24 Hours with Iwan Baan
My introduction to Iwan Baan came from a friend, the architect Koji Tsutsui. Based in San Francisco, he’s not yet on the A-list of Pritzker Prize winners and other luminaries with which Baan is usually associated. So sought after that he turns down 90 percent of the inquiries he receives, Baan tracked Tsutsui down after seeing a competition-winning AIDS health clinic he designed in Africa, one of several he’d photographed. What else have you got, he asked?
As it happened, a house Tsutsui designed in the Japanese mountain resort of Karuizawa had just been finished, so Baan visited it on his next trip to Japan. A few weeks later, meeting with the editors of Architectural Record in New York, he showed them the photos—a moody, almost sentimental portrait of a small house in the woods. The editors were sufficiently impressed to put it on the cover of Record Houses. Stay in touch, Baan told Tsutsui.
Recently, Tsutsui completed a house for a client in Mill Valley—an idiosyncratic composition of gray boxes, clustered together as they descend a steeply sloped, heavily wooded site. He sent Baan word of it and soon they were planning for his visit, with one request: he wanted people in the photos. My friend Laura and I were invited by Tsutsui to join the shoot. As it turned out, an airport workers’ strike in Rome caused Baan to miss his connection in Paris. When he finally arrived at the site on the afternoon of the next day, he got right to work. His departure time was fixed, so he just compressed the schedule.
Baan looks like Russell Brand: tall, scruffy beard, collar-length hair, leather jacket, jeans, and biker boots. It’s a rock-star look, but Baan is a pleasant and unrushed man with an appealingly modest charm. After very brief introductions, he pulled out his camera, which had an odd-looking tilt-shift lens that helps him keep the verticals parallel when he’s shooting architecture. He walked around the house and then clambered through the surrounding woods—studying the house intently, looking for interesting views, and taking shots from four or five locations. He chatted casually with us the whole time, but rarely took his eyes off the house. An hour later, he was back in the car and—Google Maps in hand—on his way to Hayward, where he had hired a helicopter for an hour so he could photograph the house from above. He explained that this was the only way to see it in its entirety and understand its composition.
After waiting nearly an hour, he and a pilot returned in the helicopter, searching for the house, which is nearly hidden amidst the dense trees. When they found it, it made a series of passes over the house that lasted maybe 10 minutes and, just as quickly as it appeared, left again. Braving Bay Area traffic, Baan finally made it back to the house by 6:30 p.m., the sun setting fast. Without a moment’s delay, he sought out a location on the west side of the house that was still getting some direct light through the trees and started shooting. Soon, he pulled out a tripod to do longer exposures. His last shots were taken from high up on a ladder, his tripod braced precariously on its steps. They show the darkening blue sky reflected off the pools of water that are on the roofs of the gray boxes as they twist their way down the hillside. By six a.m. the next day, he was out again, getting as much time in as possible before he had to leave for New York.