Profile: Iwan Baan 02.02.12

  • Los Angeles from the air

  • Francis Kere, Centre for Earth Architecture, Mali — “Francis Kere created this mud-brick building in Mopti, a small architecture museum in front of the Great Mosque which is an example of traditional adobe architecture. When you step away and see it in context, it blends into the landscape, but in a modern way.”

  • Steven Holl, CIPEA Museum of Contemporary Architecture, Nanjing — “The building was supposed to be finished but when I got there it was one big construction site with scaffolding and plastic everywhere. The guy in the photo is one of the guards – he’s calling his boss to ask what these foreigners are doing here. That’s how my photography works best: I get to a site and start shooting right away. People don’t know what you’re doing at first so they get caught unaware.”

  • David Adjaye, SKOLKOVO Management School, Moscow — “I wanted to show how the building, this huge circle with blocks, sits in the middle of nowhere, in a newly developed area on the outskirts of Moscow. The building is very graphic: black, white and gold coloured blocks on the outside. Seeing it in this black and white snowy landscape, it looks like the Malevich drawing that inspired David’s design.”

  • Selgas Cano, Factoría Joven, Merida — “This youth centre with a skate park and climbing wall is a super-bright coloured spot in a troubled area of the city, and it’s clear the old guy is left wondering what’s happening here. It wasn’t really what the architect had in mind – the park shouldn’t have a fence round it – but the photo turned into an inside-outside thing with the old man looking in.”

  • Baku, Azerbaijan — “I’m working on a book with Harvard and Eve Blau about the transformation of Baku as it goes through its third oil boom. They’re trying to get rid of the old Russian atmosphere, recladding the houses with light limestone. Outside the city, it’s still this crazy industrial landscape with all these oil rigs lining the sea. This guy was doing his morning workout in front of them.”

  • Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, High Line, New York — “You see the old and the new part of the High Line which has just opened and is still to be continued. You see it all the way from Canal Street to 34th where it slips down by the Hudson and joins street level. The railyards at Hell’s Kitchen, a sort of no man’s land, will hopefully be redeveloped soon.”

  • Tokyo — “This was taken while working on a book with Atelier Bow-Wow. You can see from high up that Tokyo has no grid, it’s this completely organic city, developed along waterways and old property lines – completely unlike the grids of LA or New York. The huge building in the centre is like a large flyover connecting all the underground and overground highways, a central nerve system for the city.”

  • Todd Saunders, Fogo Island, Newfoundland — “The staunch people of Fogo Island, on the most eastern tip of North America, relied on cod fishing and barter until the 20th century, when currency was first introduced. Todd Saunders is designing several studios for artists there, part of an entrepreneur’s noble vision to revive the economy through art, film, and cultural exchange. The studios sit on stilts and, like the island, are completely off the grid.”

  • OMA, Seattle Public Library, Seattle — “I’m working on an exhibition with the Carnegie Museum of Art about landscape architecture and I took a helicopter to shoot the Olympic Sculpture Park. I’ve been to Seattle many times to shoot the Public Library, one of my favourite OMA projects, and each time I come back with a completely new view of it. This time I saw it very differently: like a crunched skyscraper, interwoven in the city fabric.”

  • OMA, Milstein Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca — “The building is this large box floating in between the old fabric of the campus. From the outside it looks like a ‘modest’ project but inside it’s spectacular. Sometimes you have to look hard to see it, but suddenly here with the autumn colours, wet and rain in the evening, the lights of the building started to reflect on the streets and there was a great moment where it came to life.”

  • OMA, Maggie’s Centre, Gartnavel — “To me, the building was a frame for looking at nature and the forest around it. It is all glass, and the roof is made out of glass and concrete. The glass reflects almost like mirrors and at certain points the building disappears and you can find yourself sitting at your computer in the middle of the forest.”

  • Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Omishima — “Ito’s own architecture museum is completely made out of steel on the tip of Omishima island in the Seto inland sea. It’s this dark, shiny building on top of a hill overlooking the landscape. At night the building almost disappears but with its different facets, all reflecting differently, it became this mysterious object merging with the landscape.”

