by Vladimir BelogolovskyMay 16, 2023
Over the last decade, photographer Iwan Baan emerged as the preferred choice for architects around the world to go to when it comes to documenting their creations. Born in 1975, Baan grew up near Amsterdam, studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and started working for various publications in the US and Europe. It was his fellow Dutchman Rem Koolhaas who recognised Baan’s independent character and ability to perceive buildings as integral part of their environments, not as standalone, iconic objects. Their successful collaboration on documenting the construction of Koolhaas’s CCTV in Beijing triggered strong professional interest in Baan’s documentalist, yet very personal approach. Since then numerous commissions followed from such leading international architects as Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Diller Scofidio+ Renfro, Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Morphosis. Along photographing buildings for architects, Baan is known for initiating his own research projects and collaborations with publications, universities, and museums. His photos celebrate human ingenuity and resourcefulness. They depict a strong sense of place and narrative. In the following conversation we discussed his many trips to China, where he progressed from documenting grand projects by leading Western architects to working with original local architects, and to discovering vernacular projects there with a strong and honourable mission – to bring global awareness to this disappearing culture threatened by widespread development.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your initial venture into China had to do with documenting Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV in Beijing around 2005. Could you talk about how the two of you started collaborating?
Iwan Baan (IB): I met Rem in late 2004. That was the time when he was finishing several major projects. He asked me to photograph Seattle Public Library, IIT Student Center in Chicago, Casa da Música in Porto, and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. That was my introduction to architecture; I had no clue about it at the time. (Laughs). My background is in documentary photography and a couple of times that I worked on projects with architects I did not enjoy, as they typically asked me for very specific requirements. But Koolhaas was interested in my work and stories that I can tell with my images. We had similar interests in cities and public spaces. What I like most is depicting how people live. It's really all about capturing life of different places. Photography is an amazing tool that allows me to step into these very different worlds. In 2005, CCTV was just about to go into construction then, and I proposed to Rem that I would document the whole process from start to finish. I felt that there was an interesting story to tell, which related to how Beijing was changing, how this massive project would impact the city. It was an interesting time for China, and I am glad I was there to record it.
VB: How was that collaboration with Rem and what were the most memorable moments about working on CCTV?
IB: For the first time, we went to China together. So, I was there from the very beginning, when they just started digging the foundation. Before that I was in China only in transit. What was particularly striking was the construction site itself and how migrant workers that were coming from all over rural China lived on site by the thousands. There were at times 10,000 of them working and living on the site. They were building this grand, technologically advanced building, but the way they did it was largely by hand, using basic materials and techniques. The whole thing felt often so primitive, crude, and somewhat medieval. It was a community of people living on the construction site around the clock – working, resting, eating, conversing, watching TV, working again, and so on. That’s what I was trying to capture. Every six to eight weeks I would go back, and that went on for a few years.
VB: I remember going to the opening of CCTV exhibition at MoMA in 2006, which was accompanied by your photos of the construction progress. Not only those photos were very impressive for depicting the project’s scale and details, they were also very insightful about the workers’ daily routines, which means you had a total access to the site, right?
IB: Absolutely. I could document everything as much as I wanted to.
VB: That was the time when a number of large projects for the Olympics went into construction. In a way the whole city was turned into a giant construction site.
IB: It was an incredible time to be able to experience Chinese cities’ transformation on an epic scale, and because I was going to Beijing so frequently, I approached Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to document their Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. I also met Steven Holl and started working with him on the Linked Hybrid residential complex in Beijing and his other projects in Shenzhen, Nanjing, and Chengdu. I eventually photographed all Zaha Hadid’s buildings in China – in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate to experience up close how these Western architects were making a great impact, as I went to China with them on multiple occasions. I always had my own space and time to explore these sites. Critics may complain that some ofthese buildings were not perfectly executed. But we need to stand back and realise where they were built, under what circumstances, on what scale, and of what complexity. Given that, I think these buildings were a great success for China. These architects realised their lofty dreams in China. At that time, they could not have done such projects anywhere else in the world on that scale. That in itself is an incredible achievement.
VB: When did you start venturing to other cities and meeting local architects?
IB: It was a gradual transition because I was so busy there. Around 2007-08 I met Wang Shu. I was fascinated by his work because it was so different from what I was accustomed to see in China. Many of the new construction projects in Chinese cities look very similar and they follow the same standards. Suddenly, there was this local architect who showed his resistance and tried to do architecture differently. I met him originally around 2006, while documenting the work of Jinhua Architecture Park in Jinhua near Hangzhou where Wang Shu did one of 17 pavilions in this park by 17 architects from China and around the world. They were all brought together by Ai Weiwei. Apart from Wang Shu there were such locals as Liu Jiakun and Xu Tiantian.Throughout my travels in China, I met other architects like Zhu Pei, Zhang Lei of AZL Architects, URBANUS, and Ma Yansong of MAD Architects. I worked with Ma Yansong on many of his projects and I documented the construction of Harbin Opera House.
VB: What are some of the most memorable examples of vernacular architecture that you came across in your trips to China?
IB: In 2015, I went to see an exceptional place – Historic Tulou Housing in Yongding in Fujian province where Hakka people live in round multi-family fortress-like buildings that are made of stone, earth, and wood. Some of them were given World Heritage listing.
Then there are underground houses that are called a yaodong, which means a house cave, an earth shelter dwelling in the north. These houses are excavated horizontally from a sunken courtyard in the middle. Other buildings I came across on the East Coast of Shandong province are distinguished by high-pitched roofs, all covered in dry plants. They are called seaweed bungalows and are designed to keep the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. There are many other communities that are difficult to travel to. For example, there are incredible mud houses in Xinjiang province in the West part of the country. Literally each province presents very different thinking about architecture.
Unfortunately, many of these unique structures are disappearing. Those that are preserved become tourist hotspots and tend to lose their authentic character. What is fascinating about all these buildings is that they are built by people’s own hands with lots of care. Nothing is mass-produced in a factory. Everything could be repaired by hand. There is an incredible beauty in these things, which is being lost very quickly. So, I have a sense of urgency, a mission of sort, to document these unique places as much as possible.