For the last 20 years, Dutch photographer Iwan Baan has traveled the globe photographing buildings by the world’s most famed architects: Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, David Adjaye, and Herzog & de Meuron, to name a few. But don’t call him an architectural photographer. “There’s so much more,” he says emphatically. “It’s much [more] about capturing a moment in time: what’s happening there, how people are enjoying or adapting to a place, and what makes it specific.”
From now through March 2024, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is exhibiting a survey of Baan’s work in an eponymous show. The largest retrospective of the Dutch photographer’s work to date, the curation spans images from the last three decades of his career, including his most iconic images alongside lesser-known works that show viewers a different side of Baan. “Iwan presents architecture not as an abstract ideal, but rather as the setting of everyday life,” explains museum curator Anna-Mea Hoffmann. “He is particularly interested in what happens after buildings are occupied, how they are used, and how they take on a life of their own beyond the influence of the architects.”
Baan had been working as a documentary photographer without a specific focus in the early-aughts until, in 2004, he was allowed the opportunity to photograph a new building by Koolhaas through a mutual colleague who was working with the Dutch architect. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) cofounder was impressed by Baan’s perspective. “Rem asked me to come over and, suddenly, from one day to another, it was all sort of architects around me,” remembers Baan. At the time, OMA had just completed several major projects around the globe — the Seattle Central Library, the McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago, the Netherlands embassy in Berlin, and the Casa da Música in Porto. After that, Koolhaas put Baan on a plane to Seattle, and from there things fell into place. Baan has since become the go-to photographer for starchitects.
New Yorkers who were in the city during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 will immediately recognize Baan’s aerial photograph of a partially blacked-out Manhattan. He happened to be in the city when the devastating storm hit that November and, while many pilots would not fly out, Baan already had one booked for another project who was willing to take him up. “I took that picture, and it came out on the day that electricity went back on,” explains Baan. “It suddenly transformed the notion of the viewer of the picture to what the city looked like, and what makes it so unusual and specific for that moment.” His photograph, which juxtaposed the darkness of downtown Manhattan against bright uptown, covered New York magazine’s November 12, 2012, issue, and went on to win the award for the ASME Cover of the Year.
But, of course, Baan’s lens goes beyond grand cityscapes and shiny starchitect-designed buildings. Plans to complete the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, known as the “Torre de David,” a 45-story skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, were scrapped in 1993 after the real estate developer behind the project passed away. With the economy in disarray and most Venezuelans living in poverty, people started inhabiting the unfinished structure, creating their own communities and innovative systems of living. Baan documented the structure for six years, noticing how its residents thrived within the building despite their circumstance. “People started to build these highly individualized spaces inside that construction site,” Baan says. “For them, it made total sense and became a much safer place than the regular barrios. Around the city there are these highly unusual ways of how people make a living.” Baan’s photographs show both a macro and micro view of the Torre de David; he captures the grid-like structure of the windows and its concrete curves, while also displaying the humanity inside it — a man lifts a barbell high above the city in one image, while a family sits on a bed watching the glow of a television set in another. The body of work earned him a Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture.
Even though Baan made his name taking photos of buildings by the world’s most famous architects, his images are more about the way lives are impacted through architecture. “I’m really interested in the life after,” says the photographer. “When architects leave, and people take over the place.”