People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture is a lecture by the famous architectural photographer Iwan Baan in April 2018 in New York. The introduction to this lecture was given by Pulitzer Prize winner Justin Davidson, a classical music and architecture critic. Justin explains how Iwan Baan’s architectural photography is like experiencing music and how he shows buildings as the people share them. He gained recognition for his ability to portray architecture in compelling and unusual ways in which individuals, societies, and communities create and interact with the built environment

Youtube for architects: People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture- Paul Mellon - Sheet1
Iwan Baan Photographer_©

Iwan’s specialty includes clicking aerial shots, close-ups, and intimate pictures of the buildings, often with people in the frame. Many world-renowned architects, including Zaha Hadid, SANAA, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, and Morphosis Architects, have turned to Iwan Baan to document their work and situate it with a broader narrative. Iwan’s ‘helicopter shots’ are explained by Justin as “being above everything and being inside at the same time”. Technique, timing, empathy, and being present are the skills that run to the heart of everything Iwan does. 

Youtube for architects: People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture- Paul Mellon - Sheet2
New York City blackout after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 (Photo © Iwan Baan)_©

Living Architecture | People and Place

Iwan Baan documents the architecture and understands the various levels of it by connecting it with the people. Architecture is for the people, and when a specific construction is made for a particular function, for 50-60 years, the meaning of the building evolves when people take it over. The architectural icons turn into the mere background for everyday living. To look at architecture photography as a frame for people’s narratives requires more than an amusing gaze. Various cultural and c radiate a different aura while juxtaposing with people’s life. How people use the space narrates a fascinating story about living architecture, varying from city to city and country to country. People interact with architecture in ways unfathomable to architects and urban planners but how people inhabit the city and adapt their surroundings according to their needs is interesting. 

Youtube for architects: People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture- Paul Mellon - Sheet3
FIDAK in Dakar, Senegal, by Jean Francois Lamoureux & Jean-Louis Marin, 1974; in African Modernism edited by Manuel Herz et. al., 2015 (Photo © Iwan Baan)_©

In hindsight, Iwan Baan explains various examples of how traditional architecture embraces the livelihood of the locals considering factors like conventional architectural techniques, materials, climatic conditions, and natural conditions. Architecture and environment play hand in hand in providing natural defense in several countries. The country’s economic conditions also play a vital role in architecture as people tend to find logical solutions in creating spaces for living that are cost-effective and sustainable. People make homes and storage facilities using locally available materials, primarily mud, rocks, wood, etc. 

Iwan Baan explains a concept called ‘negative architecture’ by presenting a few examples from different parts of the world. ‘Negative architecture’ is the opposite of how architecture is done these days. Churches, houses, and other places are carved out of the earth vertically, and the way these places can be accessed is only by descending from the ground level. In this way, no material is added to the structure, but every element of architecture is carved out of the existing material (rock, mud, etc.). Living architecture is created by subtraction rather than addition, where even structural elements like columns are not ‘added’ but carved out. This type of architecture is fascinating: its cost-effectiveness and how people create raw spaces by digging out the earth.

Youtube for architects: People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture- Paul Mellon - Sheet4
Underground dwellings in Sanmenxia, Henan Province, China (Photo © Iwan Baan)_©


Architecture is for the people, and people can redefine architecture. Living architecture can be temporary or permanent. People create spaces around cities to satisfy their needs which might serve for a short period and get washed away after doing the purpose, or some structures stand the test of time and evolve to a whole another sense. There is no set of rules or fixed approach to what happens, and the unexpected diversity of everyday life makes architecture interesting. Iwan Baan not only researches the architecture before photographing but also the deep history of the city. Every photograph clicked by Mr. Baan is a narrative about people. Architecture becomes the subject’s frame, and the background is for interactions. When the architecture conveys why it’s constructed, people communicate how they use the space, and that narrative is what sings. 

Lalibela, Ethiopia-Photo by Iwan Baan_©

In this video, Iwan Baan showcases the photographs he has clicked throughout his career and explains the story of how people use architecture in ways that is not entirely in the control of the architect. He also discusses the role photography plays in bringing historic places to life and how some traditional architecture keeps the area’s history alive. He travels around the world to describe a place and to show how people reside there and what they do there. Unfortunately, most of the unique-vernacular architecture of different countries is disappearing and those that are preserved become tourist spots and tend to lose their authenticity. Iwan says that the most fascinating part about traditional architecture is that it’s built by people’s own hands with a lot of care. He feels that it is his mission to document these marvelous places before they are gone. His work at cultural heritage sites like Lalibela, Ethiopia, Kumb Mela, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrates his ability to see beyond a building’s wall and amplify their human, community-driven stories. 


  • World Monuments Fund (2018). Paul Mellon Lecture – People and Place: The Power of Living Architecture, April 2018. [YouTube Video]. Available at: [Accessed 4 October 2022]