Putting People in the Picture

Fiona Young , 8 June 2019

Why are people largely absent from our architectural imagery? As a profession that designs and builds spaces for people, perhaps we need to be more conscious of including people in our floorplans and models, writes Fiona Young.

I have fond memories of a particular gathering at my share house in the mid-1990s – it was a group of mainly young architects who had come to see slides from one of our cohort’s recent European architectural pilgrimages. While the architects were excited and in awe of the images of buildings being shown, a telling moment of the evening was when Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation came up on screen to which a non-architect piped up, “What the HELL is that monstrosity?” This was followed by an awkward silence by the architects. My house mates (also non-architects) later told me it was entertaining seeing a bunch of architects spend the night looking at slides of buildings with no people.

Dr Kerstin Sailor’s 2012 post on architectural photography suggests that apart from a few exceptions – such as the work of Iwan Baan – the majority of architectural photos still don’t include people. In his 2013 lecture Beyond Architecture, which featured in Tezuka Architects: The Yellow Book, Takaharu Tezuka states that usually Japanese architecture magazines are so serious they do not include people in their photos. However, if architectural imagery is typically devoid of people, how do we convey how people use space?

My work focuses on the design of learning environments, and from my research it is increasingly apparent that the different professional backgrounds of architects and teachers mean that we perceive architecture differently. If this is the case, then how do we communicate to our clients and end users how their proposed spaces can be used? Sue Wilks states “the vocabulary and ways of representation used by architects, facilities experts, acoustic engineers and builders are foreign for teachers and vice versa”. For architects, the primary medium of communication is drawing, and plans, sections and elevations are the basis from which buildings are constructed. However, Clare Newton suggests that “not only is much of the terminology being used incomprehensible, but the abstract plans and elevations may not be easily understood by those outside the design and construction disciplines.”

As a profession that designs and builds spaces for people, perhaps we need to be more conscious of including people in how we represent our ideas? It can be useful to see people in section and elevation drawings to better understand scale and potential use. Although rarer, including a birds-eye view of people in plan also gives indications of scale and use, as well as movement and flow throughout space. In describing Tezuka Architects Roof House, Tezuka says, “We believe that architecture is for people. That is why we always show people in our drawings. In the roof plan, the elder sister is playing soccer and the younger sister is sitting on the edge, someone is showering, and another is having a meal near the kitchen.” Without these figures shown in this floor plan it would be much more difficult to sense the experiences that this roof space affords.


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Plan of the Roof House, Tezuka Architects.

In learning environments intended to enable a wider range of pedagogies than traditional classrooms, conveying potential use of these spaces can be informative for future users. Visualisation tools such as three-dimensional models and renders, and virtual reality can show how the design of these spaces might look and feel, although often they can be time consuming and costly to prepare.

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Model for Western Sydney and Wollongong schools for Schools Infrastructure NSW, Hayball.

Similar to the Roof House example above, a less labour-intensive technique to enhance communication with educators and students around the intent of space is simply to include representations of people and furniture in floor plans. As these new spaces are often intended to be agile (used in different ways), it can be useful to show variations in how people could interact within the same spaces, giving users a greater sense of how the environment can enable learning activities and behaviours.

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Wooranna Park Primary School (partial plan), 2005, Mary Featherston Design.

Taking the idea of infusing a floor plan with human life one step further using CAD technologies, Christopher Tweed has developed programs around how people move through spaces as a means of enhancing dialogue between designers and potential occupants. The article The Evolving Landscape of Architectural Affordances discusses how advances in computer visualisation can even enable simulation of movement of individuals or crowds through environments, and by doing so show interactions and influences of people on the experience of space. These types of visualisation tools can similarly be useful in the design of schools, universities and other learning environments where large numbers of people come together and use the same spaces.

By visually communicating the richness of potential student activities within learning environments, then we begin to show how proposed physical environments can be used to enhance the student experience. If indeed architecture is for people, then how people interact with space should be reflected in the way we communicate design and in the design itself.


Sue Wilks, “Building Leading Pedagogy”, TAKE 8 Learning Spaces: The transformation of educational spaces for the 21st century, 1 (Melbourne: Australian Institute of Architects, 2009), 18–25.

Clare Newton, “Disciplinary dilemmas: learning spaces as a discussion between designers and educators”, Critical and Creative Thinking (Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Education, 2009)

Christopher Tweed, “Highlighting the affordances of designs”, Computer Aided Architectural Design Futures, eds. B. de Vries, J. van Leeuwen, H Achten (Dordrecht: Springer, 2001).

Fiona Young is an architect and researcher in the field of learning environments. She is currently a PhD candidate as part of the Learning Environments Applied Research (LEaRN) network at the University of Melbourne, and Studio Director at Hayball in Sydney, where her focus is on Education and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) sector projects. Core to her role is enhancing learning opportunities through design, and interpreting and bridging understanding between educators and architectural teams.