and lifeless, but that could be the weather on the day of the commission. This perrenially en vogue style of architecture can easily look cold in photographs, due to the use of materials: expanses of glazing, ceramic flooring and exposed brickwork do nothing to suggest warmth.


James’s commissioned picture is quite different – despite being from an identical set-up. Probably shot on a slightly better day, it leaves no doubts as to how the kids use that room



Studies from 2011 by Hélène Binet of the National Eisteddfod Gold Medal-winning Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, with and without people. Apart from scale, the people do not add that much. Binet rarely uses people in her pictures yet is one of the most highly regarded architectural photographers


Anthony Coleman’s AJ-commissioned 2011 shot of FAT’s Cardiff Studios. Note the BBC security guard is in shot


No people, but the context of Keith Williams’ Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is clearly shown in a 2011 shot by Ben Blossom, commissioned by the AJ because the supplied shots by Hélène Binet were less contextual.


AJ-commissioned 2015 pictures by David Butler of RSHP’s Y:Cube. Note the tenant in foreground


A supplied image of Bosco Verticale in Milan: no ground plane and no people.


Charles Hosea’s AJ-commissioned 2015 picture shows the building in context with people

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