Iwan Baan was traveling in China on business when he crossed paths with architect Rem Koolhaas, whose firm, OMA, was knee-deep in building the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas invited Baan to follow along and snap some process shots as the looping geometric structure came to fruition. The year was 2004, and China was rushing headlong into rapid-fire urbanization as anticipation brewed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Baan quickly landed more commissions with other designers seeking to capture their high-profile projects coming together. Venturing beyond the shiny end result, his images often captured candid moments rarely seen in architectural photography at the time—think laborers taking tea breaks or clustering in living quarters set up nearby.
Baan parlayed this invaluable experience chronicling architecture’s human side into an illustrious, decades-long career that has taken him around the globe portraying buildings by world-class architects like Herzog & de Meuron, Kazuyo Sejima, and Tatiana Bilbao. His oeuvre is currently the subject of “Moments in Architecture,” a sweeping retrospective—and Baan’s first—at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, where about 1,000 of his most impactful photographs document the rise of beloved landmarks and informal structures, and reveal how we interact with them.
“What’s important is the story, which is very intuitive and fluid,” Baan says. “I’m not so interested in the timeless architectural image as much as the specific moment in time, the place, and the people there—all the unexpected, unplanned moments in and around the space, how people interact with that space, and the stories unfolding there.” Architecture buffs will recognize many from magazines and books, but considering Baan initially submitted 14,000 images and spent a year working with Vitra curator Mea Hoffmann to cull them down, new discoveries inevitably await.
Though the show could have easily become a highlight reel of the century’s most notable architecture, Baan and Hoffmann avoided that outcome. “It’s the portrayal of the lived experience as opposed to quote-unquote architectural photography,” Hoffmann tells Fast Company. Not that Baan doesn’t excel on that front—one section zeroes in on the wide range of perspectives he employs to capture a building’s context and character, from aerial views taken by helicopter to panorama shots. Some of the show’s most resonant images, though, are that of unsung structures: China’s round Yaodong villages, rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia, self-built dwellings in Cairo, and all the unexpected moments within that prove the seductive power of a well-composed image.