Iwan Baan, a leading photographer of architecture, is always on the move, jetting between jobs in major cities around the world shooting images of the architectural gems designed by famous architects.
The award-winning Dutch photographer is famous primarily for images that narrate the life and interactions that occur within architecture.
He photographs the world’s buildings as they are built, used and abused by people — making him the world’s most sought-after cameraman in that field.
Baan says photography is about him telling the stories of people’s lives, the places they live in and the built heritage through his camera lens.
“For me it is really about telling a story of how people live in many different places in the world and how normality is viewed by the people. For one person it is that 50 million-dollar apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. For another person it is the self-built house somewhere in an informal city with minimal means but still with incredible thought on how to create an environment for themselves. Baan told Daily Monitor.
“…Those are the sort of stories I am trying to show in my photography depicting the built environment. I find if fascinating to see that full spectrum in bringing out these stories.”
On February 6, Goethe-Zentrum Kampala/Ugandan German Cultural Society (UGCS) hosted Baan at a public talk followed by a question and answer session about his work at Goethe-Zentrum Kampala.
During his stay in Kampala, he also documented selected modernist buildings around the city, which will be included in a second publication on African modernist architecture by the German architect and author Manuel Herz.
When asked about the best place or city in the world he has been to and taken pictures of the most fascinating buildings, he replied: “It is difficult to say because it is the same. I am not so much interested in the best building only there should be an interesting story around it, ingenuity and a push for a better life. I think these things happen everywhere in the world whether you go to a little place here on the continent of Africa or the biggest newest museum in Los Angeles. I think to see that full scope and spectrum of what has been built in these days is my quest.”
With no formal training in architecture, his perspective mirrors the questions and perspectives of the everyday individuals who give meaning and context to the architecture and spaces that surround us, and this artistic approach has given matters of architecture an approachable and accessible voice.
Why photograph buildings?
“…It was a special moment when I met Rem Koolhaas in 2005. He had just finished four of his major works at the time… I started working with him on a big book and I really felt that I could sort of combine all my passion for photography and documentary photography in this kind of architectural projects because they were all public projects. And also not just the architecture of the building, but the site around it, and how a city is formed around it. A building is not just a separate entity, but it plays an important role in the context of the city and the place around it,” Baan recalls.
“…Very quickly one thing led to another and all these architects started to call me. I was soon surrounded by architects. At the same time I can still very much give my own input in terms of what direction of photography I want to give. That is also why I still do a lot of my own self-initiated projects which are not commissions for just the newest buildings but more of the stories on how cities are built, how people live in specific places and so on,” Baan, one of the most widely published photographers in the world, adds.
With his combined passion for documentary and space, Baan’s photographs reveal our innate ability to re-appropriate our available objects and materials, in order to find a place we can call our own.
This can be seen in his work on informal communities where vernacular architecture and place-making serve as examples of human ingenuity, such as his images of the Torre David in Caracas – a series that won him the Golden Lion for Best Installation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Today, architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, Toyo Ito, Sanaa and Morphosis turn to Baan to give their work a sense of place and narrative within their environments. Part of Baan’s collection of photographs was shown in the traveling exhibition titled African Modernism, researched and curated by Manuel Herz.
Newly independent African Governments adopted the African Modernism architectural style in the late 1950s and early 1960s to erect monumental cutting-edge architectural gems in the nation building and decolonization processes. Experimental and futuristic architecture became a principal means by which the young nations expressed their national identities.
About the exhibition
The exhibition reflects the socio-cultural ambivalence of African Modernism as an architectural ‘style’ in Sub-Saharan Africa, as it documents more than 80 buildings in their present state in Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zambia.
The exhibition is accompanied by the 700-page publication African Modernism: Architecture of Independence edited by Manuel Herz, Hans Focketyn, Ingrid Schroder and Julia Jamrozi, and published by Park Books in 2015.
The Kampala chapter of the exhibition that opened on November 15, 2018, at Makerere Art Gallery, Makerere University, ran until January 18 and was hosted by Goethe-Zentrum Kampala/UGCS.
Asked how it feels being part of the African modernist architectural project, Baan, says: “I have been coming to this continent for the last one and half decade or so. I find this continent fascinating, its extreme diversity of places, and also the necessity of things to be constructed and built. I have worked with many of the architects here on the continent documenting new projects. I always feel that you can do a lot here with very minimal means and make a big impact.”
“So for me that is also an important drive to see what is happening here… I want to show that there is a big design scene here and a big push for people to also create very meaningful environments. Very many people in the West are not associated with what is happening here.”
“ …I talked to Manuel Herz, a great friend of mine that I have worked with on many different projects about this, especially during post-independence in many African countries when there was incredible opportunism… They [African countries] wanted to curve a new kind of future for themselves and as part of that there was this big push for important public buildings from parliaments to university buildings. So, that is the era from the 50s, 60s and 70s…”
“…They are still very well used but often in very different ways than what the architect planned or imagined. …Also at the time they were built there was very little documentation about them… We thought this history was disappearing from the radar and out of people’s minds. …We feel that a lot of these buildings are sort of not appreciated here. And there is a new big push for urbanisation all over the continent and these buildings get knocked down and replaced by the same generic glass and aluminum boxes,” Baan adds.
