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More than a building

More than a building

© Iwan Baan

June 2017

Iwan Baan has dedicated his life to exploring ingenious approaches to our ‘built environment’. He travels 360 days a year to work with both world-class architects and pursue his interest in informal, self-built spaces. CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim spoke to Iwan on his need to document, not just buildings, but where and how we define the boundaries within which we live.

Iwan’s flair for creative solutions began at the tender age of 12 when his grandmother gifted him an Agfa Clack (60's analogue camera) for his birthday. “It was a basic black box with a shutter but she thought it would be fun to give and I was immediately hooked. Within a week, I exchanged the camera for a better one and I kind of never stopped,” Iwan shares. Iwan went on to construct a darkroom in his parents’ house where he would develop film and print in colour as well as black and white. “Already at a young age, I loved doing it all myself,” he reflects.

Iwan enrolled in The Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands to delve further into his newfound passion but soon realised that even creative settings can be restrictive. “I finished the academy in 1998 and that was just the start of digital. And, in art school at that time, it was basically completely forbidden to do anything digital. So, of course, that made it much more interesting! I was an early adopter with all things digital.”

A whole new world

Upon graduation, Iwan went on to do documentary work for magazines, journals and books. He knew he enjoyed the documentary approach but it was not until relatively recently that he fully found his focus. “In 2005 I met the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas by accident. A good friend of mine was working with him on a project and I made a small proposal to document that project in a specific way and he got interested and invited me over. For me, it was a complete epiphany to see how an architect’s office works. It was really an eye-opener where I could see my interest in people, places and cities – how they are built and how they grow – combined.”

© Iwan Baan

Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria. Architect Kunle Adeymi’s floating school is made from timber beams, a material used extensively across the area. As there is limited public space in the area, when classes are out, the community claims the ground floor of the structure as an informal town square, where boats dock, fishermen mend their nets and market ladies take a rest.

At the time Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA had just began embarking on large-scale projects in China and Iwan joined the journey. “That was really a crash course in architecture for me. From there, one thing came after the other very quickly. And I started working with many different architects.”

Iwan has gone on to work with the greats from the ‘Queen of the Curve’ Zaha Hadid to the severe, sculptural aesthetic of Morphosis Architects. “There is a strong group of architects all around the world who I work regularly with. On the other hand, architecture is such a slow profession. For great buildings, it can sometimes take eight or ten years to finish them. Sometimes, you don’t work with an architect for a long time and suddenly a couple of projects finish.”

Discovering the vernacular

When Iwan isn’t working on commissions for high-profile clientele, he continues travelling the world to see how people build homes without formal guidance. “It’s important to me to be very selective with the commissions I take on and to keep doing these personal projects when I travel. It’s always a story you want to tell with your photographs. I want to show not just architecture but the story of this very rapidly changing world around us, the role of architects, and also what people can build without planners or architects, often under dire circumstances, but all in very specific places."

An example of such a project is Iwan’s images of ‘Torre David’ which won him the Golden Lion for Best Installation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. ‘Torre David’ is a 45-story office space in Caracas, Venezuela which failed to be completed due to the company’s bankruptcy in 1994. The building went on to be occupied by over 750 families, who live there symbiotically and run a gym, grocery stores, a hair salon and a church inside. Some saw a “vertical slum” while others, Iwan included, were fascinated by an innovative community who were informal, yes, but also self-sufficient.

© Iwan Baan

Caracas, Venezuela. Residents of the ‘Torre David’ watch TV in a home created in the absense of formal infrastructure. The 45-story skyscraper was never completed due to the country’s economic collapse in 1994 and the building is now home to over 750 families, who live there symbiotically and run a gym, grocery stores, a hair salon and a church inside.

