Architectural photography – an architect’s perspective

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Architecture is the thoughtful making of space

Louis Kahn

Architects are the creators of the humankind’s space and place. They are responsible to provide solutions for human experiences, shelter, work, leisure, education, health and so on. Being an art form and a science, architecture is a complex practice that manages various elements such as the function or program, context, surroundings, history, weather, and budget with the intention of giving the most reasonable solution to the specific demand.

Eduardo de Almeida

In order to do that architects say that they need to find the ‘question’. 

This question is elaborated by research, analysis, and synthesis of all characteristics above, which are interconnected and interdependent, and it is the starting idea that fundaments all choices that will be made afterward. The reason why the concept behind and is also called parti.

Architecture is an expression of its time, culture and technology.

Tadao Ando says that “You cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see.”

sydney opera house marcos silverio photographer
sydney opera house marcos silverio photographer

Therefore, the art of architecture is to find the question, to give the most adequate answer, to make decisions and choices. Which is represented by orientation, scale, proportion, typology, relation with surroundings, envelope, materiality, spatial composition, solid/void, transparency/opacity… All of them are deliberated choices, and, coming from a modernist school of architecture, I believe that everything has a function, that everything has to be used at its best capability and its “natural” form and look and no waste or decoration is allowed.

I am digressing…

As an architect myself I love talking about it. I believe you don’t have to know all about architecture to get them right. But this definitely would help you to comprehend them and go further on the explorations of spaces and places.

Communication

For this instance communication is fundamental. Commissioned to provide a series of images as informational about the project, the first concern is what the architect wants. Do research through their portfolio of existing images and walking around with the architect, and finally, by asking key questions is key. Comprehend the intention and narrative the architect may have in mind for different purposes is of crucial importance.

Photography

What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary materials are light and time.

John Berger

Photography provides mobility to architecture and a chance to a broad audience to enjoy it. Besides architecture being the subject of different kinds of photography like travel or documentary, for architectural photography, the message is to the viewer about the architecture and its architect. Architectural photographers bring the audience closer to the architects and their work. 

wozoco MVRDV amsterdam Marcos Silverio Photographer
wozoco MVRDV amsterdam Marcos Silverio Photographer

Photographer and architect

For that reason, when photographing architecture it is important to interpret in the way that the architect comes firstly than the photographer’s work. The viewers looking at the end results should primarily be impressed by the architecture, not the photograph, which becomes the messenger. 

This does not mean that the photographer will not bring his or her sensibilities to enhance and complement gently and subtly the architecture. I believe the photographer should have a personal and artistic approach, being creative and try different ideas to advance in their craft and photography as a discipline. All process takes time and many mistakes until master them, those 10.000 hours. But deliberated practice makes the process easy and fun.

Perth Arena Marcos Silverio Photographer
Perth Arena (now RAC arena) Marcos Silverio Photographer

Knowing all of that it is time to get the hands dirty and exercise our photography craft. 

Details, when they are successful, are not mere decoration. They do not distract or entertain. They lead to an understanding of the whole of which they are an inherent part. 

Peter Zumthor

I think it is easier to tell the history and engage with a space using the approach from wide to detail. Show the location, the structure, the typology – described by Rafael Moneo as the formal characteristics and its function -, materiality, the space that it creates and its relation with the context and then internal views and details.

Details are fundamental to show the level of attention of the architect to small things and acknowledge her/his, many times agonising efforts to create it. Textures, craftsmanship qualities, construction details, corners, and interfaces.

Composition

The important here is to respect the scale, proportion, and perspective. Therefore composition is the first issue to deal with. If will be symmetry or asymmetry, find geometric patterns, play with shadows and reflections, transparency/opacity, solid/void, different views and angles, details and its relations, people or not people, movement, etc are a matter of choice. As are the tools you will need to accomplish it (camera, lens, filters, tripod…).

Architecture and Urbanism College, University of São Paulo. Vilanova Artigas & Carlos Cascaldi

Light

Light has not just intensity, but also a vibration, which is capable of roughening a smooth material, of giving a three-dimensional quality to a flat surface.

Renzo Piano

Choosing the best time of the day for natural light. Usually early morning and late afternoon. It creates beautiful, colours, shadows and volumes and is easier to control. 

I prefer nice and soft natural light for interiors to preserve the mood of the space. But sometimes we need to use strobes to bring up some shadows, control high contrast between the interior and exterior or fight the difference of colour temperature among natural (white to blue) and artificial lights (usually is yellowish) when the white balance is very challenging.

Marcos Acayaba - Milan House - Marcos Silverio Photographer
Marcos Acayaba – Milan House – Marcos Silverio Photographer

Clean, minimalist, declutter…

You don’t need to follow Marie Kondo’s steps, but it is fundamental to style the place and think about any detail, distractions, and interfaces.

Post-production

My mantra is “keep it simple and realistic”. My approach with photography is, in general, based on the photojournalism: no altering the content of a picture and minimal processing. Any composition or effect must work for the narrative and be clearly expressed. But everyone has its own sauce, just be conscious to not transform photography in another kind of graphic design and mislead the viewers.

People or not people

Make each door welcoming and give a face to each window. Make each one a place…

Aldo van Eyck
London City Hall, Foster+Partners - Marcos Silverio Photographer
London City Hall, Foster+Partners – Marcos Silverio Photographer

Besides all the design processes, architects can not control everything and foresee what is going to happen after the construction. In fact, I believe they should not because overdesign – or over-defined – is as bad as under-design. The Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger believes that there are many possibilities for people to connect and architects should “give a chance to the people to appropriate of the spaces and give them their significance and completion”, or for the Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha “architecture has to be opportunistic”. Sorry, my architect side talking again. So, I think that depends on the intention to have or not people on architectural photography. It is about the use, people. Just space, no people. Maybe a human-scale…

Thank you for any comment about this text you have. And for helping me with anything else regarding my English mistakes and poor language skills, as English is not my first language. I appreciate your consideration and collaboration.