When you walk into the first space you are bombarded by shots from sprawling cities like Dubai, Beijing, and Los Angeles. What unites the images, beyond the fact that most depict the developing urban realm, is their gigantic scale. The prints are more than five feet across, and many are twice that. We’ve seen some of these images before, but viewing them on a computer screen or in a magazine doesn’t have the same overwhelming impact. A sprawling expanse of urbanized land looks simply grainy on a monitor or on a page. At ten times the size it takes on completely different physical manifestations like sand or even snow, creating unexpected connotations.
A shot of Los Angeles taken from the sky makes houses in South LA look like dust, or like intricate texture in a painting. The I-110 Freeway headed toward downtown splits the frame in half, and looks like a dirt road in the plains more than a major superhighway. It’s the yellow brick road leading to a troubled Oz, through a surreal urban condition. Lives and neighborhoods blend into abstraction. A shot of Caracas from the same angle makes undulating rows of homes look like waves crashing into the freeway and the lines of modern skyscrapers. Words like epic and unreal certainly come to mind. A shot of the lineup of tall, craggy buildings in Dubai makes the city look sinister, like Mordor, the dark mountainous land in the distance in the Lord of the Rings. These are places that we’re used to seeing by now, but Baan is reminding us that they can be experienced in very new ways. They are the new sets for an unfolding drama that can seem majestic to some and tragic to others.
All of these images are formally beautiful—I love the staggering, fluid, almost SCI-Fi geometries that Baan captures inside Beijing’s Birds Nest or inside the Guangzhou’s opera house—but the most powerful are the ones that truly tell a story, either about a set of lives, or about the often-troubling urban conditions where they’re shot. City skylines often look glossy from far away, but are messy from close up; a reflection of how they were planned. From far away anything can appear to have order and beauty. But when you zoom in you see all the warts.
A shot of OMA’s CCTV, for instance, reveals the impressive architectural scale and intricacy the firm was able to achieve, aided by the patronage of the Chinese government. But in between the intersecting forms you can clearly make out the hovels, pollution, and ugliness that dominate the city behind it. A vertical image of Caracas draws your eye to the ultra-soft, glowing skyline behind, which looks calming and even majestic. But as your eye moves to the front of the image the slum-like conditions come into harsh focus.
Moving closer into the abandoned Torre David, Baan shifts seamlessly from architectural photographer to documentarian. We’ve jumped from a helicopter view to a foot away, and the stark reality of what’s in front of us—poverty, dirt, and, of course, amazing human ingenuity in the face of untold difficulty—is clearer than ever.
Baan has a gift for capturing the difficulties of human life and of crystallizing many of the world’s urban dilemmas. It’s not just architecture as object, but architecture within the realm of life. It’s a gift that will no doubt benefit architecture and planning—fields where human needs are often subsumed to those of ego and practicality—in the years to come.