In Conversation with Iwan Baan

John Hill
8. June 2020
Teshima Art Museum in Teshima, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan, by Ryue Nishizawa, 2010 (Photo © Iwan Baan)

Dutch photographer Iwan Baan headlined the second Architecture & the Media conference, which was organized by the Fundació Mies van der Rohe and took place online over four days in May. World-Architects spoke one-on-one with Baan after the conference to dig deeper into some of the statements he made during his keynote talk.

For a recap of Architecture & the Media's four days of presentations, roundtables, and other discussions, check out our Insight feature on the event.
World-Architects: In the Architecture & the Media talk you mentioned that you like longer-term projects, such as with books and exhibitions, more than individual commissions with architects. Can expand on that, on why you prefer these projects?

Iwan Baan: Don't get me wrong, I love to work with architects as well. But the work on books and these longer-term projects allows me to look at how projects have aged in a certain setting, a kind of context. With the commissions for architects I’m often hired at the moment a building is just finished or just before opening, to provide a library of images for the press and openings and so forth. But I feel there's a lot to learn from architecture once you get back there, after a building opens — sometimes years or decades after it opens — and see how projects really become part of a city, become embraced by the community, how things have changed over time, how people adapt to it or adapt the building.

So are there any architects that come to you to do these kind of prolonged documentations?

Yes that happens, like for books around a building, in which I go back a number of times. But these are more like the Brasilia–Chandigarh book, for instance, or the African Modernism book. These are projects that are in a way almost forgotten: for the people who live in those places, it just becomes really sort of an everyday, backgrounds of life. These people don't see it like the architects who did it; it’s not a precious object. To see how places function in that sense, how they’re and taken over and sometimes even completely abused; it’s really fascinating.

FIDAK in Dakar, Senegal, by Jean Francois Lamoureux & Jean-Louis Marin, 1974; in African Modernism edited by Manuel Herz et. al., 2015 (Photo © Iwan Baan)
[Holding up Justice Is Beauty: MASS Design Group book] This book that came out recently shows you working with an architect across their whole career. Do you see things like this in a similar way, as more projects than commissions?

Absolutely. In the work with Mass Design Group, I met Michael [Murphy] and Alan [Ricks] when they were still at Harvard GSD and were working on their first project, the Butaro Hospital. It’s now been ten years that I’ve been documenting basically all their projects, and I’ve seen them grow and the firm grow. Still, I tend to go to their projects once they’re finished. But they’ve done lots of projects in Rwanda so I've seen how the Butaro Hospital really became part of the community, how the landscape has grown around it, how it’s being embraced there. It's really fascinating to see all this, not just them working as architects there but also starting an architecture school and being so involved with the community.

When you made the comments in the Architecture & the Media conference about longer-term projects, it made me wonder if there are other photographers whose careers have inspired you. For instance, Bernd and Hilla Becher had this long strand of documenting industrial structures. Are there any photographers who were important to you in this sense?

My architectural career was never really planned; working with architects happened a bit by accident. So I was never looking so much in that direction. During art school the photographers I was looking at were like Martin Parr: documentary work around people, how people live in different circumstances and conditions. That was always much more my point of view. I feel like what I'm doing now with architects is still like that. I didn't really change my work so much; it’s still very much a documentary approach, of showing architecture as a background of everyday life. I try to spend time in a place, always trying to sort of discover new things, of how cities, architecture, and spaces kind of influence people’s behavior.

Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015 (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Earlier today I was looking around your website and came across the photos of Chicago taken on the occasion of the first Biennial, in 2015. What is the mandate with a project like that? Are they telling you what kinds of photos they want or are they just saying, “okay, go around the city, take some photographs, and we'll see what you come up with”?

It's basically the same as how I work with architects, who luckily give me a lot of freedom to approach a project. When I go to a building, they ask me to bring my vision to the space. It's a very intuitive way of working. I don't go with a strict agenda of how I want to depict a building. When I go to a city, a space or a place, I quickly get of an idea of how to describe it in a way, but then after a number of days and spending much more time there, you start to pick up on all the idiosyncrasies of the place. Those are things that you cannot really script or cannot be told to photograph; it's really something that starts to develop when engaging with a place.   

For the Chicago Biennial exhibition, I was informed and influenced by Alvin Boyarsky’s collection of postcards of Chicago, mainly those presented in the 1968 essay, Chicago à la Carte: The City as an Energy System. Addressing such themes as architecture, tourism, urban geography, industry, development and spectatorship, I revisited many of the sights and attractions that Boyarsky included in his essay. Much of his postcard collection represents Chicago’s tangible miracles of contemporary life. His collection displayed audacious feats of engineering of the industrial revolution such as grain elevators, slaughterhouses, bridges, canals and airports. Through them, Chicago was seen as a symbol of change and progress. I used his essay as a guiding hand documenting the current day Chicago; it brought me to many unusual places in and around the city where I then subsequently spent time to document how people live there. 

In the Q&A during the conference you mentioned that you travel light in terms of your equipment, unlike architectural photographers using tripods. With their approach the photographer needs an assistant, and later that assistant becomes a photographer who has an assistant, and so on in a sort of apprenticeship model. Obviously you don't have that because you work alone. But I'm guessing there are young photographers who look up to you and the way you have reoriented the photography of architecture. So what is your relationship with young photographers?

