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Forensic Architecture: using technology to expose injustice

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With Forensic Architecture nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, Adam Branson meets its founder, Eyal Weizman, to find out about how it uses pioneering architectural techniques to uncover the truth behind crimes and human-rights violations

Eyal Weizman has both a face and manner that engender trust. He has gentle eyes and speaks softly, maintaining eye contact at all times. He is the epitome of the kindly professor. And yet, there is also an intensity about him that conveys as effectively as the words he chooses the extremely serious nature of his work. 

Forensic Architecture, the research body at Goldsmiths that Weizman founded in 2011, investigates some of the most shocking instances of injustice and crimes against humanity to be found in the world. In recent years, it has – among much else – conducted investigations into a catastrophic fire at a factory in Karachi, the bombing of hospitals in Syria and a torture and detention centre in Cameroon.

What makes Forensic Architecture different to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, however, is that its investigations are carried out using pioneering architectural techniques. By gathering as much evidence as possible – in the form of videos, photographs, audio recordings and witness statements, for example – Weizman’s team constructs 3D digital models that enable them to investigate events in both time and space.

The value of independent groups undertaking fact-based activism, producing quality verification of events, has increased

While much of his work centres on parts of the world with dubious human rights records, Weizman is increasingly concerned about the situation in countries long thought to be bastions of liberal democracy. Most recently, for instance, Forensic Architecture turned its attention to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

So why does Weizman believe his skills are increasingly required in the West? Why are these skills necessarily architectural? And what contribution does he hope to make to the ongoing analysis of the Grenfell fire?

In the last 18 months, Forensic Architecture’s public profile has grown substantially. In part, that is due to an exhibition of its work at the Institute of Contemporary Art (closing 13 May), which follows a number of other gallery exhibitions and has culminated in its Turner Prize nomination.

‘We’ve seen a lot of interest from the art world because they work with space and images,’ says Weizman. ‘The ICA approached us with a proposition. It explained that its mission is to produce multidisciplinary work that is socially relevant and to use aesthetic practices. Its mission and our work are very much in line.’ 

But he also believes that, at a time when instances of ‘fake news’ occur on a daily basis, Forensic Architecture’s work is increasingly relevant.

Forensic architecture counter investigations ica photo by mark blower

Forensic architecture counter investigations ica photo by mark blower

Source: Mark Blower

Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the ICA

‘The rise of the popular right has become much more distinct,’ he says. ‘It’s attacking not only this or that fact but the very means of verifying facts; the means of fact production. Therefore, the value of independent groups undertaking fact-based activism, producing quality information and verification of events, has increased.’ 

The increasing digitisation of society is also a factor. Put simply, smartphone technology means that events – in urban locations at least – will often be captured from multiple angles and perspectives. 

‘I think that the more technology becomes available and people get used to analysing videos, spatial situations, audio files – all the different bits of evidence – the more they understand that with the increasing amount of data, it’s the cross-referencing of information that becomes important,’ he says.

‘That cross-referencing needs to happen in architectural models. So, imagine you have 1,000 bits of data. You need to make sense of them. The only way to make sense of them is to locate them in space and time. You need to be able to see the relationship between evidence and space and that’s something that has become much more essential.’

The Grenfell fire is a case in point. On the morning of 14 June last year, Weizman, like the vast majority of London’s citizens, looked on in horror at the smoking remains of the north Kensington high-rise. Unlike most people, however, he immediately recognised that he had the skills to make a valuable contribution to working out why and how it occurred.

‘Seeing what was going on, we realised that a lot of the tools and techniques that we’ve developed for, say, analysing bomb strikes in Syria or Palestine, or the factory fire in Karachi, could be brought to bear on questions that are much closer to home,’ he says. ‘We just wanted to do it as public service.’

Forensic architecture saydnaya 1

Forensic architecture saydnaya 1

Source: Forensic Architecture

Saydnaya prison, as reconstructed by Forensic Architecture

As a result, Forensic Architecture started an independent investigation, gathering as much information as possible. In part, that involved scouring sources of publicly available media, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But it also involved setting up a dedicated platform where people can upload photographs, videos and audio recordings.

