Building the Picture

Building the Picture

It’s common, on a rare sunny day in London or some similar metropolis, to casually lift one’s camera phone up towards the sky and capture buildings – sharp corners, soft bricks, clean lines, crystalline glass – in its pocket-sized frame. We might reproduce or edit the image several times at differing angles, until there are multiple versions of the same picture uploaded to the cloud. On a trip to Dubai, for example, the Burj Khalifa’s top half, too tall to fit inside the smartphone’s boundaries, becomes a sci-fi-looking shard penetrating the hot blue above. Or the multiple white masts of the Sydney Opera House, shot from a nearby hotel room, appear like blooming white flowers on a lilypad. These Instagrammable structures can be filed under the phenomenon of “destination architecture.” They are striking, iconic designs which are asking for the lens – Delhi’s Lotus Temple, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Guggenheim Bilbao are further examples. Essentially, it’s about creating an architectural marvel to attract visitors, form an identity marker, and contribute to a country’s growth. The “Bilbao effect” has become a catch-all to describe demonstrative economic impact due to cultural investment and the construction of new, remarkable buildings.

The phenomenon arises out of a specific contemporary moment where it feels as if anyone can be an photographer. Yet, the field has a long history. There have been, and remain, clear masters and visionaries. The camera was invented in the 19th century, revolutionising the way people could document the world around them. Figures like Henry Fox Talbot, credited as the British inventor of photography, and French pioneer Charles Nègre, began to experiment with large, slow, cumbersome equipment in efforts to record their surroundings. Meanwhile, scholarship on relationships between humans, cities and space, was evolving. The figure of the flâneur – an observer of urban life – emerged with Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s, and was reassessed by 20th century critics like John Berger, Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin.

In painting, constructivist artists and architects like Alexander Rodchenko, Liubov Popova and Vladimir Tatlin further clarified connections between structural engineering and art. The design world saw Bauhaus figures, such as Lucia Moholy, introduce the movement’s buildings, products and ideas to new audiences through pictures. There were milestone moments for photojournalism, too, including LIFE’s first cover story in 1936, for which Margaret Bourke-White’s imposing shot of the dam at Fort Peck, Montana, graced the front page. In Why Does it Never Rain in the Architectural Review?, David Cowlard’s chapter from Consuming Architecture (2014), the author highlights another key entry in the history of 20th century publishing. In the late 1950s, Magnum photographer René Burri collaborated with Swiss architect Le Corbusier, cementing the idea of “a photojournalist producing an architectural story.” Cowlard goes on to espouse the influence of photojournalist John Donat and his efforts to solidify a form of reportage that breathed with the same spontaneous imperfections – the smudge of human messiness – found in 20th century street photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment meets Ezra Stoller’s command of light and space. Donat sought to “let people in” and “show the realities of architectural developments” beyond angles and lines.

Here, Cowlard identifies a larger problem that has persisted into the digital age. Oftentimes, an architectural photograph is deemed remarkable only if it “present an idealised vision of the built environment” that visually downplays habitation, use and context. “It still remains almost unknown for an architectural magazine to commission or publish an architectural study on a building that has been occupied and used for some time,” he writes. How, then, to bridge the gap between aesthetics and authenticity? Dutch photographer Iwan Baan (b. 1975) is doing just that. Born in Alkmaar, outside Amsterdam, Baan has earned recognition for challenging the norm of static, sanitised, solitary images, devoid of context. Instead, he shows a sense of narrative: how people interact with structures, as well as their motivations for building. Like Donat, Baan strives to “tell the story of places, showing what makes them specific and particular to their locations.”

You have probably already seen his work. A quick Google search of almost any famous building will yield a Baan image. He has worked with several extremely renowned architects, capturing the works of Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito and the late Zaha Hadid to name a few. In 2010, he won the first annual Julius Shulman Photography Award, before taking away the Golden Lion for Best Installation at the Venice Biennale two years later. In 2016, he received the AIA New York’s Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award. This is an immense accolade, recognising Baan’s remarkable contribution. Under his lens, structures shine architecturally, but are also presented as human habitats with people sitting, standing and moving. “I quickly have a sense of how I want to portray space. It is always a challenge and that is where the excitement comes from.” Instead of imposing a preconcieved idea, or setting up or staging a shot, he waits. “It is a very intuitive way of working, lingering around and seeing the rhythm of the day and what people do there. It is a lot of zooming in and out. I feel all the different layers – moments of closeness and farness – play a role in telling the story of a place.”

