Forensic Architecture: a research project

The term “forensic architecture” originally refers to the work of building surveyors – the careful and systematic analysis of the structural and infrastructural conditions of a building. The research project Forensic Architecture – funded by the European Research Council and hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London – set out to expand the meaning of this term.

Through our activities, we have redefined “forensic architecture” as the assessment of spatial evidence and for its presentation in legal and political setting.

The project has assembled a multidisciplinary group of spatial practitioners – architects, artists, and filmmakers – to undertake research that gathers and presents architectural evidence within the framework of international humanitarian law and human rights. Our investigations have provided evidence for international prosecution teams, political organizations, NGOs, and the United Nations. (This material is presented under the category Cases on this website.)

Additionally, the project features critical examinations of the history and present status of forensics in rearticulating notions of public truth. Through these public activities the project situates the newly expanded field of “forensic architecture” within broader historical and theoretical contexts. (This material is presented under the category Files in this website.)

Eyal Weizman, keynote speech on the opening of the conference “Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth”, HKW Berlin, 15 March 2014.

 

Architecture in the Forum

Architecture is the pathology of the contemporary era. With the urbanization of conflict, violence – and thus also the violations of human rights and the laws of war – often take place within cities. The city is an entangled social, physical and systemic reality that responds to violence in complex ways. Frequently violations are produced by the very means of architecture – construction, interruption and destruction.

When violence takes places within the city, architectural analysis is increasingly called upon as evidence in tribunals, international courts, and different political contexts.

Furthermore, spatial representations – maps, plans, geospatial data, satellite imagery, aerial footage, 3D-scans, physical and digital models – shape the way we interrogate, understand and debate conflict.

The new visibilities emerging with the development and widespread accessibility of activist imagery and their accelerated dissemination via social media brought new sights, sites and issues to an extended polity. But this data also calls for new practices of trawling through, looking at, interpreting, verifying, decoding and amplifying messages and broadcasting them further.

While buildings and urban environments were the starting point for our activities, the project also employs architectural and spatial research methodologies to analyze the violent transformation of larger territories – like deserts, oceans and dense forests – as captured in different media. These anthropogenic milieus register the result of a cumulatively radicalizing entanglement between human conflict and natural environments. (The full spectrum of our research is captured in the concept Forensis.)

Richard Goldstone’s press conference in Gaza, June 4, 2009. Photo: © Ali Ali/EPA/Corbis.

 

Forensic Agency

The project of Forensic Architecture is divided into two main parts. On the one hand it established a “forensic agency”. This agency – Forensic Architecture – is unique in that its investigations are undertaken by architects, artists, filmmakers and theorists.

Forensic Architecture is committed to the reversal of the forensic gaze, to ways of turning forensics into a counter-hegemonic practice able to challenge state and corporate violence.

Together with different partner organizations, we investigate the actions of states and corporations and offer our analyses to civil society organizations, NGOs, activist groups, and prosecutors, who presented it in various legal and political forums.

Our investigations take place mainly in zones outside the effective control of states and its frames of criminal justice. These are places where sovereign jurisdiction is unclear (such as in the Mediterranean Sea, where migrants are left to die), disintegrated (as in some parts of Somalia or Yemen, where militants headquarter and drone assassinations take place), or suspended and under siege (for example in such places as the tribal areas of west Pakistan, Gaza or the West Bank).

We also study cases of “environmental violence” along the mineral frontiers of the Amazon basin and the Atacama desert and undertaken research in the remote highland frontiers of Guatemala, where the state is now coming to terms with the systematic destruction of people and landscapes that took place there a mere three decades ago.

These projects were undertaken in collaboration with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, Yesh Din, CALDH – Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos, Migreurop, The Office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights (UN SRCT), or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and provided spatial evidence and technical reports for trials and other international legal and political processes.

Francesco Sebregondi (Forensic Architecture) presenting the White Phosphorus report in the UN Office at Geneva, 12 November 2012. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

 

Critical Practice

On the other hand the project assembled a body of historical and theoretical research into contemporary forensic practices and this in order to critically evaluate their epistemologies, assumptions, protocols, and politics of knowledge production. This work was disseminated in a series of seminars, lectures, publications and exhibitions.

In this set of investigations forensics was interrogated as the presentation of objects as subjects-of-debate. This aspect of forensics is structured around a shifting triangulation between three elements: a contested object or site, the social space of the forum, and the interpreter (now the expert witness) speaking on behalf of material things. Forensic truth is thus not a product of “positivism” – the desire to overcome language through materiality, which holds reality knowable without any intermediaries – but the making of facts through narrative presentation.

Forensic Architecture is not only concerned with the production of spatial evidence but with a critical examination of the spatial relations at work in the forums in which this evidence is presented. New forums often have to be assembled for new evidence to be heard.

Forensic Architecture must thus name a practice that is concerned both with acts of claim-making and with attempts of forum-building.

“Forensic Epidemiology” roundtable seminar at the Centre for Research Architecture, 8 December 2012.

 

Forensic Architecture is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant awarded to Prof. Eyal Weizman (2011–2015). The project is hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture, in the Department of Visual Cultures, at Goldsmiths, University of London.