Museum by Sanaa in Lens, Pas-de-Calais, France. Photo © Iwan Baan
Chasing down images
by Jochen Stöckmann
Jan 10, 2014

Renowned architects love to have Dutchman Iwan Baan photograph their spectacular new builds, as his work is typified by extraordinarily dramatic staging of the images. For example, in 2011 for his “photographic essay” he circled the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art designed by Diller Scofido + Renfro, taking the massive protruding glass storey from the water side, letting his gaze wander with visitors out over the harbor, capturing not just the mood of the animated stairwells but also the structural features visible in the empty exhibition hall. Out of pure curiosity he created a kaleidoscope of images which, before the eye of anyone who knows just a little about architecture, and in combination with the layouts and concise descriptive texts jell to form an illuminating panorama.

Wealth of images as a set of discrete scenes

Baan came to fame with this approach. As the preferred photographer of Zaha Hadid, Sanaa and Herzog & de Meuron the frequent flier is now on the road 365 days a year. And has raised this globetrotting way of life to the status of a principle. That said, his latest exhibition “52 Weeks, 52 Cities” at Marta Museum in Herford does not simply string together all the pictures he took in a particular year: Instead, as in a drama made up of independent sequences, the 38-year-old juxtaposes the flawless design of cultural centers and art museums with everyday life in the dirt of disaster-struck Haiti or in the slums of China and Africa. Baan does not use his handy digital camera to document social issues or as an architectural critic. Rather, he sees images as an aesthetic inoculation against the “plague of similarity”, the diagnosis he offers in his many highly noted lectures.

Baan has thus bid farewell to the concept of the photo essay as the process of tenaciously circling individual projects. Of late, he has been interested in the colorful whole, the multi-faceted “worldview”. However, you shouldn’t expect a massive impact from the simple combination of decidedly appealing highlights. Which is why Baan has created short accompanying texts for each of this often very picturesque shots essentially as instructions on how to use or read them. For example for the wide-angle scene in the “Favela Painting Project” in Rio de Janeiro, where older men are sitting playing cards at garish little plastic tables in a backyard, with the turquoise or faded-blue walls of tenement blocks surrounding them: “It was great to see how the painting had become part of the community’s identity and how despite years of weather and erosion, the coasts of paint are still as vibrant as on the very first day.”

Only too familiar with Zaha

The image showing the outsize radiator grill, with a few people walking by it in the spring sun, Baan simply offers the coordinates “East Lansing, Michigan, USA”. It is an art museum “on the edge of the Michigan State University campus” and is “an alien object on the edge of the campus”, as Zaha once put it.” The photographer is only too familiar with architect Hadid and her intentions – and that is definitely not to the good of his photos. They are no longer imbued with his otherwise constant curiosity as regards specific places, buildings or urban settings, but the coincidental products of a hectic search for ever-new angles from which the “world” can be portrayed as diversely as possible.

All the different things one experiences when traveling permanently around the globe could at best be conveyed by a strict selection of images on the basis of a pre-defined and carefully construed photo aesthetics. But with his one or two shots per week and “location” Baan forever fails to capture the essence – and then has to use words to make up for what the image lacks. For example, in Lagos a few boys, naked from the waist up, stand on wobbly jetties outside houses on stilts. They’re meant to embody “a mass of small kids” who in turn highlight the population explosion. What the photo-diarist otherwise captured during his seven days in Nigeria’s megalopolis is squeezed into unfortunate bubbles: “The indigenes call Lagos the ‘soul of Africa’, and it’s bursting at the seams with cultural pride.”

Ducking things with aerial shots

Texts are evidently not the strength of (as the catalog proclaims) the “modern nomad who lives with his images and takes his cue from them.” One can forgive a photographer such weaknesses. What is questionable is the way Baan no longer takes architecture or urban life, and thus how we regard our the built environment, as the basis of his series of images, but almost autistically creates images from images in a hermetic perpetual motion machine. As a result, architecture becomes merely a backdrop, a frame for “life”, albeit without the photographer really putting his finger on the latter: In an effort to ofer an overall impression, our globetrotter repeatedly opts for aerial shots, and even goes so far as to suspend his camera from a drone in China, and the subterranean cave dwellings in Chinese Sanmenxia thus mutate into some decorative pattern. He denies that he’s hunting for visual effects saying that what counts for him is “to photograph the pictorial composition from the air, enabling me to tell a different tale about the countryside and the context of a specific building.”

It may not be a new story he tells, but it’s a “different” one, and to this end during the descent into Dallas Baan photographs the “oil-rich, typically American city, shaped by the auto industry” and above all the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, designed by Morphosis Architects, “choc-a-bloc with impatient, fidgety school kids who want to learn something about the world around them.” That, too, remains pure assertion as we of course get to see absolutely nothing of this teaming life, as it’s underneath a thick concrete roof. Likewise, it remains anyone’s guess whether among the white steel rods “visitors of all social strata explore the structure” of the “Cloud” Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London Sou Fujimoto designed. After all, who today is able to definitively judge a person’s social status by their clothes?

Man made images

The catalog masterfully avoids such issues with its effusive interpretations of the photographs: “Often man first makes buildings comprehensible by making images of them, an example being his photo of House K in Japan.” In the relatively confined house in Osaka the architects succeeded in making the rooms appear larger than they are by using ingenious layouts. In the photo we see a girl standing on her head looking through a door, and who is thus supposed to reference “the existence of the upper storey, which is not shown”. In such anecdotal scenes, Baan firmly parts company with architecture photography, which never pretends to be a representation, but deliberately tempts viewers to imagine the building’s scale and spatial relationships for themselves. Or retrospectively to follow the design process, such as architects until a few years ago conducted using pens and crayons.

No doubt that has never been Baan’s thing: A glance back at his photobook on the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston reveals that two images that are crucial to an understanding of this “photographic essay” were not taken by him at all. The architects themselves contributed the images of the somehow Constructivit silhouette of the scaffolding and the informative photo of an armada of alternative models on the floor of their office.

52 Weeks, 52 Cities
Photographs by Iwan Baan
Thru February 16, 2014
Marta Herford
Goebenstrasse 2-10
32052 Herford

The photographer Iwan Baan. Photo © Iwan Baan
Inflatable concert hall by Anish Kapoor and Arata Isozaki in Matsushima, Japan.
Photo © Iwan Baan
“Spending the day with this little girl in her personal playground designed by Sou Fujimoto was great fun.” Photo © Iwan Baan
Storytelling from the sky: Sanaa-Museum in Lens. Photo © Iwan Baan
Pavillon by Ryue Nishizawa in Shodoshima, Japan. Photo © Iwan Baan
Hadids Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo © Iwan Baan
New York City during Hurricane Sandy. Photo © Iwan Baan
In the village Larabunga, Northern Ghana. Photo © Iwan Baan
Opening of architect Kunle Adeymi’s floating school in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria. Photo © Iwan Baan