Iwan Baan is a global nomad, restlessly travelling the world documenting new projects by the world’s most distinguished architects. Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl tell Icon why the ubiquitous Baan is their preferred photographer and explain how he looks at buildings in ingenious new ways

Iwan Baan is having a busy week.

Friday: Basel
Saturday: Zurich
Monday: Bilbao
Tuesday: Madrid
Wednesday: Murcia
Thursday: Cartagena
Friday: New York

iwan baan

Last year the globetrotting architectural photographer clocked up 190,000 air miles, living out of a suitcase and returning to his apartment in his native Amsterdam for only a day or two every other month. His unique style is much in demand by the world’s best architects, who realise that many will only see their buildings through Baan’s photographic record of them. He was in Basel shooting Herzog & de Meuron’s new Museum of Culture; he is travelling to New York to document the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for a book he’s working on with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the practice behind its recent redevelopment.

Charles Renfro has said that Baan, 36, has “redefined the genre” of architectural photography, which traditionally presents buildings in their icy perfection, with blue skies and devoid of people. In contrast, Baan’s documentary style, as Steven Holl tells Icon, “captures the emotion and vibrating life of people in space with humour. They are the indeterminate, rather than determinate and frozen”. Holl adds: “Iwan Baan is more than a photographer, he is an unpredictable omnipresent force – his photos have zeal.”

Baan seems to be everywhere,” Herzog & de Meuron acknowledge. “Whenever a new building appears somewhere in the world, the image of it reaches you through the lens of his camera. His buildings are never alone. They come with people. The people tell us about the buildings they use. How they use them, why they use them, how it is to use them.”

Pinning Baan down, in what he admits is an “insane travel schedule”, turns out to be a tricky proposition, involving multiple changes of plan. Icon’s photographer met him in Bilbao, where he was photographing a new park by Balmori Associates; I eventually caught up with him in Cartagena, Spain, where he was shooting a new auditorium by Selgas Cano Studio.

Baan appeared with architect José Selgas, strolling down the palm-lined boardwalk that divides the building from the sea, his tripod slung over his shoulder. “At night the whole building becomes a big lantern,” Baan says of the striking 410m facade, made of corrugated plastic threaded with lines of fluorescent colour. Indeed, at dusk it glows like the neon spirit level on top of Baan’s Canon digital camera.

I shadow Baan as he shoots: over 1,000 images that day. He is dressed in black, with a crisp shirt (courtesy of his hotel’s laundry service), and slips around the building with his small shoulder bag of equipment, taking pictures of the preparations for opening night. He is fascinated by how people behave in new spaces, exploring them with a sense of wonder he obviously shares.

There’s so much to discover,” he enthuses of the building. “All these wonderful details and the handmade quality of it all. To me this is sustainability, in a way, to do everything as lightly and economically as possible. They rethink everything in their buildings – nothing is standard. It’s like a huge collage.”

I find myself trying to duck out of shot as Baan works, but I soon realise the absurdity of this attempt at erasure considering his distinctive style and ever-mobile lens. We’re all part of the cast of extras that populate his work, which has architecture as its backdrop: a dog pulling a man along on a bicycle, two joggers, a man on a phone, a woman lugging her shopping. Indeed, he enlists me to model a staircase when no-one else is around. “It’s like a beautiful line drawing,” he remarks of its striking zigzag silhouette.

Baan is softy spoken, mild-mannered and quick to laughter. As a seasoned traveller, he is used to putting new acquaintances at ease without intruding on the hospitality his easygoing manner invites. Baan only came to architectural photography in 2005, when he wrote to Rem Koolhaas to suggest the architect use a method of 360-degree photography that he was pioneering to record an OMA exhibition.

Iwan Baan first came to us,” Koolhaas tells Icon, “because he had invented a technical process whereby he could insert a bullet into a building or a model and unfold it in a computer, so it was an exceptional way of making and experiencing a photograph. One of our most exciting collaborations was the transformation of an exhibit in a tent for the European Union into an experience on a very beautiful website. So from the beginning, I knew him as someone ingenious in finding new ways of looking at buildings.”

