Forensics Helps Widen Architecture’s Mission
Last year, Israeli police officers raided a Bedouin village in the Negev desert called Umm al-Hiran. The Israeli authorities said that during the raid a villager had purposely run over an Israeli officer, killing him. They called it a terrorist attack. The villager died at the scene. Silent police helicopter footage seemed to show his car accelerating into the officer.
Forensic Architecture uncovered a different story.
You may recall Forensic Architecture from headlines a few years back. It investigated the killing of two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank. Local and international media crews were on hand when the teenagers were killed. Security cameras recorded the shootings. At first, Israel’s minister of defense said the teenagers had been throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, despite security footage showing otherwise. The minister said the footage had been doctored.
Forensic Architecture combed through the videos and social media posts. Using architectural rendering software, it pieced together a computer model of the site and tracked the trajectory of the bullets. That pinpointed the soldier who fired them and the weapon he used. Comparing acoustic signatures, Forensic Architecture then matched the fatal shots to the distinct sounds of live ammunition, contradicting the military’s claim that only rubber bullets had been fired. All this contributed to Israeli officials reversing themselves, and charging the soldier with manslaughter.
A survey of Forensic Architecture’s work is now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, through May 6. A collaborative of designers, filmmakers, coders, archaeologists, psychologists and others, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture acts more or less like a detective agency. It partners with groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Its funders include the European Research Council. And its investigations are whodunits. Eyal Weizman, an Israeli-British architect, is the group’s founder and resident Columbo.
Instead of creating a house or skyscraper, the group scours for evidence of lies, crimes and human rights violations — combining the spatial and engineering skills of architects, the data-gathering prowess of librarians, the doggedness of investigative journalists and the storytelling finesse of screenwriters. Its reports have annoyed Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party, frustrated Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, provoked an attack from Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia Today news service, and infuriated officials in Israel.
Mr. Weizman has an especially long history of run-ins there. Born in Haifa, educated at the Architectural Association in London, he was just starting out as an architect in Tel Aviv when he began to study the legacy of town planning in the occupied territories. What he saw suggested to him architecture’s complicity in human rights violations. In 2002, with a colleague, Rafi Segal, he was hired to organize a show of new Israeli architecture. Mr. Weizman and Mr. Segal presented settlements in the occupied territories. Appalled, the Israel Association of United Architects canceled the exhibition and withdrew the catalog. The incident brought Mr. Weizman attention.
And it made him think.
His timing could hardly seem better, with technology rapidly democratizing the instruments of forensic research and the purview of young architects widening. He begins his recent book, “Forensic Architecture,” recalling the libel trial in London of the Holocaust denier and historian David Irving, nearly two decades ago. Mr. Irving’s shameful case relied on a tidbit of architectural evidence: he made much of fuzzy satellite imagery showing a demolished crematory at Auschwitz. Survivors had said they recalled poison cyanide gas canisters dropped through a hole in the crematory’s roof, but Mr. Irving said there was no hole in the satellite photos. “No hole, no Holocaust,” became the deniers’ catchphrase.
Mr. Irving lost his trial. But Mr. Weizman cites the case as a cautionary tale. The tools of forensic analysis can easily be perverted. Wielded especially by governments and other powers in defense of violence and crime, they need to be challenged by equally sophisticated means. Architecture and forensics may be disparate disciplines but brought together they could produce a new, “different mode of practice,” Mr. Weizman realized. They could help reverse “the forensic gaze” back onto state agencies “that usually monopolize it.”
Adopting a phrase coined by the photographer Allan Sekula, Mr. Weizman terms the practice “counter forensics.”