Urban planning requires meticulous control and calculation. By contrast, Baan’s off-the-cuff yet incisive process begins as soon as the architect has departed from the site. This is when “unexpected, unplanned or interesting things unfold and people take over the building, sometimes in very different ways than the architect imagined.” One major example is the Torre David skyscraper in Caracas. Baan’s image, taken following the Venezuelan economic collapse, shows the structure as unfinished and taken over by squatters. The picture garnered significant attention and acclaim for its portrayal of the complex relationship between urban development, architecture, society and the economy. It shows how he uses the lens to address wider sociopolitical reverberations. “My photography is not so much timeless architecture photography where all traces of living and humanity [are] removed. It very much depends on that specific moment in time.” In this way, Baan’s images can be described as archives.

The Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, launches an exhibition of Baan’s photography this autumn, entitled Moments in Architecture. It’s the first large retrospective of his prolific career. Curated by Mea Hoffmann, it features iconic shots spanning several continents, from formal structures to smaller-scale, vernacular architecture. The concept is to highlight one key aspect of Baan’s work: his gaze, which sees “architecture not as an abstract ideal, but as the setting of everyday life, an organic part of the urban fabric.”

Examples include the helter-skelter spine of white balconies in the Arbre Blanc in Montpellier, a residential tree-like tower designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. There’s also the clean form-informs-content blocks of the LEGO House in Billund, Denmark, by Bjarke Ingels Group, and the supple curving white ripples of the ultra-futuristic Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, by Zaha Hadid Architects. Elsewhere, the serene Teshima Art Museum in Japan by Ryue Nishizawa dazzles, its enlarged, low concrete shell open to the elements.

Some of Baan’s best-known images do display what Cowlard calls the building’s “photogenic moment” – the dominant demand of clients and press. Yet, others are intimate and situated in less wealthy locales; more anthropological, rather than glossy, curated or commercial. The Fass School in remote Senegal, designed by Toshiko Mori, and the whipped cream swirl-like structure of the late Laurie Baker’s Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum, India, are examples. Here, Baan’s documentation features schoolchildren, staff and customers as they inhabit and engage with the space. “Vitra’s exhibition shows the interconnectedness of my works. It is exciting to see the latest architecture but it’s also important to show how people can create environments out of pure necessity, with limited means and difficult circumstances.”

If photographers like Baan are repositioning the field of architectural photography to capture more humanity, then what does it bode for us as we enter an increasingly “nonhuman” era in which technology, specifically AI, is already starting to impact the creative industries? “Architects are already experimenting with AI,” Baan says, although he is not sure what its ramifications might be. “AI gives architects the possibility to imagine thousands of different outcomes of a project. It is shocking, fascinating and interesting to see when you type my name – or that of any other photographer – that complete databases are sucked up by these learning algorithms … I am very curious to know where this will all go.” AI may certainly aggregate thousands of examples and try to replicate their “gazes”, but there’s a slightly distorted and unfeeling slickness to their scrubbed-clean, alienated outcomes. These are buildings with “Instagram-face” – modified to be hyper-beautiful, pixel-perfect and distinctly unreal.

The curatorial and creative impulses of slightly unconventional photographers, such as Baan, who are edging closer towards documentary and photojournalism, have much to offer in their unique viewpoints on architecture. Their perspectives are valuable, and the influence of seminal imagemakers like Julius Shulman, Hélène Binet and Sebastian Weiss can be seen across popular culture. For filmmakers, who build worlds populated in various ways, they make for excellent references. Westworld’ production designers consulted architect Bjarke Ingels, and went on to incorpoate buildings by Ricardo Bofill, Santiago Calatrava and Wallace E. Cunningham in the series. Bofill also inspired backdrops for Netflix’s Squid Game. Architecture is frequently a site of seriousness – form, function, environmental viability, durability, the politics of space – but it is also a place of play, of imagination and reimagination. The Barbie dreamhouse of cardboard and plastic that populated countless childhoods has now opened in Malibu. Computer software could replicate or update the design, but could it conjure the idea from nothing? Every level of building construction – from brain to ground, fantasy to object – has human hands all over it. Here, Baan is asking: shouldn’t our images reflect that, too?

Moments in Architecture

Vitra Design Museum | From 21 October

Words: Vamika Sinha

Image credits:

1.L’Arbre Blanc, Montpellier, France, Sou Fujimoto. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.

2.Teshima Art Museum, Teshima Japan, Rei Naito, Ryue Nishizawa. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.

3. LEGO House, Billund, Denmark, BIG. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.

4.Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre Baku, Azerbaijan, Zaha Hadid. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.

5.Soho Wangjing, Beijing, China, Zaha Hadid. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.