Forensic Architecture refers to the presentation of spatial analysis within contemporary legal and political forums. The project undertakes research that maps, images, and models sites of violence within the framework of international humanitarian law and human rights. Through its public activities it also situates forensic architecture within broader historical and theoretical contexts.
Forensic Architecture is a European Research Council funded project (2011-2014) hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London, within the Department of Visual Cultures.
Image credit Kai Wiedenhoffer, 2009.
Field and Forum
Forensic Architecture is organised in two distinct ways:
Field – deals with the provision of spatial analysis for organisations promoting international humanitarian law and human rights. Our multidisciplinary team of specialised researchers examine sites of violence that bear upon legal questions of human rights violations using a host of new imaging, mapping, and modelling technologies. Research methods include site visits, the use and analysis of satellite imagery, ground penetrating radar, GPS data, photography, audio, activist media, and eyewitness interviews. Our current projects — in collaboration with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, FAFG (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala) and Migeurope — are organised around providing spatial evidence and technical reports for international legal processes emerging in relation to events in Libya, Gaza, Guatemala, the Mediterranean Sea, former-Yugoslavia, Pakistan and more.
Image credit: Eyal Weizman
Forum – includes a series of seminars, conferences, publications, and exhibitions undertaken at the Centre for Research Architecture and in prominent institutions worldwide. Within these contexts we investigate forensic architecture theoretically, historically, politically, and aesthetically. We have published on the history of forensics and its theoretical implications in a number of books and leading journals, including a special issue of Cabinet magazine. We have collaborated with MSF (Physicians without Borders), the House of World Culture (HKW) in Berlin, Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt, DAAR in Bethlehem, and with the Human Rights Project at Bard College in New York on a number of public programmes.
Image credit: Artist Space, NY
Forensics and Architecture
Forensic architecture typically refers to the practice of building-surveyors who assess building damage and structural integrity in legal contexts, often providing expert testimony in court. However, extracted from the specialized context of property and insurance disputes, the term could designate a general strategy for architectural research and enquiry, expanding the scope of what architecture can achieve in the world today. In order to mark out the possible stakes of forensic architecture we should examine the meaning of both words that constitute the term – excavating the genealogy of the first and projecting the possibilities of the second.
As derived from its Latin source (forensis), forensics is the art of the forum; the practice and skill of presenting an argument before a professional, political or legal gathering. As the art of the forum forensics included the presentation of objects as subjects-of-debate. This aspect of forensics was structured around a shifting triangulation between a contested object or site, the social space of the forum, and the interpreter (now the expert witness) with the authority to speak on behalf of material things.
Forensic truth is thus not a product of “positivism” – the desire to overcome language through materiality and holds reality knowable without any intermediaries – but the making of facts through narrative presentation. The aesthetics of forensic architecture employs various imaging and modelling technologies along with new techniques of visual presentation.
Architecture is rapidly becoming the pathology of our contemporary era. With the urbanization of conflict, violations of human rights and the laws of war often take place within cities. Frequently these violations are produced by the very means of architecture itself – both by its construction and destruction. Consequently architectural representations – maps, plans, satellite imagery, aerial-footage, physical and digital models – are consistently called upon as evidence in tribunals and international courts. Todays’ forums – such as international tribunals, fact-finding missions, and multilateral organisations, those that regulate the laws of war or draft environmental accords – are undertaking political and juridical processes based on ever new ways of imaging and modelling spatial problems. Space necessarily emerges as a legal construct at the intersection between multiple modes of capture, representation, and calculation. Forensic architecture is thus not only concerned with the spaces in which war crimes are committed and registered, but also with a set of political/juridical decisions that use techniques for the imaging the earth’s surface.
The on-going debate around the environment is a good example of this convergence between law and image, as this debate is structured around new ways of sampling, analysing, and imaging vast territories that extend from the deep core of the earth to the atmospheric realm. Geospatial data, high-resolution aerial photographs, maps and models of cities and territories, the “enhanced vision” of satellite imagery, 3D scans of the terrain and the depth of the subsoil, air and ground sampling – shape the way we interrogate, understand and debate the material issues of contemporary politics. As the built environment becomes informationally enriched, new sites and states of contestation also start to appear.
This thick surface of the earth is not an isolated, distinct, stand-alone object; rather, it is a dense fabric of complex relations, associations and chains of actions between people, environments, and artifices. It always overflows any map that tries to frame it, because there are always more connections to be made.
Forums are themselves complex sets of spaces. They are not always unitary, housed in arena-like buildings. Today’s forums rather tend to become structured assemblages of entangled institutions woven by communication technologies and the media.
Forensic architecture frames a new field of spatial thought-practice that takes the contemporary forum as its main subject of enquiry. The “architecture” in forensic architecture would thus designate, not the product of building design, but rather an expanded field of spatial investigation, imaging and representation, while the word “forensic” should be understood as the very condition that enables architectural research to perform politically, that is, to enter a complex political or juridical calculus.
Forensic Architecture is thus grounded in both field-work and forum-work; fields being the sites of investigation and analysis, and forums the network-assemblages of political spaces in which analysis is presented and contested. Each of theses sites presents a host of architectural and political problems.
