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Forensic Architecture – Architecture of Resistance

©Forensic Architecture

This feature is taken from our CHANGE (printed edition) and will be one of the ongoing features DE will be revisiting and updating over the following months after hearing the news last month, ‘Eyal Weizman barred from U.S. ahead of Forensic Architecture retrospective’

Words: Constance Desenfant

Forensic Architecture questions the role and responsibility of architects in light of ongoing and increasing urban conflicts.

While terror attacks are nothing new in the UK, the perceived level of threat has never been higher. Planned, foiled and actioned atrocities have left more than emotional scars on the country, with sturdy barriers and concrete blocks long-since installed between driving lanes and pavements on London’s major bridges and other potential targets in the capital and beyond. The idea being to mitigate damage should history hit repeat. 

It’s one of many signs that, surely and perhaps not that slowly, cities are changing in a way we could not have predicted just a few decades ago. More and more space is being lost to violence, even in locations we would not necessarily consider to be caught up in direct conflict.

Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture (FA), is an expert on the subject. Israeli intellectual, writer, activist, architect and professor teaching Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths University, London, he has developed an impressive understanding of the architecture of violence and occupation.  

Eyal Weizman ©Forensic Architecture
Eyal Weizman ©Forensic Architecture

It might be difficult for some people to believe, but architecture can be used as a weapon, with its elements ammunition; tactical tools to implement pressure, domination, self-protection, or control over a population. As such, cities can be seen as live theatres for a new type of urban warfare, both in the literal understanding of that phrase and more subtle ways.

“The majority of civilian casualties occur in buildings so architects are the best-placed to offer their expertise in tracing how these events happened,” says Weizman. This is part of the reason why he created FA in 2011— to use his skills as an architect to compile evidence and defend human rights when they are violated. 

Today, there are some 30 people in the FA team worldwide with around half based in London. Their job is to produce evidence files in the shape of models, drawings, maps, web-based interactive cartographies, films or animations, allowing them to present information in a convincing, precise, and accessible manner in pursuit of accountability.

Rafah Case© Forensic Architecture
Rafah Case© Forensic Architecture

The team of passionate architects focus on cities struggling with war and unrest, but do not contribute to the construction of battlefields for new conflicts. Instead, they use their skills to re-question the purpose of their profession.

Talking about Israel and Palestine— arguably the world’s foremost frontline of architectural warfare— in the closing segment of Al Jazeerah-produced documentary ‘Rebel Architecture: The Architecture of Violence’, Weizman defends the approach and is clear on the position architects should adopt in certain situations:

“I love this land and I care deeply about both peoples that live here. And I think looking at the landscape I see this kind of slow process of killing. I would have loved to practice my architecture free of the constraints and violence of this conflict, but I think that to be an architect is not only to build and to contribute to the destruction of the place I love most, but to use architecture as a way to both interpret, protest and resist.”

Design Exchange met with two professionals that have and continue to be directly involved in the FA team. Sarah Nankivell is the research agency’s current programme manager, and Omar Ferwati was project coordinator for work on the Al-Jinah Mosque in Syria— one of the most compelling cases in support of the use of this process. Like other members, past and present, they each have different backgrounds and interests, which contribute to expansion of the studio’s already-rich tapestry.

Both are Canadian, Ferwati originally hailing from Syria and trained as an architect, Nankivell schooled in Egyptology and concerned with how the past, architecture and archaeology can be used to inform present solutions through new technologies and an understanding of heritage as a key proponent during conflict.

Sarah Nankivell _ Omar Ferwati © Forensic Oceanography
Sarah Nankivell _ Omar Ferwati © Forensic Oceanography

Beside them, FA also includes an extended team of collaborators and PHD students scattered around the world, from film editors to programmers and journalists. Most speak two or three languages, if not more, which, coupled with their varied skill set, means they can react efficiently in a broad range of situations.

Most of us are architects so we have a certain spatial awareness and expertise of understanding spatial conditions and characteristics”, explains Ferwati.   

Nankivell clarifies the origins of their projects: “[They] operate on two levels: some come from our own funders, the European Research Council or independent funding; for others, we are hired on a project basis by different NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.”

