Architecture helps hold the guilty to account

Header Image

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Research agency Forensic Architecture uses 3D modelling among many other techniques in its pursuit of truth and public accountability

The Image-Complex Rafah: Black Friday, Forensic Architecture, 2015. Commissioned by Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture located photographs and videos within a 3D model to tell the story of one of the heaviest days of bombardment in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.
The Image-Complex Rafah: Black Friday, Forensic Architecture, 2015. Commissioned by Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture located photographs and videos within a 3D model to tell the story of one of the heaviest days of bombardment in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

In 2010, architect and academic Eyal Weizman founded Forensic Architecture, a research agency that uses architectural techniques as part of its investigations into human rights violations and acts of state and corporate violence.

This ‘counter forensics’ crosses many fields, from architecture and journalism through to law and politics. Its mission is to cut through the fog of official narratives in the pursuit of truth and public accountability. It’s a hugely complex process that is, says the agency, grounded in the use of architecture as an ‘operative’ device, using 3D modelling, spatial and material analysis, mapping and reconstructions of the incident sites. This is overlaid by witness testimonies and all manner of scientific and aesthetic information and data such as satellite imagery, communications records and mobile phone footage. By interrogating all of these together, the agency seeks to reveal the true course of the events in question.

  • Composite of Forensic Architecture's physical and virtual reconstructions – 77sqm and 9:26min – of the internet café where Halit Yozgat was murdered on 6 April 2006 in Kassel, Germany.
    Composite of Forensic Architecture's physical and virtual reconstructions – 77sqm and 9:26min – of the internet café where Halit Yozgat was murdered on 6 April 2006 in Kassel, Germany. Credit: Forensic Architecture, 2017
  • Fluid dynamics simulation of gunpowder residue particles (ammonia) in the internet café where Halit Yozgat was murdered.
    Fluid dynamics simulation of gunpowder residue particles (ammonia) in the internet café where Halit Yozgat was murdered. Credit: Forensic Architecture and Dr Salvador Navarro-Martinez, 2017
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Based at Goldsmith’s University of London, the agency is now 15-20 strong, of whom half are architects. The links between architecture and this emerging field of counter forensics are clear in two ways, according to Weizman.

‘Architecture is the object of the investigation – the buildings, the traces left by buildings, the drawings and the reconstructions that we use to tell the story,’ he says. ‘We use architectural techniques and modelling that might otherwise be used to design and represent architecture to investigate incidents that aren’t of an architectural nature.’

It’s painstaking work that is both assisted and hindered by the sheer wealth of imagery and data now available – the agency has to negotiate the ‘noise’ that this creates as it builds and analyses the ‘architectural image complex’ for each project. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that a commission from Amnesty International to investigate just one day of bombing in Rafah, Gaza in 2014 took one year to complete.

Image from Forensic Architecture's investigation of the enforced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Mexico, 26-27 September 2014. The Ayotzinapa Platform enables users to explore the relationship between thousands of events and hundreds of actors from the night of the disappearance.
Image from Forensic Architecture's investigation of the enforced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Mexico, 26-27 September 2014. The Ayotzinapa Platform enables users to explore the relationship between thousands of events and hundreds of actors from the night of the disappearance. Credit: Forensic Architecture, 2017

Several of Forensic Architecture’s cases are presented in Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture, an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. While this initially seems an unusual subject for the gallery, it's the start of a longer term relationship that will see the ICA collaborating on disseminating information about, and supporting, the investigations.

The presentation benefits from a generous amount of space, which allows the display of complex timelines, mappings, multi-screen images of reconstructions and film projections. Such a weighty subject needs not only room to convey the complexities of the investigations but time to absorb them, and viewers are encouraged to sit down and take their time.

Mural plotting the narrative trajectories of different participants, both victims and perpetrators, in the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Mexico, 26-27 September 2014. The simplified narrative presented by the federal attorney general and announced as the 'historical truth' (drawn in thick black line) is contrasted with the complex version derived from the testimonies of the surviving students and those provided by the Independent Group of Experts (GIEI).
Mural plotting the narrative trajectories of different participants, both victims and perpetrators, in the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Mexico, 26-27 September 2014. The simplified narrative presented by the federal attorney general and announced as the 'historical truth' (drawn in thick black line) is contrasted with the complex version derived from the testimonies of the surviving students and those provided by the Independent Group of Experts (GIEI). Credit: Forensic Architecture, 2017

Introductory gallery text sets the theoretical and historical context for the agency’s counter forensics work and explores its methodology for constructing and analysing evidence. But it’s the individual examples that bring the theory to life. A prominent chunk of the show is given over to Forensic Architecture’s investigation of the racist murder of immigrant Halit Yozgat in a German café in 2006. This involved possible collusion between a government intelligence agent who had visited the café around the same time and a neo-Nazi group. Rigorous interrogation of the evidence included a full-scale reconstruction of the café along with analysis of sightlines, phone data, gun noise, and witness accounts in order to test a number of possible scenarios. The agent’s version of events were disproved.