International courtrooms, tribunals and human rights councils, are of course the most obvious sites of contemporary forensics. Internally, they are also complex spaces operated by multiple medias. Equipped with video cameras and screens they function (as Laura Kurgan has explained) much like broadcast studios recording and archiving historical events. In the contemporary spaces of international tribunals, material evidence is almost always presented as a static or moving image and viewed on screens. The presence of media technology is so central to their functioning that their protocols are now extensively dictated by the requirements and limitations of media recording and storage.
Within the space of international courts and tribunals, spatial evidence itself emerged at the intersection of two prevalent forms contemporary media: activist imagery, primarily in the form of citizen journalism using mobile phone videos shot at close range and uploaded at the risk of their makers and different types of satellite imagery captured at a higher altitude than the vertical extension of state sovereignty (national air-space is capped by the lowest possible orbit a satellite can travel upon) and presented in before-and-after sequences.
The intertwined, almost simultaneous emergence, and increasing circles of availability of these two different forms of media, allow alternative political groups and advocates of human rights to circumvent state restrictions on data circulation and demonstrate their growing influence to reveal and arbitrate situations unfolding in areas that are difficult if not impossible to access.
Forensic architecture and its analytic methods might also be understood as engaged in a kind of spatial cryptography. The quasi-archaeological methodologies of forensic architecture are based upon the close reading and interpretation of photography and of other types of imagery. If it is an archaeology, it is one not concerned directly with matter, but with matter as captured by different forms of media, a certain archaeology of pixels that registers the different band width of new imaging technologies.
To a great extent before and after images are the very embodiment of an emergent “forensic time”. While activist videos capture the event itself, the stereoscopic montage of before and after leaves a lacuna at the heart of the event. Whether taken by orbiting satellite systems or on-the-ground by handheld cameras, it sees images of the built and natural environment become the depository of political and military processes.
The Locard “exchange principle” — the cornerstone of forensic science — posits that every action or contact leaves a trace. This principle turns architecture and its environments into sensors in which political events register directly as material inscriptions and spatial transformations.
Image credit Antonio Zazueta Olmos, 2009.
However, attempting to read and interpret events from the residual images of the trash and rubble left behind is a highly complex and indeterminate process. Does a freshly dug earth mound in eastern Iran signify – as claims made in its name – the construction of a new subterranean bunker in which banned weapons are produced? Can we directly connect earthworks and nuclear capacities? Do similar earth mounds now captured by satellites orbiting over Libya, Syria, Darfur or Sri Lanka connote sites of mass extermination in common graves? Was a destroyed building visible in a photograph taken “after” a conflict occurred, destroyed by people from the ground, or by their enemies in an aerial attack? Can satellite mounted sensors, capable of detecting the fractional temperature variations of changing vegetation patterns in previously cultivated fields, now fallow in absence of their farmers, register a genocide, ethnic cleaning or other crimes against humanity?
In the task of registering political forces, architecture is only a weak sensor, in that events do not register themselves directly or fully within spatial structures. Consequently forensic architecture must work rigously to bring different kinds of information — human and machinic — together in a complex assemblage to bear upon questions of space, human rights and international law. It is precisely because the past will forever remain uncertain, discontinuous, lacunar, appearing to us only in momentary fragments and ruins that public forums are necessary in which multiple pieces of evidence or the artefacts of spatial products can be brought together, interpreted, debated, and calculated as to their relevance and evidentiary value.
Because of the unique demands that these new forms of spatial evidence take, from physical objects to satellite images over Dafur, spatial evidence continuously demands the assembly of new forums to supplement the protocols of existing ones. Indeed, the forum does not always predate the things that are brought to it. Contemporary forums gather around the very spaces and places that are in need of debate, precisely because they are in dispute. This condition has, for example, seen the rise of purpose built courts to truth and reconciliation procedures located in the very spaces out which the conflicts that organised their forums took place.
International criminal tribunals, in particular, exemplify this principle. Within these juridical spaces the evidence precedes the forums in which it is debated. Special tribunals – such as the ICTY for the former Yugoslavia and ICTR for Rwanda – were established only after the remnants of acts of violence and war (destroyed cities or mass graves) had been discovered and in order to arbitrate on them.
Every forum ultimately draws its frame around the limits of what can be said and the manner in which it can articulate its specific concerns. Each of the multiple political and legal forums in use today – professional, scientific, parliamentary and legal – operates by a different set of protocols, and each instrumentalises forensics in some way as part of its particular political ideology.
Forensic Architecture as we have conceptualised it is, thus not only about the interpretation of past events as they are registered within the material strata of differentiated spaces, but also equally about the production of future forums induced by the complex demands of the present. Demands that range from the development of new modes of scientific testing and analysis, the evolution of new visualisation systems and thus new interpretative techniques, the emergence of new categories of evidence, to a distributed ecology of forums linked globally by key issues such as climate change. In short, Forensic Architecture is constituted both by acts of claim-making and the practices of forum-building. Teaching us that architectural research cannot be opposed to architectural construction, but in fact depends upon it for producing the spaces (forums) in which research (fieldwork) can resonate.