“My photographs tell the story of places and the people who live in them. They capture a moment.” Born in 1975, Dutch photographer Iwan Baan doesn’t like the term architectural photographer because the natural scope of his work is far broader. His photos document the growth of megacities – such as Beijing, Caracas, and New York – and tell the story of buildings that are inhabited by people and that were conceived as living, dynamic organisms and part of a bigger picture. The list of architects he’s worked with includes the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Kazuyo Sejima, Tatiana Bilbao, and Zaha Hadid.
The Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is hosting the first major retrospective dedicated to Baan’s work. Entitled Moments in Architecture and curated by Mea Hoffmann, the exhibition opened this autumn and will run through March 3, 2024. A multimedia event, it will take visitors on a journey through the photographer’s most iconic work from the past 20 years, illustrating his belief that photography is a unique tool for exploring and describing the reality that surrounds us.
The title of the exhibition, Moments in Architecture, reveals your interest in capturing moments. From this perspective, how important is the contribution that photography can make to understanding a work of architecture?
I started out doing photographic reportages that described certain places and the people who lived in them at a certain time. When I first approached architecture, though, I noticed there was a pronounced tendency to focus on the work as being separate from its context. I believe, however, that it’s important to frame a building within its space and its time – to tell its story and the way in which people interact with its spaces. It’s interesting to see what happens inside and around a piece of architecture in its everyday life – that is, not just during special events, such as its inauguration – and see how it’s different on a sunny and a rainy day.
How is your storytelling approach reflected in your technique?
I move between photos of the entire work, aerial views from a helicopter, and a focus on the finer or even very personal details about what people do in those places. I explore different points of view, such as shots of people and their direct experience with the space. For me, this is the natural way of describing a place. And it’s unlike what often happens. While renderings are full of human figures and models show the urban context, regular architectural photographs often only focus on the building itself. When I arrive in a place that I hardly know, I take a step back to try to understand the bigger picture. My photography is fueled by an endless curiosity about the world around us.
When and how did your passion for photography begin? And what about architecture?
I first picked up a camera on my 12th birthday, when my grandmother gave me an Agfa Clack. I immediately fell in love with it. I studied photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and then worked for several years creating reportages. My first encounter with architectural photography happened almost by chance, when, in late 2004, I met Rem Koohlaas, who asked me to photograph several of the buildings he was completing at the time: the Public Library in Seattle, the IIT Student Center in Chicago, the House of Music in Porto, and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. From one day to the next, I found myself surrounded by architects. It was a kind of epiphany for me: I suddenly realized that all my interests on people, place and unique spaces converged in architecture.
And so you did the two projects in China featured in the first section of the exhibition.
In 2005, work began on a skyscraper for the headquarters of CCTV (China Central Television), designed by OMA / Rem Koolhaas, former partner Ole Scheeren (until 2010), and David Gianotten, in collaboration with the partners Shohei Shigematsu, Ellen van Loon and Victor van der Chijs. I suggested that I not only document the finished building but the entire building process, from the foundations to the roof, from the structure to the cladding, while also showing the life of the construction site, and the rapidly changing city of Beijing around it. Then, I also started documenting in Beijing during this period the Olympic Stadium, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. At the time, the Chinese capital was undergoing major and rapid transformation to modernize and lift the image of the country. It was a moment and a context of great interest to me.
Moments in Architecture is your first retrospective, a milestone in your career. What are your future plans?
There’s always a lot on the horizon. For example, a book’s about to be published about the exhibition last year in Rome, From Las Vegas to Rome, which explored the relationship between the two cities on the 50th anniversary of the release of the book Learning from Las Vegas, by Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour. Then, I’m working with Francis Kéré on a project that looks at the African vernacular tradition. And I’ll keep traveling the world: there are places that are truly unique, and that is what really fascinates me. I’ll try to document them all with the same commitment.
Iwan Baan: Moments in Architecture
Location: VITRA Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany
Dates: 21 October, 2023 – 3 March, 2024
Concept: Mea Hoffmann, Iwan Baan
Curator: Mea Hoffmann
Exhibition and Graphic Design: René Herzogenrath, Judith Brugger, Stefani Fricker, Erika Müller
Photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the author