How to investigate human rights abuses, military conflicts and destruction through the unique lens of architecture.
Contemporary context of batter fields has changed: conflicts increasingly happen within urban areas, where civilian homes ordinary become targets. But the truth is that human rights violations are now caught on cameras so they are available instantly online. Strelka Magazine offers the preface to "Forensic Architecture" by Eyal Weizman, professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College.
From Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, by Eyal Weizman, published by Zone Books and Distributed by The MIT Press
Forensic architecture — the investigative practice that this book introduces — refers to the production of architectural evidence and to its presentation in juridical and political forums. It regards the common elements of our built environment — buildings, details, cities, and landscapes, as well as their representations in media and as data — as entry points from which to interrogate contemporary processes and with which to make claims for the future.
Forensic Architecture is also the name of a research agency I established in 2010, together with a group of fellow architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers. We undertake independent research or act on commission from international prosecutors and environmental and human rights groups to investigate state and corporate violence, especially when it bears upon the built environment. The agency produces evidence files that include building survey, models, animations, video analyses, and interactive cartographies, and presents them in forums such as international courts, truth commissions, citizen tribunals, human rights and environmental reports, and, on one occasion, in the UN General Assembly.
We use the term “forensics,” but we seek, in fact, to reverse the forensic gaze and to investigate the same state agencies — such as the police or the military — that usually monopolize it. For this purpose, our investigative work tends to exceed the procedural limitations and necessities of the legal forums in which we present. We locate incidents in their historical contexts and pull from their microphysical details the longer threads of political and social processes —conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and technologies —and reconnect them with the world of which they are part. We also try to use our investigations as an opportunity to embark upon longer-term theoretical and historical inquiries about the relations between architecture, media, and violence, which we make public in exhibitions and texts, such as this book.
Architecture, in our practice, to paraphrase Carlo Ginzburg, is “not a fortress but a port or an airport, a place from which we leave to other destinations.” Following an introductory chapter that presents, by way of a historical narrative, the forensic condition of “the threshold of detectability” — a concept central to our understanding of the challenges and limitations of our practice — the book proceeds in three parts. The first, “What Is Forensic Architecture?” is, as its title suggests, a kind of practical manual. Its aim is to outline the methods, assumptions, and critical vocabulary relevant to the field, but also to discuss its constraints, potential problems, and double binds. The issues discussed in this part are interspersed with brief examples from the investigations our agency has pursued in various places worldwide as well as relevant reference materials.
The second part of the book, “Counterforensics in Palestine,” presents a sequence of recent investigations in Palestine — a place where the trajectory that led to the establishment of forensic architecture had its origin. It describes the way our practice evolved in relation to recent political challenges and to changes in the nature of human rights that have seen the most relevant evidence increasingly produced by the people experiencing conflicts firsthand.
In the third part of this book, “Ground Truths,” the site that typically organizes the optics of forensic architecture has grown to the size of a larger territory, perhaps even to that of the planet, which appears as simultaneously both a construction site and a ruin. The investigation at the center of this part was presented in a citizen-organized truth commission on the site where the Bedouin village of al-Araqeeb on the northern threshold of the Naqab/Negev Desert, a place of habitation that was destroyed and rebuilt more than one hundred times. Part 3 connects the history of this local land struggle to larger-scale and longer-term environmental transformations, to desertification and climate change along desert thresholds worldwide, and to the conflicts that such changes have provoked.
Despite there rarely being a simple “who dunnit” logic to our investigations, accounts of the cases presented in this book follow something of the convention of the detective genre, to the extent, at least, of having two entangled plots: one involving the crime in the past, the other the investigation in the present. The two plots connect with the evidence, whether material, testimonial, or media-based. Both “forensics” and “architecture” refer to well-established disciplinary frames. Brought together, however, they shift each other’s meaning, giving rise to a different mode of practice. Architecture turns the attention of forensics to buildings and cities. Forensics turns architecture into an investigative practice, a probative mode for enquiring about the present through its spatial materialization. It demands that architects focus their attention on the materiality of the built environment and its media representations. It also, importantly, challenges architects to use their disciplinary tools to make claims publicly and politically in the most antagonistic of forums.