When Baan proposed that OMA employ him to record the construction of its CCTV building in Beijing, Koolhaas accepted and, in an ongoing project, Baan has visited the site roughly every two months for the past six years.

What interested me,” Baan says, “were these people who come from the countryside to build something they’ve never seen or imagined before. They live there on the site where you see this thing rising and the rest of Beijing changing as well – everything going up, going down – it all goes so fast. People live almost in dorms on the site, there is an incredible sort of camaraderie around it, and you try to capture the feeling of it all.”

Baan, who claims only an “intuitive” understanding of architecture, contacted other firms he admired to suggest he also document their projects. “We did not choose Iwan Baan,” say Herzog & de Meuron. “He chose us. He obviously decided to enter the world of contemporary architecture and he did it without being pushy and loud but with discreet, yet firm determination.”

However, Baan explains that he’s interested in “stepping back from the architecture … in trying to get away from these buildings in a way, in placing them in a city, in a context”. He likes to charter helicopters to capture the bird’s-eye view, illustrating how a building moulds or is moulded by its environment, but the majority of his images zoom in on the people who adapt the city to themselves.

His photographs are saturated with humanity. “Architects are control freaks,” Baan says, “and I think it’s very interesting also to show all these sorts of things which happen outside the grand idea … the perfect highways and the perfect plan form the air … to see how a place like that develops. How people find their way in any condition.”

Baan uses his considerable accumulated air miles to pursue private projects in places like Africa and Columbia. A recent book of photographs on Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa’s Brasilia and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh showed how modernist utopian projects have been adapted with pragmatism to real-life, and he is currently working on a volume about Caracas, which he describes as “a carpet of slums” when seen from the air.

Baan photographed a tower in the middle of the city, left unfinished in the 1980s. “It was never completed because the economy crashed and the company went bankrupt,” he says, showing me images he’s taken. “It has now turned into the largest vertical slum, where people started designing their own living and public spaces inside this concrete shell without anything – no elevators, no running water, nothing. That fascinates me, how an architect comes up with something but then how it changes over time.”

I ask Baan whether his itinerant life is a lonely one. “It is a little bit crazy,” he shrugs, “but I get to do what I like to do and it is the only way I can.” He has, he says, no attachments, and has accumulated pockets of friends around the globe. His phone seems to buzz constantly, overflowing with emails and text messages, and he pauses to take multiple calls (he arranges his own flights, itinerary and fees, and travels on the hoof, booking planes at the last minute and sorting hotels on arrival).

Every other night it’s a new opening,” he says, claiming that, in a way, he is almost always on holiday. That evening the Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto plays to a packed house of 1,500 people to open Selgas Cano’s new auditorium. Baan doesn’t have a seat, but moves quietly between tiers, taking pictures during moments of applause.

The next morning Selgas drops Baan and me at the airport in his 1967 Citroën DS and Baan takes his leave. He’s meeting a pilot who is going to fly him over the concert hall in a two-seater plane so that he can photograph it from the air (the nearby Nato base made it difficult to get permission to hover above it in a helicopter).

He’s already climbed a nearby mountain to shoot it, and photographed it from a crane that unloads shipping containers in the nearby dock. Tomorrow he will shoot the building from the water. “It’s a shame you can’t stay longer,” he says. “We’re going out in a yacht, and it must be quite big because they say I can climb to the top of the mast to take photos.” He pauses and adds: “It’s not such a hard life.”