“…What we saw in this African modernist project [was that] most of these buildings are very basic in a way. They rely very little on high tech materials. They are naturally ventilated – no air-conditioning or these kinds of things. They have worked very well 40 to 50 years later. Whereas the high tech which is brought into buildings nowdays requires incredible maintenance. All the high tech stuff that is not often produced here which has to be bought and flown here. I hope this is creating a bit of awareness of other ways of building and also influence the thinking of how we can build with very minimal means,” Baan observes.
He is concerned that what is being built in Africa today are projects for mainly office spaces and less public buildings.
“…What we are trying to focus on is where buildings are public goods and not just for personal gain and making quick money.”
Asked if the role of the architect is being valued today in Africa, the photographer responded: “I think that is a challenge everywhere, especially in places like these where the need for building infrastructure is very high and oversight is very low. In the West, you can’t build without an architect. You are not allowed and that is it.”
“Here, there are all kinds of ways of going around it. People think that architects are overrated and are not necessary and we can do it all by ourselves. It is cheaper to hire just a construction firm and it puts the building together…,” Baan observed.
Asked why he challenged the long-standing traditions of depicting buildings as isolated and static structures, he replied: “For me that was not really a conscious decision in a way. …What I try to do with photography is really to tell a story of a place, what people do there, what happens in these places. …For me it was about showing what was happening in these places and not just an isolated building and a perfect detail. But there was a story, a necessity, a need for the building, what the building was doing there, where the building was. …When I started looking at architecture photography I was really kind of surprised that there was no one doing that. And it was always sort of very static images of a certain perfect condition, where a building is an ideal vision of an architect. …Without people you can’t know what a building is used for or why it is there…”
As trends keep changing, Baan has adopted new technologies in his field of work such as use of the drone.
“I was one of the early adopters of this as well. They are tools. It depends on the kind of story I am trying to tell. I have been doing aerial photography, for a long time usually with helicopters. I still do like 80 per cent of the aerial photography with helicopters or small aeroplanes because you are still more flexible than with a drone. But there are places where you go to and there is no way you can hire a helicopter… In those moments a drone is, of course, a great tool. In a sense I use them but they are a bit more limited,” Baan said.
Balancing work and family
The 44-year-old photographer is married to Jessica Collins and they have two sons: the eldest is 4 years old while the youngest is 8 weeks old. They own two homes in The Netherlands and USA.
He, however, says it’s sometimes challenging balancing work and family. “…. At the same time it is a way of life that I curved out for myself in a way. I work together with my wife, who is a writer. She can also work wherever she is. So, we travel most of the time together as a whole family with our two kids. We have a whole sort of nomadic kind of life around the world.”
“In that sense we all have the same kind of curiosities and a push of seeing new things anywhere around the world. In that way you curve out a life for yourself. I also see and meet my friends in all different places all the time around the world. It is a different life but you make it work somehow,” Iwan adds.
“I don’t know if I have much leisure time. …I think with what I am doing combines all my interests, my endless curiosity in new places, new people and what happens in different places. …As an artist you want to be as fully immersed in everything you are doing as much as possible. I can’t see another life than that for myself,” Iwan says.
Asked what interested him into photography, Baan, said: “I got my first camera on my twelfth birthday from my grandmother. It was a very simple camera and I thought it was the best thing there is. So, I was already photographing a lot before I went to arts school to study photography. I did documentary photography for magazines and newspapers form many years then by a bit of an accident I met the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and started working with him. He also brought me by complete accident into his architecture field.”
“And I felt that through this architecture I could combine all my passion for photography, space, what people do in these public spaces, and how cities are built in my work. So ever since I have been working with many architects in the realm of architecture,” he added.
Speaking about choosing another profession or retiring from photograpy, Baan said: “I have been taking photos for over 30 years. I can’t imagine a life without photography. I don’t think so [retiring]. Like it is a way of life and it is what I do. If I look at other photographers like the best ones I do not see anyone retiring. They work until the end.”
About Iwan Baan
Born in 1975, Baan grew up outside Amsterdam, the Netherlands, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague and worked in publishing and documentary photography in New York and Europe.
After his studies in photography at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, Baan followed his interest in documentary photography, before narrowing his focus to record the various ways in which individuals, communities and societies create, and interact within their built environment. Alongside his architecture commissions, Baan has collaborated on several successful book projects such as Insular Insight: Where Art and Architecture Conspire with Nature, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities and Brasilia and Chandigarh – Living With Modernity, and 52 Weeks, 52 Cities edited by Marta Herford. He has held photography exhibitions around the world.
Baan’s work also appears on the pages of architecture, design and lifestyle publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Architectural Record, Domus, Abitare and Architectural Digest.
In December 2011, Baan was named one of the 100 most influential people in contemporary architecture world by The Magazine dell’Architettura on occasion of their 100th issue.
Baan is recipient of the AIA Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award. He is also the inaugural recipient of the Julius Shulman award for photography.