Iwan Baan is the world’s foremost architecture photographer. It’s a subjective title, but many architects feel they must have their building shot by him. That means a rigorous work schedule around the world, so it’s a rare day to be able to catch up with him at home in the Netherlands.
Iwan Baan’s photos are unusual in the realm of architecture photography, where shots are traditionally sterile and empty, presenting the image of the building or an interior as a large scale still-life.
Instead, he is much more interested in context – the foreground and background, the streets surrounding the building and most importantly people either loitering, walking past or actively interacting with the building. And where many photographers would photoshop out a stray tree or signpost from a composition, Iwan Baan keeps them in:
“Life is messy! For me it’s about telling the story of a place, it’s not about when the building is finally finished and everything is swept way and that one moment in time when everything is perfect.”
“I use Canon digital SLRs and carry a number of lenses with me; I work lightweight and handheld. Although it’s true: The best camera is the camera you have with you.”
“I start with a shortlist from the architect telling me which details and angles they want. I then have a first impression of a place: The people, the culture, the surroundings of each building. It’s about being intuitive, just spending time, sometimes a couple of days with the building, looking at the light, the weather. There are so many variables that are also out of my control and these unplanned things are what I capture and make part of the story.”
Iwan Baan didn’t study architecture, instead, he was at art school studying photography and trying to find a niche he was happy in.
“It was by accident that eleven years ago I met Rem Koolhaas and we clicked. I loved the context of how he was building, especially in Beijing with the CCTV tower and the Olympic projects. It was a perfect way of combining my love of documentary photography with taking architecture photos.”
New York after Hurricane Sandy, USA, 2012
“I was in New York for another project for Herzog & de Meuron, which had been delayed because of Hurricane Sandy and I was in my hotel room when all the lights went out. You think it’ll only be for a few minutes, but it went on and on. It was eerie, the city without electricity, everything grinding to a halt. It was such a strange and unique moment, and I thought ‘how can I represent this?’
I realized I needed to get into the air. An aerial photo would be amazing, but none the helicopter pilots I knew in NY could get to an airport, there was no gasoline, no electricity… But luckily I had once previously organized a pilot in Long Island, which wasn’t so affected, and he was the only one who was able to fly. I drove out all the way there and then we flew back over Manhattan in a helicopter, the doors open while I shot the city. You can see the edge of the lights and where the city was dark. It became the cover photo for New York magazine, and went around the world.”
Makako Floating School, Lagos, Nigeria, 
“I prefer to take my aerial photos with a helicopter but it’s not always possible, so this was taken with a large bespoke drone that was built for me to hold a full DSLR camera. I’m standing on the small island behind the school [with the blue roof].
This is a project from a good friend of mine, Kunlé Adeyemi, who I met 12 years ago when I started working with Rem Koolhaas and he was working there too. He then started his own office and this was one of his first projects. Kunlé proposed this prototype school for the community and used local carpenters to build it.
He saw it as a way to do something for the city, and for the community of Makako, which is situated on the water’s edge, a shallow seabed between two peninsulas.
The property prices in Lagos have gone up incredibly so people started to move into the water. It’s shallow so you can build on stilts and it’s become this community of 150,000 people.”
Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan [2011-2013]
“I’ve been a number of times to Baku as I’m working on a book with Harvard University on its urban development. It’s a very interesting city; there have been three big oil booms over the course of the last century and at the moment there’s another so you get high profile projects such as Zaha Hadid’s theater and museum.
You can see the city’s incredible transformation at the moment. On the right, you see the way that the old city is being recladded in limestone to transform it from the Soviet era architecture. And then in the background, this hovering amorphous structure.
On the other photo, if the people weren’t there, it would be such an abstract picture. The construction workers sitting there give it scale and without them, you couldn’t tell where the building ends and where the pavement and the city starts.”
Tower Studio, Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada 
“This is a very special place for me; almost the most eastern tip of North America, Fogo was a small fisherman’s island, but they left in the 1970s after the fishing quotas were installed.
Then a locally-born businesswoman, Zita Cobb, moved back from the mainland to kickstart a new island community – one making local design objects like furniture. She’s made it into a very small scale, high-end tourism destination. She invited architect Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland-born architect, to design a small hotel plus resident studios for visiting artists, and helped fund the local economy to foster the growing community there.
This photo is the Tower Studio, and I’m standing on the top floor looking down on the artist Kate Newby. She was inspired by the landscape – you can see how the texture and colors of the landscape outside the window match the art she’s working with on the floor.”
Torre David, Caracas, Venezuela 
“There’s a huge percentage of the city who live in slums, so any vacant plot in Caracas is taken. This building, which was to be the tallest tower in the city, was started in the early 80s as the headquarters of a bank but then the economy crashed and it was left unfinished, an empty concrete shell. But people decided to move in: There are 45 stories without elevators or running water and yet 3,000 people live in this vertical community – from the shops to the hairdressers – and you see here a gym on the 28th floor. I’ve been around five times documenting how people created homes in this unimaginable place, building an incredible community by themselves. It’s eye-opening to see how people can build something out of nothing under very tough conditions.”
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