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Words

Christopher Turner

 

This article was first published in Icon’s January 2012 issue, which looked back over the year 2011, under the headline “Man of the moment”. Buy back issues or subscribe to the magazine for more

quotes story

Iwan Baan is more than a photographer, he is an unpredictable omnipresent force — his photos have zeal

2012: A year in pictures

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Francis Kere, Centre for Earth Architecture, Mali
“Francis Kere created this mud-brick building in Mopti, a small architecture museum in front of the Great Mosque which is an example of traditional adobe architecture. When you step away and see it in context, it really blends into the landscape, but in a modern way.”

iwan baan Mopti

Steven Holl, CIPEA Museum of Contemporary Architecture, Nanjing
“The building was supposed to be finished but when I got there it was one big construction site with scaffolding and plastic everywhere. The guy in the photo is one of the guards – he’s calling his boss to ask what these foreigners are doing here. That’s how my photography works best: I get to a site and start shooting right away. People don’t know what you’re doing at first so they get caught unaware.”

iwan baan nanjing

David Adjaye, SKOLKOVO Management School, Moscow
“I wanted to show how the building, this huge circle with blocks, sits in the middle of nowhere, in a newly developed area on the outskirts of Moscow. The building is very graphic: black, white and gold coloured blocks on the outside. Seeing it in this black and white snowy landscape, it looks like the Malevich drawing that inspired David’s design.”

iwan baan SKOLKOVO

Selgas Cano, Factoría Joven, Merida
“This youth centre with a skate park and climbing wall is a super-bright coloured spot in a troubled area of the city, and it’s clear the old guy is left wondering what’s happening here. It wasn’t really what the architect had in mind – the park shouldn’t have a fence round it – but the photo turned into an inside-outside thing with the old man looking in.”

iwan baan Selgas Cano 5500 rt

Baku, Azerbaijan
“I’m working on a book with Harvard and Eve Blau about the transformation of Baku as it goes through its third oil boom. They’re trying to get rid of the old Russian atmosphere, recladding the houses with light limestone. Outside the city, it’s still this crazy industrial landscape with all these oil rigs lining the sea. This guy was doing his morning workout in front of them.”

iwan baan Baku

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, High Line, New York
“You see the old and the new part of the High Line which has just opened and is still to be continued. You see it all the way from Canal Street to 34th where it slips down by the Hudson and joins street level. The railyards at Hell’s Kitchen, 
a sort of no man’s land, will hopefully be redeveloped soon.”

iwan baan DSR Highline

Tokyo
“This was taken while working on a book with Atelier Bow-Wow. You can see from high up that Tokyo has no grid, it’s this completely organic city, developed along waterways and old property lines – completely unlike the grids of LA or New York. The huge building in the centre is like a large flyover connecting all the underground and overground highways, a central nerve system for the city.”

iwan baan Tokyo

Todd Saunders, Fogo Island, Newfoundland
“The staunch people of Fogo Island, on the most eastern tip of North America, relied on cod fishing and barter until the 20th century, when currency was first introduced. Todd Saunders is designing several studios for artists there, part of an entrepreneur’s noble vision to revive the economy through art, film, and cultural exchange. The studios sit on stilts and, like the island, are completely off the grid.”

iwan baan fogo tower

OMA, Seattle Public Library, Seattle
“I’m working on an exhibition with the Carnegie Museum of Art about landscape architecture and I took a helicopter to shoot the Olympic Sculpture Park. I’ve been to Seattle many times to shoot the Public Library, one of my favourite OMA projects, and each time I come back with a completely new view of it. This time I saw it very differently: like a crunched skyscraper, interwoven in the city fabric.”

iwan baan Seattle

OMA, Milstein Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca
“The building is this large box floating in between the old fabric of the campus. From the outside it looks like a ‘modest’ project but inside it’s spectacular. Sometimes you have to look hard to see it, but suddenly here with the autumn colours, wet and rain in the evening, the lights of the building started to reflect on the streets and there was a great moment where it came to life.”

iwan baan Milstein

OMA, Maggie’s Centre, Gartnavel
“To me, the building was a frame for looking at nature and the forest around it. It is all glass, and the roof is made out of glass and concrete. The glass reflects almost like mirrors and at certain points the building disappears and you can find yourself sitting at your computer in the middle of the forest.”

iwan baan maggie OMA

Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Omishima
“Ito’s own architecture museum is completely made out of steel on the tip of Omishima island in the Seto inland sea. It’s this dark, shiny building on top of a hill overlooking the landscape. At night the building almost disappears but with its different facets, all reflecting differently, it became this mysterious object merging with the landscape.”

iwan baan Omishima

 

 

 
 

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