This was the case for the Al-Jinah Mosque, on which Ferwati worked for Human Rights Watch, in partnership with Bellingcat, another investigative team. Their role was to prove the US deliberately targeted a functioning mosque, killing more than 50 civilians, despite official claims the location of the strike was regularly used for Al-Qaida meetings. 

FA undertook an architectural assessment of the scenario. Statements were taken from witnesses on the ground, reporters, journalists, and hospitals where the victims were taken in the rescue operation. A local photographer was hired to document the ruins of the building and one of the contractors originally involved in construction was contacted, using social media platforms like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook to talk through the architectural plans, drawings and sketches.

From this they compiled overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the target was a functioning mosque, reconstructing a 3D model from the imagery, allowing them to locate each room and each victim found in the rubble.

“Through this process and methodology the architecture becomes a lens through which we can look at the scene where the event occurred and do a sort of reconstitution,” says Ferwati.

Al-Jinah Mosque  ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque  ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque  ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque
©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque  ©Forensic Architecture
Al-Jinah Mosque ©Forensic Architecture

The three organisations and research agencies involved published their report in a bid to unveil the truth. The US responded to Human Rights Watch by revising the findings of the official investigation. Through the process of projects like this, FA’s team members become archaeologists of recent atrocities and upholders of the law in the present, furnishing prosecutors with evidence to be used in court cases and international tribunals. The ultimate goal being to bring human rights violators to justice.

FA does not only focus on conflict zones and wars. The team also acts in many different realms where violence challenges basic human rights. Environmental battles represent another aspect of the work conducted by the research agency. The team tries to demonstrate how extraction of natural resources, and the resulting global warming, has led to the destruction of both ecosystem and people.

Hannah Meszaros Martin, ‘Modelling Kivalina
Hannah Meszaros Martin, ‘Modelling Kivalina

Kivalina is an Alaskan Inupiaq village of around 400 residents, situated on a barrier island in the Arctic, which had to seek relocation due to climate change— in this instance erosion and flooding of basic infrastructure. In collaboration with ReLocate, FA fought alongside the village. The final report stated that 24 of the largest oil and gas corporations should be held responsible for the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore had a duty to contribute to any relocation costs.

The tools and skills FA gathered over the years allow the team to register past and present forms of violence in different realms or ecosystems and to extract evidences. A new form of public truth, technologically, architecturally, and aesthetically produced, which can help make calls for transformative politics more audible.  

Another team of the research agency uses FA’s mapping skills and surveillance technologies to support a coalition of NGO’s demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the Central Mediterranean Sea— a tightly monitored NATO maritime area. Their aim is to show how Western powers often use the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to ignore the pleas of stricken boats, avoiding their responsibility to rescue people in distress. 

In one example, FA’s team was able to precisely reconstruct how events unfolded when a vessel was left adrift for two weeks in March 2011, leading to the death of 72 migrants. The resulting report formed the basis for a number of legal petitions filed against NATO member states.

This particular instance is now more relevant than ever given hysteria surrounding the European refugee crisis has reached deafening volume, with the UK yet to clarify what role it will play in tackling this post-Brexit. Meanwhile, countries across the Mediterranean Sea continue to sidestep humanitarian duties of this kind. 

The Aquarius rescue boat— chartered by SOS Mediterranee and Médecins Sans Frontières— is another case in point. Carrying over 600 asylum seekers including 123 unaccompanied children, in June 2018 the vessel was refused permission to dock in both Italy and Malta, before finally being offered a safe port in Spain. FA acts in such situations to confront institutions or governments with their legal obligations, attempting to ensure they meet these or face the consequences. 

There appears to be no limit to the range of scenarios where FA intervention could, and should, be used. Similarly, the roles that can contribute to these cases and help defend human rights abuses are wildly varied.

“No matter what your skills are and what your profession is, there may be opportunities in which you can apply them to defend human rights or seek truth. It’s just a matter of repurposing your skills to tackle different issues,” declares Ferwati, who is keen to promote the practice of architecture in different contexts, as well as encourage universities to prepare future architects for input in a wider range of situations. 

On the question of academia, Nankivell also has her view. 