It's difficult also because my work is so spread out, over the whole world basically. I set a sort of agenda not to work with assistants because often my trips are about two months long, a sort of continuous trip from one place to another. But there are moments when I try to help the younger generation or work with them, such as teaching and giving workshops. Last year, for instance, I did a studio with Tatiana Bilbao at the GSD. That studio was about how to describe architecture and how to build a project around it. They all had to make a multifamily house in a specific part of Mexico City. So we went with the students there and spent a week with the students visiting their sites. They were both looking at how to create something and getting a crash course in architectural photography. They created a whole library of images and started to work with the rest of their studio, first making models to describe the place, then making a book around their first model, and then bringing it out into a whole project. These kinds of collaborations between architecture and photography — of looking at spaces and places, depicting places, and bringing it to a new generation — I enjoy them very much.

New York City blackout after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 (Photo © Iwan Baan)
One thing that came up a lot in the Architecture & the Media talks was context; how you focus on the context and in turn the building becomes background. Also, when you were taking live questions from the virtual audience, you answered mine, about photos as criticism, arising from comments by Duccio Malagamba, who conceives his photographs as a form of architectural criticism, with images instead of words. Now I'm curious about the combination of criticism and context. Are you drawn to buildings that are creative in the ways they engage context? I'm wondering if through your work and travels you’ve formed a critical take on buildings and context.

I don’t select certain projects because they engage extremely well with a context. It’s more the story that I think I can tell around the projects I take on. There's another story to tell, not just about a building, but how it's used, what kind of city is in, what the result is of that building in that specific place. For me it's important to zoom in and out, showing basically both settings: sometimes focused very much on the details of the architecture but also showing the bird’s eye view, where you really see the fabric of a city and how the building goes up in it or is maybe a total juxtaposition of it. Sometimes these show how it can work but also how it doesn't work in a kind of context. In the way I work and travel, I try to give it a place and a time, to show the messiness of the city — the people, fashion, cars, the weather, all the things you cannot plan for — and give those things a place in the photographs, in the story. I feel that's important to make it more relatable for the viewer, to tell a story on the place.

Another thing you mentioned in the conference is the time you now have in the current situation to go through your archive. Are there certain things that are coming to the fore as you dig through your archive? And, long term, how do you want your archive to function?

There's two ways of course. There’s the sort of urgent things, the things that are of immediate use in the architectural press, the buildings I have been documenting over the years and which are still being published in different places. But what's more interesting, when I look back at the last 15 or 20 years of my work and the things I have been documenting next to the commissioned work, is the vernacular. I think building with very local materials is gaining new relevance in the kind of society we live in now. With COVID-19 we have to think about a much more localized production of places. The incredible variety of architecture for hundreds or thousands of years was based on what kind of material you could get out of the ground, what was available around you; of course there was no way to import things from all over the world. I think it's something we can learn from a lot in the coming decades, like how we can use materials from our immediate surroundings and still create something really special.

Underground dwellings in Sanmenxia, Henan Province, China (Photo © Iwan Baan)
So when you're traveling do you search out such places and go out of your way to visit them?

Definitely. I always have this running list of places, for whenever I'm in a certain area. And that’s also a great thing about working with architects: they know their surroundings very well, so I hear through them of interesting places that have inspired them.

I’m guessing it's not just the forms and the construction, but ways of life as well. There are ways of life that are threatened by change. Is that something you're looking to document with these places?

Yes, very much. China, for instance, had such an incredible variety of building techniques and materials and places, and how people created places for themselves. And now with this incredible building boom over the last decades, where everything is just built en masse, out of concrete and all the same material, all that knowledge is disappearing. People have the idea that they want a simple nice apartment overlooking this or that — it becomes more and more generic in many ways. And so the vernacular in China is disappearing very quickly because it needed upkeep and maintenance. So that knowledge is disappearing, or in some cases it’s being transformed into tourist place, far removed from the communities it once served.   

Another project that comes to mind is the Ise Shrine in Japan. These are two sacred hills dotted with shrines that for the last 1400 years have been rebuilt every 20 years as a part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things. And it’s an incredible way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next. It’s the center of the Shinto religion and in Japan it’s considered almost like the golden ratio for architecture. The architects I’ve worked with in Japan always said, “You have to go see Ise. It’s the birthplace for a lot of architectural ideas in Japan.” I was fortunate to visit it in 2013 during the ceremonies of the 62nd iteration to date. It was an important moment for Japan, and it’s an incredible way to transfer these century old traditions. 

Ise Shrine, Mie Prefecture, Japan (Photo © Iwan Baan)
As a last question I wanted to focus on the situation everybody's dealing with now, of being at home. For now you are working on your archives, but if the situation were prolonged, hypothetically, how would you adapt your work, what would you do?

I haven't really figured that out. There are certainly a few more projects here in the Netherlands that I'm picking up at the moment, ones that I otherwise probably wouldn't have the time for. I hope the world will open up a little bit more, but I realize it might take quite a long time before things gets back to a sort of normal.

With projects in Amsterdam I’m guessing it’s harder for you to see it in a fresh way as compared to Brasilia, where you can see the city differently than locals.

It’s what I've always talked about, of coming into a place fresh, with your eyes open to the things that are overlooked in everyday life. So this requires a bit more work in a familiar place, but it’s also an opportunity to try to rediscover my familiar surroundings.

Well, we will see how everything plays out and look forward to seeing what you do!

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