In his introduction to the book Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Sternberg Press, 2014), Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, evokes the curious story about a bronze statue of Theagenes of Thasos, a Greek Olympian of the 1st century AD. It is said that the statue once killed a man by falling onto him and that subsequently the statue as an object was put on trial for murder and condemned to be thrown into the sea. Through this story, Weizman intends to resituate objects (including architectural works) at the centre of the judicial scene – in particular, the trials emerging from geopolitical conflicts.
This is how, since its creation in 2011, the team behind Forensic Architecture has investigated many crimes committed by sovereign states, such as the use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-2009), the maritime path of a Libyan boat of migrants drifting helplessly in the Mediterranean Sea (2011), various cases of ‘targeted assassinations’ by Israeli and US drones in Gaza and Pakistan (2009-2012), the destruction of Guatemalan villages in the early-1980s genocide of the Ixil Maya people, and the spatial organisation of two concentration camps in ex-Yugoslavia (1941-1945), among others.
One of the most recent investigations scrutinised a specific aspect of the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza during the application of what is known as the Hannibal Directive, when Israeli Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was abducted by Hamas fighters. According to the report compiled by Forensic Architecture for Amnesty International (which can be read in full on the AI website), the directive states: “The kidnapping must be stopped by all means, even at the price of hitting and harming our own forces.”
The subtext is almost explicit here: the Israeli army reserves the right to kill its own soldiers to prevent their capture, and thus heavily bombed the area where the kidnapping happened. Thanks to the skills inherent in civil architecture and filmmaking, Forensic Architecture was able to coordinate, both spatially and temporally, numerous photographs and films shot from the ground in Rafah.
In doing so, not only did the team manage to reconstitute the terror experienced by the Palestinians living in the vicinity of the bombings, but it was also able to produce a certain amount of evidence backing the narrative of the Israeli army’s attempts to kill its own soldiers rather than see them abducted. Although this particular investigation has not yet been used in the context of a trial, it describes the Israeli operation in a sufficiently precise manner to raise a useful debate within Israeli society about the decisions of its army’s high command.
What makes Forensic Architecture’s work truly special is the resolutely architectural approach to these investigations: it attempts to present objects and buildings as privileged witnesses of the prosecuted crime. As such, it is revolutionary in both the disciplines of architecture and forensics (the presentation of proof in a judiciary context).
Introducing the work of architects, artists, filmmakers, and activists into the judiciary is destabilising for the lawyers of the prosecuted persons or institutions: “What does it mean, MFA [Master of Fine Art]? I mean, how do you submit a forensic report that includes a design by an artist? It is the total opposite of the truth! This is not the Platonian idea of authenticity”, Weizman says in a recent interview (Public Space: Fights and Fictions, 2016). These kinds of perspectives, however, only differ from regular expert witnesses insofar as they embrace their subjectivity rather than attempt to dissimulate it in a performance of objectivity. As Weizman says:
“It’s very important for me never to hide the fact that artists and architects were the people producing the evidence, because I think the aesthetic field is one of investigation, a field of knowledge. I think that when so much of the evidence is now filmed and photographed, the people who should be looking at it are photographers and filmmakers, and when so much of the violence is urban, the people who can read it are architects.”
In an even more recent collaboration with Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture investigated the Saydnaya prison near Damascus, which has been used by the Syrian regime to arbitrarily incarcerate and torture thousands of political opponents since 2011. Although the project currently serves an agenda that calls for the United States and Russia to put pressure on the Syrian government to end such practices, we can see how this work could prove extremely useful should those responsible ever be tried by an International Court.
The short films directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa illustrate Forensic Architecture’s modus operandi in establishing a reliable 3D model of the building in question (in this case, the prison). The architects build this model in a 3D program while the solicited witnesses (i.e. the former prisoners) verbalise their memories of the space they have been forced to inhabit for months. The simultaneity of the testimony and the formalisation of viewing the space on the screen is truly remarkable for the translation-ability it suggests between space and language/memory.
A particularly interesting aspect of such testimonies in regard to Saydnaya is the fact that the space was consistently left in darkness and thus memories of it tend to be articulated through sound rather than sight. Software, together with the architects’ spatial expertise, mitigates what could be perceived as an interpretation problem (from noise to the formalisation of space). Potential mistakes due to the prisoners’ degree of exhaustion and torture are also taken into account as potentialities: testimonies are cross-referenced with others to confirm the actual spatiality described. This adds consistency to the discourse of embraced subjectivity defended by Weizman, who understands the necessity for architecture (or the representation thereof) to take place in a judicial context of truth in order to become evidence.
The work assembled by the Forensic Architecture team is therefore also revolutionary for the discipline of architecture itself. Architecture is understood as a matter affected by the politics that operate around it and through it. In this way, we can talk about the prosopopeia (the speech of things) of architecture: it can tell the story of what happened — how people were killed in the bombing of a building, for instance. All that’s necessary in order to enter the forensic realm is a translation from architectural language to judicial language. The architect, with her/his expertise, can be the translator and thus be involved in the political debate that such trials constitute.
After decades of modernism attempted to prove that architecture could actively ‘cure’ society and a few subsequent decades of post-modernism embraced the fact that it would not, Forensic Architecture advances the paradigm for a new era of politicisation of architecture that gained traction in the late 2000s.