“I think what is really important about what we are doing is how academia and conceptual work can be really relevant in some situations, because so often things taught at university are disconnected from the real world. That’s what is so powerful about what we are doing with FA; we are taking academic knowledge and perspective, as well as our practical skills, and combining them in this whole new way that is very relevant and inspiring. It can have a real impact.” 

The Romantic view of an architect leaving a mark or legacy for the future has much relevance here. After all, this is a place where job satisfaction stems from attempts to defend human rights, which in turn can lead to lasting changes to policy, regulations and laws. But questions remain about the role and responsibility of architects within this. 

Their expertise and knowledge of the built environment, the powerful analytical tools and efficient visualisation techniques allow architects to react quickly, whether explaining how a tragedy happened or— when possible—  inventing solutions to prevent events occurring again. It’s about proactive architecture and practitioners using the tools at their disposal to restructure their surroundings, in turn redefining their profession.

But what will the cities of tomorrow look like considering the clear increase in urban violence? Could security infrastructure ever completely remove the risk of terror attacks? 

The US, Israel, and the UK are among the nations that have led the thinking on protecting public spaces with the development of measures ranging from large robust barriers to incredibly subtle, barely noticeable changes to the street scene. But is this the right way forward? For architects and city planners, what is the correct attitude to adopt? Within the design, should they prioritise safety and security over prime urban qualities like accessibility, inclusiveness and openness?

Stabilised and 'motion tracked' video footage is projected back onto to model of the Tower. The green frame indicates the location of the camera.  ©Forensic Architecture
Stabilised and ‘motion tracked’ video footage is projected back onto to model of the Tower. The green frame indicates the location of the camera. ©Forensic Architecture

Another question that arises from this investigative practice of architecture focussing on human rights violations relates to mediatisation. The FA team worked on a 3D video of London’s Grenfell fire, in which 72 residents of a tower block perished amid an uncontrollable blaze. The goal was to better understand how the flames spread through the building, and began shortly before the practice was shortlisted for the 2018 Turner Prize, the UK’s most prestigious art award.

While praised for “developing highly innovative methods for sourcing and visualising evidence relating to human rights abuses around the world”, the FA team and the art and architecture worlds seem sceptical about the nomination. 

Phineas Harper is a critic, designer and Deputy Director of the Architecture Foundation think tank, and raised his concerns by declaring: “FA winning the Turner Prize would risk turning sensitive investigative work into insensitive entertainment”. Weizman himself said the nomination was “bittersweet… ….more bitter than sweet”

The collective’s most recent undertakings can be questioned with regard to potential exhibitions in galleries and at special events. Grenfell Tower, for example, has not contributed to any conclusions within the official investigation at the time of writing, while the work could easily awaken traumatic memories for those directly or indirectly affected. 

FA is very conscious of this, though, and appears to understand when discretion is more important than mediatisation. Their work remains primarily meaningful and relevant, rather than being reduced to eye-catching commercial art. Looking ahead, the organisation foresees new opportunities in the way technologies evolve, making new tools and techniques available.

 “A lot of what we do has benefited from the availability of technology, it facilitates communication with potential witnesses thanks to social media,” Nankivell explains. “Technologies like cameras, digital recording equipment, satellite communication and drones can really make a big difference on the research and practical side of a project. 

“We can also benefit from a massive portal of images flooding in from conflicts. Assembled piece-by-piece, they create a bigger picture and a better image of what is actually going on there,” she continues. “The software or communication platforms we use drive us towards more accurate results but it can also bring new issues, like the saturation of images that need to be filtered out.” 

The conflicts also become more complex with technology— new networks are created and webs of information become widely available which can be interpreted or transformed quickly. A sort of secondary conflict seems to occur in the background of these battles, as we try to assess the authenticity of interpretations that take place in the news and on social media. 

This combined process of urbanisation and ‘mediatisation’ of war makes forensic architecture an urgent and indispensable practice for human rights investigations. Put simply, it is something we must discuss as an alternative approach to architecture if we are to work in a more responsible and human manner.

This feature is taken from our CHANGE (printed edition) and will be one of the ongoing features DE will be revisiting and updating over the following months after hearing the news last month, ‘Eyal Weizman barred from U.S. ahead of Forensic Architecture retrospective’

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