Architecture Is About People, Not Buildings. These Photos Prove It

Architectural photography often eschews humans, but these photographers focus on the relationship between people and buildings.

A building is a building. Right? But in the hands of skilled photographers, the built environment becomes much more than an amalgam of glass, concrete, and steel–instead, these images can serve as a lens into people’s lives.


It’s this kind of architectural photography that the Art of Building photography competition celebrates. Run by the Chartered Institute of Building, a British trade organization, the Art of Building has highlighted the best digital photography of the built environment since 2010.

Most architectural photography is empty of people–for good reason. As I wrote last year, images of empty architectural spaces have an allure that’s backed up by psychology: We’re most attracted to images of people, and if even one person slips into the frame, they take attention away from the space itself.

But many of this year’s finalists, both amateur and professionals among them, seem to be focused less on buildings and more on the people that construct and occupy them.

Elevation by Naf Selmani.

In one image of The Hive, an installation in Kew Gardens, New York, that illustrates the story of the bee through architectural form, a woman lays prostrate across the top of the installation. Seen from below in Naf Selmani’s photograph, she’s ostensibly posing for a picture–as one does with large-scale art installations these days.

In another, taken by Enrique Gimenez-Velilla in Asunción, Paraguay, a nameless and faceless worker ascends ladders that have been tied together to help him climb to greater heights. “This photo seeks to pay homage to all the clever unknown workers that still build and maintain built infrastructure in the developing world,” writes Gimenez-Velilla.

The Hive by Marco Grassi.

Another finalist photo, taken by Marco Grassi in Larung Gar, Tibet, shows a stunning change to the largest Buddhist settlement in the world. One side of the image shows a nearly barren field of demolished buildings, while the other side shows a thriving city. It’s the architectural manifestation of China’s policy toward Tibet–in 2016, Chinese officials began forcing evictions by literally ripping homes apart. In November 2016, the New York Times wrote that China is planning to reduce the 40,000-strong population of Larung Gar to 5,000. Here, buildings–and the lack thereof–are political.


Just as people pass through the built environment, coloring and shaping it with their politics and their beliefs, the human stories behind these architectural photographs burst through the surface.

[All Photos: courtesy Chartered Institute of Building]


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.