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We’re yet to realise the extent of abuses that governments cover-up. One organisation is measuring the architecture of these otherwise quiet abuses.
In January of 2018, 500 members of the Venezuelan military and police surrounded a house in a suburb of Caracas. Inside were seven people who had been opposing President Maduro by dropping grenades on two government buildings. A few hours later, the men were dead, mostly from a bullet to the head or neck. The house was a pile of rubble. In May, the New York Times wrote a story about the case, asking help from its readers to prove that the men had been executed while they were negotiating a surrender.
The paper wrote that since January it had been working to reconstruct what had happened during the hours between the start and the end of the operation. One of the groups that had been vital in their investigation was Forensic Architecture, one of the most fascinating groups that supports victims of worldwide human rights abuses. In this case, FA collected all the available social media information, leaked police communications, bystander information and the rubble from the building, to prove that the men were not killed in a gun battle, as the authorities say, but shot at close range, probably with their arms in the air.
Forensic Architecture was nominated for the Turner Prize, Britain’s biggest art award. That sounds a bit strange for an organisation that calls itself an “architectural detective agency”. But it is completely understandable, because FA has made itself a large group of influential enemies. And often the only place where it can show the public, us, what it is doing, is at an art exhibition. The one you can visit if you are in London’s Tate Gallery is called “Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture, Investigative Aesthetics”. What you will see are 3D reconstructions of a number of human rights abuse cases, painstakingly put together by the architects, researchers, artists, software designers, data analysts, filmmakers, designers and virtual reality experts that FA employs.
There is, for instance, the mystery of the murder of a Turkish man in a café in Germany in 2006. It was a racist killing by neo-Nazis, one of a dozen at the time. The puzzling thing was that at the back of the café a member of Germany’s intelligence service was going through a dating app on his phone. Although the shots could be heard hundreds of meters away, at the trial he maintained that he didn’t see or hear anything. When FA investigated, they pulled together all the information available: social media, satellite imagery, bystander testimonies and the evidence of the building itself; then they built a full-scale model of the café and reenacted the events (this proved that it was impossible for the agent to have missed what happened); and, of course, asked why he didn’t intervene; even posed the question if he, or his employers, were implicated in the murder.
Forensic Architecture is the brainchild of British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. After working as a “normal” architect in Israel for years, he decided to do a PhD on the ways in which town planning in the Israeli Occupied Territories was used to divide and suppress the Palestinian population. He wanted to prove that architecture could be used to violate human rights and that architects can be complicit. After he had done that, he realised that architects could be helpful in fighting human rights abuses too.
They know how buildings work and can use that knowledge, together with other information, to prove that the story that a state, or a military, or police, tells about an event is not necessarily the truth. Weizman found a place at Goldsmiths, University of London, and started building a team that could do this. All the time, he was inspired by a 2000 case that had played out in front of the British High Court of Justice, a case that had proved to him how important the role of architectural research and evidence can be.
Forensic Architecture has “built up a new sub-discipline of architecture”, aimed to help human rights organisations, international prosecutors, political justice groups and newspapers to show that abuses are often meticulously planned by states and military and habitually covered up.
In front of the judges had been David Irving, the Holocaust denier, who had brought a libel suit against American writer Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. Lipstadt had accused Irving of denying the scale of the Holocaust and falsifying history. Irving had gone to court, because he believed, he said, that nothing really untoward had happened during WWII. And therefore he was not misrepresenting the past, but instead telling it like it was. At the centre of the case was concentration camp Auschwitz and the question if hundreds of thousands of people had been killed there, as Lipstadt said, or only a few, as Irving maintained.
To prove or disprove this, the legal debate revolved around the architecture of one of the gas chambers and the small holes in the ceiling. Had they been big enough to allow the Zyklon-B to enter a room packed with thousands of people? The roof had been destroyed after the war and Irving said it had never been there. And “no holes, no Holocaust”. Assisting Lipstadt were 1,944 photographs from a US reconnaissance plane, analysed by the supervisor of image processing applications at NASA, an expert in the analysis of aerial and satellite images. He proved that the holes had been there, and Irving lost his case.
Weizman realised that it was good that there had been 1,944 images, because publicly available satellite images now are deliberately degraded, so they can’t be used as proof of state murder or other abuses. He also found out that because of this, the UN increasingly monitors violence by buying images from the archives of commercial satellite companies, because normal satellite photographs are “designed to hide information”.
He decided to make forensic architecture his life’s work and help out organisations like the UN in gathering the proof they needed to find evidence of abuses. Since then Forensic Architecture has “built up a new sub-discipline of architecture”, that is aimed to help human rights organisations, international prosecutors, political and environmental justice groups and newspapers like the New York Times provide evidence to show that abuses happen, that they are often meticulously planned by states and military, and that they are habitually covered up.
They pulled together all the information; then built a full-scale model and reenacted the events (this proved that it was impossible for the agent to have missed what happened); and, of course, asked why he didn’t intervene; even posed the question if he, or his employers, were implicated in the murder.
Examples are the disappearance of students in Mexico, a lethal factory fire in Karachi, torture in detention centres in Cameroon and Syria, chemical weapons attacks, the Grenfell tower fire, ecocide in Indonesia, an attack on a MSF hospital in Syria, attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza, drone strikes everywhere in the world, genocide in Guatemala and Bosnia, the deaths of Palestinian demonstrators.
With its sister-organisation Forensic Oceanography it also investigated claims that NGOs that were rescuing migrants off the coast of Lybia were colluding with people smugglers. In each case, FA painstakingly collects all the material it can find, using 3D-models to cross-reference everything it has. Then it analyses and reenacts events, to show what really happened. Sometimes they are recent cases, sometimes cases go back centuries; Ground Truth, for instance: built on proof of dispossession and destruction to show that there had been people living in Israel’s Negev desert before the Israelis came. It was something the government denied, so it could claim a version of our own “terra nullius” and take the land from its (non-existing?) inhabitants.
Weizman and his people are becoming more and more important in helping citizens right the wrongs done to them by their governments or government organisations. That makes Forensic Architecture dangerous. In the past, their art installations have been destroyed by governments, members of FA have been threatened and the organisation is very careful in asking members of the public for help. But it is all worth it, Weizman thinks. He wants to be “on the side of civil society”, whatever the cost. In doing so, Forensic Architecture is an example to us all.