© Iwan Baan

Caracas, Venezuela. Children play outside a grocery store in the 45-story skyscraper ‘Torre David’. Iwan Baan’s images of the resident’s occupation of the tower won him the Golden Lion for Best Installation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

“I photograph all these places in the same way,” Iwan explains, “If I’m photographing for Zaha Hadid or if I’m in these completely self-built places, it’s always centred on how these places work, how they make sense in today’s society and are specific, necessary or urgent. And architecture for me really serves as a backdrop in my photographs which shows the city around it. It’s very important for me to find these very specific projects, where a building is very much related to a specific place and specific usage in a specific time.”

In discussing the particulars of vernacular architecture – built by the locals for the locals with local materials – it became clear that Iwan’s take on sustainability is far from the general perception. “If you look at sustainability, you look at how a place can still survive after many decades but I feel that much of architecture these days has a very short life span. Sustainability is mainly counted in LEED platinum status or the more technology you put into a building, the more “sustainable” it is according to LEED. But technology often fails the quickest and has to be replaced. If you look at traditional building materials, you have very basic materials which work perfectly in very specific conditions. I think that’s really a measure of sustainability which is very quickly forgotten these days.”

© Iwan Baan

Nanping Village, Anhui Province, China. A product of 221 A.D., the Nanping Village sits at the base of the commanding Huangshan Mountains and is punctuated with verdant vistas that are nurtured by a community of silk farmers. The village is famous for its traditional Hui architecture: a style marked by fortified walls, white-washed homes, blacktiled rooftops and labyrinth-like alleyways.

Workflow on the move

Unlike many of his peers who indulge in architecture photography, Iwan doesn’t always favour tilt-and-shift lenses. “I use the TS-E24mm f/3.5L II lens and the TS-E17mm f/4L lens but the way I photograph is very much about the surroundings, the foreground and the things around it. So I feel I don’t use the shift function that much but the lenses are really great so it’s more for the quality of the lenses that I use them.”

As a photojournalist's favourite, the versatile EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens is better suited for Iwan’s needs. “I moved to Canon about 11 years ago [when I started working with architects] so it’s all Canon – the top of the line, whatever is the newest thing. At the moment I use two EOS-1D X Mark II and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and mainly work with a 24-70mm lens. I hate tripods and, because Canon is so good in low-light conditions, I hardly have to use tripods anymore. I can basically do everything handheld.”

© Iwan Baan

Shodoshima, Japan. Like a piece of rice paper that fell gently from the sky, Ryūe Nishizawa’s pavilion sits next to the main shrine of Fukuda Town. “From the elders who use it as a place to quietly contemplate to the energetic children who converted it into a jungle gym, the structure is truly a gift to the community who uses it,” says Iwan Baan.

Iwan’s office in Amsterdam handles day-to-day business and he also has a base in up-state New York but, as a staunch self-starter, Iwan prefers to photograph solo. “I don’t have assistants really. I work together with my partner Jessica Collins. She’s a writer and we work on a lot of projects together where she does the research and the writing. And since two years we also have a little boy who travels with us most of the time. We have a nomadic family life.”

As someone with encyclopaedic knowledge of buildings but who mostly lives out of hotels, where would Iwan most like to lay his head at night? “It becomes more and more difficult to find where we should live and what would be the place to let our son grow up. I’m fascinated by so many of these different places. That’s maybe also why we’ve started to make bases in different parts of the world. We’ll see once he has to go to school, maybe we do it at a little bit of a slower pace and stay a couple of years here and a couple of years there... but I don’t see myself settling in one place anytime soon.”

Biografie: Iwan Baan

Iwan Baan

Dutch photographer Iwan Baan (b. 1975) grew up outside Amsterdam and studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. As the inaugural recipient of the Julius Shulman award for photography, today, architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Toyo Ito, SANAA and Morphosis turn to Baan to give their work a sense of place and narrative within their environments. Alongside his architecture commissions, Iwan 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 & Chandigarh – Living With Modernity. 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.


Monterrey, Mexico. Like a cluster of hexagons perched on the hillside looking over the city, the tree-house-like home designed by Tatiana Bilbao emerges from the dense forest of majestic oak and pine trees.