Meet the Architect Photographing China’s Flamboyant Building Boom

In 2010, around the height of China’s infamous, flamboyant building boom, which began in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Belgian architect and photographer Kris Provoost moved to China. Two years later, Chairman Xi put a stop to the influx of architectural madness that had been drastically altering China’s cityscapes, leaving such radical architecture confined to a slice of time. Fascinated by the phenomenon, Kris created a photographic series called Beautified China.


With his architectural work taking him all over the country, Kris takes his camera with him everywhere he goes, researching the buildings in each city ahead of time. While many of the initial images documented the developments in Beijing and Shanghai, Kris has increasingly found himself going to China’s lesser well known cities, themselves abundant with monuments of the curious architectural phenomenon.


Using a minimalist aesthetic, Kris explores the buildings as objects of the abstract and chaotic trend they signify. Against pale blue skies, Kris’s Beautified China is a survey of some 40 new buildings, each image as devoid of context as the buildings themselves.


We, too, were curious, and met with Kris to find out more about his project.

THE PLUS: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what do you do in China?
Kris Provoost:
I am a Belgian architect and photographer who has been living China for the past eight years (three in Beijing, five in Shanghai) I came here in 2010, the year Shanghai was organizing the World Expo. It was a time when China was bursting with enthusiasm and persistence.

TP: What was the initial idea which prompted you start making this ongoing series?
The initial idea was to create an overview of the iconic architecture built in the years before and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo. During my studies (2005-2010) the architecture blogs were flooded with proposal after proposal to be built in China. When I eventually graduated in 2010 and relocated to China, I wanted to see what I could make out of it, photographically. It was also a way to sort of frame my travels through the country.


TP: Looking at these buildings in this way gives no real sense of “China” but instead abstract architecture which is devoid of situational context. What do you hope future developments will bring to architecture in China?
Yes you are right – the photographs have no sense of scale and that is done on purpose. For me the photographs are perhaps less about the architecture but more about the object. It allows me, as an architect, to look at the patterns, the proportions, the shapes and the colours. Regarding the future developments, I hope that less heritage areas will be wiped out to make place for new architecture. I grew up in Bruges, a city that is entirely protected so changing anything to the heritage is a big no – no. Perhaps this is one extreme, but China has long been the other extreme where big areas are completely wiped away. Perhaps China can find a middle ground where heritage areas are regenerated and some next buildings are added to densify slightly. This is already happening in Shanghai and I hope this will spread to other cities as well.


TP: Though you do not present the architecture as the icons they were intended to be, are there any that you are fond of as designs?
Yes, most definitely. The very first building I went to see when I landed in Beijing was the CCTV headquarters by OMA/Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. And even after seeing the building every day for three years when I was working one block away from the building, I am still truly fascinated by it. The buildings looks radically different from every different angle. While the building has faced a lot of criticism over the years, I do think it’s a building that fits very well in the Beijing city fabric.

TP: Why did you choose minimalism to convey your message?
For me the series is very much a tool for me to learn about the architecture. I take the context away and focus only on the zoomed in object. This way I can learn about the patterns, the shapes, the proportions and colour used, each time from the perspective of the angle that I like the most. I also hope that the abstract photos create a bit of curiosity so the viewer takes the initiative to find out more about the project.


TP: The sky colour is almost identical in your photography work, what made you take that visual approach?
I wanted to bring a positive mood to the series. First of all to make an appealing image, but also something that would make the architecture stand out, and hopefully also strengthen the project. Using the same background colour also lets the photos feel more part of a bigger series. I strongly aim for consistency in my work. I hope that, when you see a photo of Chinese architecture with a blue background, you know it is part of a Beautified China series.

TP: How was the shooting process, any difficulties?
Most of the shooting happens when I’m traveling through China. I tend to lookup which architecture there is to see in the cities I visit. When I’m at the project I usually don’t spend that much time there. I snap a few photos, look for some interesting angles, and leave. Most of the work happens when I get home. As I said before, I aim for strong consistency throughout my work. When I lay the different photos out on the computer screen I can start to see relations and different angles that will look good as a series. The last couple of years, I more or less only think and execute about series instead of singular images. It’s a better tool to find the background story. That’s why Beautified China I and II each consisted of 20 images, with the same minimalist approach.


TP: What do you think looking at architecture tells us about life in our current age?
I feel we live in an age that everything and everyone is trying to stand out. And this is undoubtedly the case with architecture. Everything wants to be taller, bolder, and more extravagant. Isn’t that what everyone using social media trying to do as well?

TP: Where will you visit for Beautified China III?
This I haven’t thought about! Series I was mostly about Beijing and Shanghai. Series II was mostly focused on the other Chinese cities. While I would like to find another angle for Series III, I still feel there is lots to explore in those ‘other’ cities. Many I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, and besides every year there are many interesting projects getting built. I will most likely never run out of projects to photograph for my next instalment. But for now, I would like to keep open with what I do for Beautified China III!

Beautified China