Kris Provoost is a Belgian architect who’s been working and living in China for the past seven years. To contrast his countryside upbringing, he’s spent a large part of his adult life in the bustling megacities of Beijing and Shanghai. Upon his arrival in China, he was looking for a way to expand his knowledge of Chinese architecture and further his understanding of the buildings in front of him. So, he started a photography initiative called “Beautified China” and video project called #donotsettle.
We met up with Kris to chat about his life and experience as an architectural designer and photographer in China.
When did you first get into photography?
I’ve only been a photography fanatic for the past three years, which more or less coincided with my move to Shanghai. I found that it was the perfect way for me to motivate myself to explore and understand the megacity that was my new home. My interest in photography originally stemmed from my love of architecture, because I spend my days working as an architectural designer. When photographing buildings, there’s always something to learn. So in that sense, I find that photography and architecture complement each other nicely.
How did you know photography was a good fit for you?
I always saw photography as a tool to learn more about my profession. At its first stages, architecture is about that one perfect image. It’s about showing clients and governments the possibilities of a particular design, about its power to stand out or blend in. Over the past few years, I’ve set out on a mission to better understand what constitutes a good architectural image. How can I frame buildings within the boundaries of an image? How can I capture the essence of the design in a single image? Simply practicing that has helped tremendously.
Have you always been drawn to architectural shapes and images?
Most definitely — I certainly have an affinity for both shapes and symmetry. I always need a bit of structure in life, which explains my love for patterns on both large and small scales. However, I couldn’t say during which period of my life I was first fascinated by architecture. There wasn’t a moment when I clearly realized I wanted to become an architect or photograph architecture. The idea of becoming an architect sort of shaped itself when I first traveled around the world with my parents. I was always ecstatic when we’d visit new cities, and still remember my first visits to Hong Kong and Singapore. Maybe there was this subconscious notion developing itself in my mind that I could actually contribute to those cities and buildings some day.
How did you merge your passions for architecture and photography?
For me, it went a bit further than that. A few years ago, I tried merging architecture with photography and videography. But I found that each type of media has its own distinct advantage. So instead of merging them all together, I decided to clearly separate them so that I could use them to tell the right story. Now, my architectural photography is about shapes and appearances, my architectural videography is about city integration and social interactions, and my architectural designs work to bring these aspects together.
Can you tell me about “Beautified China”?
“Beautified China” is a photo collection I’ve created over the past seven years. It documents my footsteps through the country, and sort of encapsulates my career as both an architect and a photographer. When I created the collection, there was a particular style I was going for, but the underlying story didn’t make itself known until early 2017. I think it could only surface after I reached a certain “maturity” in China.
After years of working and living here, I could see certain trends developing. I was photographing the iconic structures built by starchitects throughout China after the country’s massive building boom. Some of the buildings overtook cities, redefined them, or established them. It was clear that there was a shift from iconic Chinese architecture toward subtler regeneration interventions, and I was documenting it. So, “Beautified China” became an overview of a period that will long be remembered in China’s architectural scene.
What is your favorite building in China, and why?
For years, it was the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. It quickly overtook the Beijing CBD and defined it by offering a glimpse of the city’s future. For a while, it seemed like my life revolved around the building. Having worked for Ole Scheeren himself, the structure seemed omnipresent to me. It’s also a building that I never seem to get bored of seeing. Every time I pass by, it looks different.
But as of this summer, I have a new favorite. After spending two days at the Harbin Opera House with Ma Yansong and his team at MAD Architects, I was mesmerized by its fluid shapes and the striking social interaction that was created between it and the people in the space itself. It was packed with people of all ages, even on a Tuesday morning. It’s a magnificent sight for the eyes, and the camera lens.
How do you continue to view buildings in new ways?
I use photography to capture the moments, proportions, and details of a structure. It’s why I eliminate most of the context from my pictures, and solely focus on the buildings. It allows me to understand the object and its exterior facade.
But architecture should never solely be about shapes or appearances. Through my work, I aim to capture the atmospheric quality and the interactions between users and buildings, which is the true essence of architecture. In order to fully understand a building, you have to ask yourself: “How is the building being used on a normal weekday? How does the building fit into the city’s fabric? What do people actually think about the structure and space?”
And lastly, do you have any tips for budding architectural photographers or those visiting China for the first time?
Get ready to walk till your feet hurt! Although almost every major Chinese city has an excellent metro system, what helps you understand a city best is walking or cycling through its streets. There is so much architecture to see; you’ll be crisscrossing megacities from morning till night.