  • Ground Truth: A composite of Royal Air Force aerial photography from 1945 and 'community satellite' point clouds taken in 2017. From the investigation Destruction and Return in the al-Araqib Negev/Naqab Desert.
    Ground Truth: A composite of Royal Air Force aerial photography from 1945 and 'community satellite' point clouds taken in 2017. From the investigation Destruction and Return in the al-Araqib Negev/Naqab Desert. Credit: Ariel Caine / Forensic Architecture / Aziz al-Turi / Nuri al-Uqbi / Debby Ferber (Zochrot) / Hagit Keysar (PublicLab), 2017
  • Point-cloud of the well of Awimer Salman Abu Medigam, September 2016, part of the investigation Destruction and Return in the al-Araqib Negev/Naqab. The blue rectangles indicate the positions of the individual image frames from which the 3D information was derived.
    Point-cloud of the well of Awimer Salman Abu Medigam, September 2016, part of the investigation Destruction and Return in the al-Araqib Negev/Naqab. The blue rectangles indicate the positions of the individual image frames from which the 3D information was derived. Credit: Ariel Caine / Forensic Architecture, 2016
  • By motion tracking the clouds from a continuous video taken at sea, Forensic Architecture reconstructed a 360º view of the rescue scene in the central Mediterranean and located vessels observed on the horizon. This was part of the investigation The Iuventa, Central Mediterranean Sea, 18 June 2017.
    By motion tracking the clouds from a continuous video taken at sea, Forensic Architecture reconstructed a 360º view of the rescue scene in the central Mediterranean and located vessels observed on the horizon. This was part of the investigation The Iuventa, Central Mediterranean Sea, 18 June 2017. Credit: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, 2018
  • Projecting photographs onto a 3D model in order to determine the distance between vessels observed and infer the position of the photographer. This was part of the investigation The Iuventa, Central Mediterranean Sea, 18 June 2017.
    Projecting photographs onto a 3D model in order to determine the distance between vessels observed and infer the position of the photographer. This was part of the investigation The Iuventa, Central Mediterranean Sea, 18 June 2017. Credit: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, 2018
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Another gallery explores the agency’s Forensic Oceanography branch, which investigated a number of disputed incidents among the thousands of attempts by refugees to cross the Mediterranean each year. These were set in the wider context of the tactics used to deter would-be-migrants.

Other case studies include Forensic Architecture’s work with former detainees of Saydnaya prison, a secret detention centre in Syria. For this, the agency used architectural and acoustic modelling to create spatial representations of the environment with the help of detainees’ memories, which were mainly sound-based due to the dark conditions they were kept in. In such projects ‘the model becomes a stage, on which memories can be accessed and performed’, says the agency.

Saydnaya prison, Saydnaya, Syria, 2011, as reconstructed by Forensic Architecture using architectural and acoustic modelling. From the Torture in Saydnaya Prison investigation commissioned by Amnesty International.
Saydnaya prison, Saydnaya, Syria, 2011, as reconstructed by Forensic Architecture using architectural and acoustic modelling. From the Torture in Saydnaya Prison investigation commissioned by Amnesty International.

Counter Investigations strays a long way from conventional notions of architecture, but is clearly doing hugely important work for NGOs, charities and citizen groups by enabling them to challenge official narratives in the quest for truth. Nor is its remit restricted to war-torn areas – the agency is now working on its first UK project.

Forensic Architecture is keen to disseminate its working methods in the hope that others will take on these sorts of investigations, and this exhibition – its first solo show in the UK – will certainly raise its profile. As well as exposing visitors to the human rights issues raised in many of the case studies, and encouraging them to think more critically about the news they consume, Weizman hopes the show will give them a sense of empowerment that they can conduct their own investigations, rather than ‘surrendering to the post-truth environment’.

‘We want people to feel empowered, and that they can also, with relatively simple means, find the truth,’ he says.


Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture, until 6 May, 2018, Institute of Contemporary Arts