‘People are uploading material to us,’ says Weizman. ‘It’s kind of like those videos are the testimonies of the people of London. We can piece it all together and create a narrative of the progress of the fire, which is very important for what we can see in terms of first responders’ movements and actions on the site and in terms of any other activities going on around it.’ 

We are asking architects and other professionals to contribute their time to our Grenfell investigation

New information is still being uploaded, but Weizman and his team are already developing an interactive 3D platform that will allow users to navigate Grenfell, both in terms of when events took place and spatially inside and outside the tower.

Given the scale of the tragedy and the sheer volume of evidence, it is unsurprising that Forensic Architecture is actively looking for voluntary support from people with the necessary skills. Weizman believes that many of the AJ’s readers could play an invaluable part in the investigation.

‘We are asking architects and other professionals to contribute their time,’ he says. ‘We need to project and map videos on to 3D models. We’ve developed a technique using a stack of software, but if you can animate, build a model, map images on to space, we would like to work with you and you can contribute to this open-source investigation: a people’s investigation.’

That use of the phrase ‘a people’s investigation’ goes to the heart of the way in which Forensic Architecture operates. The organisation receives EU research funding – Weizman is understandably ‘very concerned’ about the prospect of Brexit – but is also increasingly commissioned by civil society groups and human rights organisations to conduct specific investigations. What it will not do, however, is accept commissions from arms of the state. Its ongoing work in Germany provides a perfect illustration as to why.

For some years now, Forensic Architecture has been investigating the murder of a Turkish-German man in Kassel in central Germany, one of a string of 10 racist murders. In the course of the investigation, which involved constructing a digital model of the murder scene and tracking the movements of those present, Forensic Architecture produced evidence that appeared to indicate collusion by a member of the German secret service.

The evidence, however, was disallowed in the murder trial. ‘It wasn’t just the judge but the German prosecutor kept away all relevant evidence of the potential collusion by the secret service under the reason of secrecy and that it wasn’t relevant to the case,’ says Weizman. ‘It’s still a struggle and we’re still involved in it.’

As matters stand, there is a 120-year ban on the publication of the secret service file on the murder, something that led Weizman to conclude that independent bodies such as his own have an increasingly important role to play.

Forensic architecture collage by forensic architecture preview

Forensic architecture collage by forensic architecture preview

Forensic Architecture

’This is something that is unacceptable,’ he says. ’Activist groups must not only demand action from government but undertake independent investigations because you cannot leave state agencies to investigate other state agencies when the interest of the state is to hide things, as we’ve seen in Germany.’

The case clearly helped to undermine Weizman’s faith in the transparency and honesty of apparently democratic institutions, not least when Germany’s ruling CDU party attempted to undermine the very right of a body like Forensic Architecture to investigate the Kassel murder, never mind the conclusions it came to.

‘We’re used to that coming from Turkey or the Israeli military or from the Russians,’ he says. ‘Assad, in a very predictable manner, denigrated our work. Usually when someone is shouting “fake news” at us it is the last resort that they have. It’s when they’re unable to present counter-evidence or unable to deal with what we are presenting. I thought that the fact we have seen that in Germany from a very established party was very surprising.’

So, Forensic Architecture’s work is at the same time disturbing, compelling and arguably vital. It is also highly original and demonstrates that the skills architects possess can be used not just to shape cities, but to contribute to civil society and the delivery of natural justice. 

Forensic Architecture investigations

The Iuventa

On 2 August last year, the ship Iuventa was seized by the Italian judiciary under suspicion of ‘assistance to illegal migration’ and collusion with smugglers during three different rescue operations. The seizure came only days after the German NGO which operated it, Jugend Rettet, along with several others, had refused to sign a ‘code of conduct’ that would have dangerously limited its activities. Forensic Architecture, with partners, conducted a counter-investigation of the authorities’ version of what happened and produced a refutation of the accusations.

Ali Enterprises Factory Fire

Forensic Architecture was asked by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights to carry out an architectural analysis of the fire that destroyed the Ali Enterprises textile factory on 11 September 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan. Inadequate fire-safety measures at the company, a supplier for the German clothes retailer KiK, led to the deaths of 260 factory workers. The findings have been submitted to the regional court in Dortmund, Germany, where legal action against KiK is ongoing.

Adam Branson is a freelance writer specialising in the built environment

Photograph of Eyal Weizman by Anthony Coleman

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