Iwan Baan. Moments in Architecture
Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein
October 21, 2023 – March 03, 2024
Iwan Baan is one of today’s leading photographers of architecture and the built environment. His images document the growth of global megacities, explore traditional and informal housing structures, and portray buildings by prominent contemporary architects including Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Kazuyo Sejima, and Tatiana Bilbao. From October 2023 to March 2024, the Vitra Design Museum presents the first major retrospective of Baan’s oeuvre. The exhibition »Iwan Baan: Moments in Architecture« reflects the photographer’s wide scope by drawing up a panorama of global architecture in the early twenty-first century, of its urban and social contexts, and of the people who use it.
The rise of digital media over the past thirty years has fundamentally changed the world of photography and architecture. Images of new buildings become available in real-time, promoting the rise of architects, influencing design processes, and making architecture a visual commodity. No other photographer has shaped these developments as emphatically as Iwan Baan. Baan’s photography is quick, precise, and crisp – and it can be deeply human and poetic. He knows how to make a building look great, but he also captures the moments when architecture comes alive, when plans are made, when workers rest when people move in or out. Many iconic images of the past two decades were shot by Baan, from the »official« portraits of architectural landmarks to photos of Manhattan in the dark after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The exhibition features examples from all areas of Baan’s work since the early 2000s. It includes film footage as well as rarely published photographs of traditional and informal architecture around the world – from the round Yaodong villages of China to the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia, from self-built multi-storey dwellings in Cairo to the Torre David in Caracas. »What’s important is the story,« Iwan Baan says, »which is very intuitive and fluid. I am not so interested in the timeless architectural image as much as the specific moment in time, the place, and the people there – all the unexpected, unplanned moments in and around the space, how people interact with that space, and the stories that are unfolding there.«
Baan’s focus on architecture emerged after he crossed paths with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 2004. The first section of the exhibition presents a series of images documenting the construction of the CCTV Headquarters by Koolhaas’s architectural firm OMA (2002–2012) and the Olympic Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron (2003–2008), both in Beijing. Baan’s pictures show not only the glossy façades but also the workers who raise the buildings from the ground up, documenting their work and their daily lives, often in difficult conditions. Including many unpublished works, this section reveals the beginnings of Baan’s fascination with architecture as a process and as a social force – and as a manifestation of China’s rise to a global superpower. This is also illustrated by other photo series in this section, which document China’s real-estate boom in the early 2000s as well as more traditional Chinese buildings.
Since his first collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, Baan has developed a constantly growing network including many of today’s foremost architects. For Herzog & de Meuron, Francis Kéré, Sou Fujimoto, Tatiana Bilbao, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SANAA, Toyo Ito, and many others, he is the photographer of choice when it comes to documenting their projects. To capture the character and the context of a building, Baan combines aerial views taken by helicopter with a series of different perspectives ranging from panorama shots to detailed close-ups. His working relationship with the architects is such that they often let him rely on his intuition to choose the right motifs and angles for the perfect shot. He embraces the moment, not waiting for supposedly ideal weather or light, welcomes reality’s incursions, and almost incidentally creates shots that have the visual power to shape a building’s public image. The second section of the exhibition gives an overview of this body of work, ranging from Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome to SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, from Toyo Ito’s National Taichung Theatre in Taiwan to Balkrishna Doshi’s Ahmedabad projects.
Baan is a global nomad who spends a large part of his working life travelling the world. He explores booming megacities on all continents and documents real-estate booms or crashes, increasing density, urban evolution, and individual life stories. Be it in Tokyo, Lagos, São Paulo, or Hong Kong, Baan is a chronicler of the urban landscape. He looks at idiosyncrasies as well as recurring themes that range from urban growth to the modernist heritage, from globalisation to local communities, approaching iconic modernist cities like Brasília or Chandigarh with the same love for detail as the International Fair of Dakar designed in 1975 by Jean-François Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin or the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Baan uses the lightness of digital photography to capture the unexpected moment without ever forgetting about the seductive power of a well-composed image.
On many of his commissioned travels around the globe, Baan also takes photographs of informal or traditional buildings. Whether in Japan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, or India, Baan looks at housing practices that have existed for centuries, that adapt to local conditions, and that often show similarities across cultures and continents. In one of the resulting projects, Baan documents what is presumably the world’s largest temporary city: a camp of tents set up for the duration of the Kumbh Mela festival, which is held every twelve years in Prayagraj, India, and attracts an estimated fifty to eighty million pilgrims.
A project in Caracas, Venezuela, is dedicated to an unfinished financial centre known as the Torre David that has been converted by squatters into an informal housing complex. Baan’s photo series, which earned him the Golden Lion of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 with Urban Think Tank (Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner) and Justin McGuirk, is a touching social study that shows how the raw concrete structure is appropriated by its inhabitants with homes, shops, and community spaces.