Iwan Baan Is Breaking Through Architecture’s Leading Lines

Using the built environment as the backdrop to everyday life, the Dutch documentary photographer takes a human-centered approach to architectural photography.

An overhead shot of the dwellings of Tiébélé
Tiébélé, Burkina Faso, 2021. Iwan Baan

A man with black hair and thick eyebrows squats on a concrete patio, a pile of plastic waste on his right and a jumbled chaos of cushions chairs on his left. He’s looking past a clothesline tied to a tree toward a looming, angular structure, partially-built and sinister. There’s a hint of the undecipherable figure about it (think Escher’s impossible cube), but something else, too. This skyscraper, formed of a pair of conjoined towers, looks like a gaping mouth poised to devour the man observing it.

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The Dutch photographer Iwan Baan took this image as part of a series documenting the construction of the 51-story China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing—a project, by Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm OMA, which took ten years to finish (2002–2012). Baan’s pictures show not only the emerging and completed structure but also the workers who raise such buildings from the ground up and the people who live in their shadows.

Just as Koolhaas revolutionized modern architecture, Baan broke the convention of idealized and mostly deserted architectural photographs by inviting human beings into the frame with sensitivity and vivid realism.

“I had no idea about architecture,” Baan told Observer, speaking of his beginnings as a professional documentary photographer specializing in the built environment, “but he [Koolhaas] saw something in my images”.

And from there, so did many others. His first comprehensive retrospective, “Iwan Baan: Moments in Architecture” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is an exploration of the Dutch photographer’s oeuvre produced over the past twenty years.

“Baan’s gaze captures the richness of human experience—the lives and realities that unfold within the global framework of architecture and the built environment,” the museum’s curator, Mea Hoffmann, said about Baan’s work.

Hoffmann screened over 14,000 of Baan’s photos to put the exhibition together. Framed by the walls of the Frank Gehry-designed museum, the exhibition uses the photographer’s wide-ranging work to show a panorama of early 21st-century architecture in its urban and social context along with the people who occupy it.

Aligned with Baan’s never-ending curiosity about the world, the exhibition is divided into four sections featuring examples from all areas of his work since the early 2000s—starting with his China series, followed by footage from commission work for star architects like Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron and Tatiana Bilbao, and his portraits of megacities that explore urban evolution to little-known images of informal buildings celebrating local cultures.

An unsettling white space with a low ceiling and a single skylight
Teshima Art Museum, Tonosho, Japan, 2010, Architecture: Ryue Nishizawa. Iwan Baan

How Baan portrays people’s relationships with their surroundings is riveting and, in a way he’s following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather and Impressionist painter Jan Zoetelief Tromp and his great-great-grandfather Bernard Blommers, a painter of the Hague School. His chosen medium may be different but his artistry is not.

“His pictures are spontaneous and yet focused on the essential, humorous and sincere at the same time, both atmospheric and subtle,” Hoffmann said about Baan’s visual language.

He only works with handheld cameras, without a tripod, but will take photos in any weather or light conditions to capture a building’s (or a city’s) character and context. It’s worth mentioning that Observer has used Baan’s photographs to showcase the character of buildings like the Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York City and the Broad Museum in L.A.

“I work quite autonomously,” Baan said of his process. “I take on [client] projects where I feel like I can add another layer to what an architect sees or envisions.” He shoots from various and oftentimes unexpected perspectives, ranging from panorama shots to detailed close-ups, and is renowned for taking aerial snaps by helicopter.

An overhead shot of a white institutional space with rounded lines and geometric forms
National Museum of Qatar, Doha, Qatar, 2019, Architecture: Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Iwan Baan / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2023

“For me, that relationship with the city, with the context, is important. Not only that perfectly stylized and cropped image of the building. From far away, the building becomes this little spec in the larger context,” he reflected.

One highlight of his aerial photography is an image of Manhattan partially shrouded in darkness in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It made the cover of New York Magazine and was made into a poster MoMA sold to fund the subsequent hurricane relief efforts.

“It’s an image which would have been technically impossible to capture three or four weeks earlier,” said Baan about his photo, taken at 20,000 ISO. He’d just gotten the newest Canon model, which had bumped the camera’s light sensitivity tenfold, giving it capabilities his first camera, an Agfa Clack (a present from his grandmother for his 12th birthday), was miles away from.

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“I took pictures of my family, kids from school and anything interesting I came across,” reminisced Baan. At 16, he built a camera as part of his final year at a Waldorf School.

Still living out his creativity, Baan also takes photographs of informal or traditional buildings on his travels around the globe. “I feel that’s an urgency to document, especially in Africa,” says Baan, as the “incredible variety and ingenuity of living in these places just disappears.”

Baan has photographed Kibera, with its endless roofs of corrugated steel atop small buildings in the informal neighborhoods of Nairobi, Kenya. Just recently, he finished documenting the growth and decolonialization of architecture in Lagos, Nigeria for a new edition of “African Modernism,” a book he produced with Swiss architect Manuel Herz.

Conjoined buildings with yellow walls interspersed with upside-down black triangle designs
Baan, International Fair of Dakar, Senegal, 2013, Architecture: Jean-Francois
Lamoureux, Jean-Louis Marin und Fernand
Bonamy. Iwan Baan

Realizing how fragile these places are, documents housing practices that have existed for centuries, adapt to local conditions and often show similarities across cultures and continents. In one project, Baan documented 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.

Perhaps what sets Baan apart is the fact that he doesn’t discriminate. Whether he points his lens at informal housing or stylized architecture, through careful consideration of the elements in the frame, Iwan Baan creates images that offer viewers a deeper understanding of what we build.

“Iwan Baan: Moments in Architecture” is on view through March 3.

Iwan Baan Is Breaking Through Architecture’s Leading Lines