Forensic architecture refers to the practice of building surveyors who assess building damage and structural integrity in legal contexts. For these analysts, a building is not a static entity. Rather, its form is continuously undergoing transformations that register external influences. The various material components of a building—steel, plaster, concrete, or wood—move at different speeds in response to the constant force of gravity, the influence of the climate, changing patterns of inhabitation and use, and the unique force of blast. Surveyors see buildings as matter undergoing complex processes of formation—as matter in formation, in other words as information. Buildings are media forms because they register the effects of force fields, they contain or store these forces in material deformations, and, with the help of other mediating technologies and the forum, their interpretation can transmit this information further.
“A Verification of Building-Destruction Resulting from Attacks by the Israeli Occupation”
In the spring of 2009, following the Israeli winter attack, the Gaza-based and Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing started compiling an archive entitled A Verification of Building-Destruction Resulting from Attacks by the Israeli Occupation. This “book of destruction” contains thousands of entries, each documenting a single building that had been totally or partially destroyed, from cracked walls in houses that are still standing to those completely reduced to piles of rubble. Each photograph displays a catalogue number spray-painted onto the walls or onto the rubble itself. Sometimes, the building had been so badly pulverized that the numbers had to be jotted down on paper and held up in front of the camera while the photograph was being taken. In the code the first letter stands for the location: “G” is Gaza City, “N” the northern sector of the Strip, “K” is for Khan Younis and “R” for Rafah. The digits following the letters designate the relevant neighborhood, road, and plot. The classification is based on an area grid system that covers the entire Gaza Strip. Each existing and potential building site in Gaza—those ruined and those still intact—have thus been designated as a possible site of destruction.
For a building surveyor, architecture is a sensor aestheticized to its environment. Its form of aesthetics is, however, primer for and primary to human judgment. Aesthetics is originally understood as that which pertains to the senses, but in this context it designates not the human senses but rather the sensorial capacity of matter itself. Matter can be regarded as an aesthetic sensorium inasmuch as its mutations register minute transformations, fluctuations, variations, and differences within force fields.
But the aesthetic dimension of forensics is not simply a reversal of Kant’s concept of aesthetics, in which the sensing object is now prioritized over the sensing subject. It rather involves a combination of the two. Material aesthetics is merely the first layer of a forensic aesthetics that relies firstly on material findings being brought into a forum, and secondly on the techniques and technologies by which they are interpreted, presented, and mediated there.
In 1999, after the end of the armed conflicts in Kosovo, art historian András Riedlmayer and architect Andrew Herscher assembled a report titled Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project. In it they constructed a large database of the destruction of architectural heritage and mapped out the patterns of destruction in order to provide evidence to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where their report and Riedlmayer’s testimony in support of it were presented several times. This video includes Slobodan Milošević’s cross-examination of András Riedlmayer on his expert testimony in The Hague in April 2002. The footage was assembled with material gathered from the Milošević Trial Public Archive hosted by Bard College Human Rights Project.
Excerpts from United Nations v. Slobodan Milošević. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, April 9, 2002. Film edited by Paulo Tavares.
A structural crack is an element that is both a sensor and an agent. Cracks progress along the paths of least resistance; they reveal, exploit, and tear through the places where the cohesive forces of aggregate matter are at their weakest.
On April 23, 2013, a crack appeared in the floors and walls of the Rana Plaza factory in Savar near Dhaka, a building filled with garment industry sweatshops. In response, municipal building inspectors ordered the closure of the factory. But a crack is merely the potential for something to occur. Whether it will tear a building apart or just linger there for years is a matter of probability. The next morning the crack expanded, cutting furiously through the building and killing more than a thousand workers who had been forced back to work.
The ensuing legal process involved building surveyors both as witnesses and among the accused, but the trial had the authority to determine the responsibility for the causes of the event only in terms of the construction quality of the building. Left out of the analytical process were the larger forces and actors involved in the collapse: factory owners connected to the ruling party, consumers, and the multinational corporations feeding an endless appetite for cheap fashion.
Forensis must become an analytical frame and a multilayered political practice in which microphysical analysis is an entry point from which to reconstruct larger processes, events and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices, as well as structures and technologies.