How 'forensic architecture' is being used to solve war crimes across the world

Architect and Goldsmiths, University of London professor Eyal Weizman tells the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi that creatives could work together to achieve justice

Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman speaking at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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Technological developments in arts and culture are contributing to an increase in accountability for human rights abuses, the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi has heard.

Eyal Weizman, founder and director of Turner prize-nominated Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, spoke in a session about how the organisation uses cutting-edge techniques in spatial and architectural analysis, alongside various other tools, to investigate human rights abuses across the world.

“You would ask, ‘What has architecture got to do with politics and human rights?’” said Weizman. “I have myself started with an analysis exposing violations of human rights undertaken by Israeli architects in the occupied Palestinian territories by building settlements, that control and survey Palestinians,” he said.

“These are hilltop settlements, designed by architects almost as strategic tools, in what I call the civilian occupation.” He said these settlements enter, control and fragment Palestine.

“You see how architecture and planning can actually not only serve people, not only show the best of humanity, but also be an exercise of violence.”

Weizman said the research agency has offices in Berlin, London, Bogota, Mexico City and “very importantly”, in Ramallah, which it runs together with the human rights organisation Al-Haq.

Weizman, who is also a professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Forensic architecture is a way of reading architectural facts, architectural material, architectural situations, in order to see within them evidence for these violations that I'm speaking about.

“Perhaps the best way to understand it is, just like a pathologist reads a dead body — looking at the bones — forensic architecture looks for evidence of these crimes in walls, in foundations, in buildings, in plans, in bridges, in roads etc in a way that they're conceived sometimes, in order to survey and control us.”

See how 'forensic architecture' was used to piece together the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh below

What makes forensic architecture so important is most civilians who die in war zones tend to die inside buildings, added Weizman. “And a majority of the people that die inside buildings die within their own homes — violence invades the most precious of public spaces.”

Weizman said forensic architecture resembles a process of archaeology — piecing together what happened through various traces of destruction. Pointing to a building hit by a drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, he said: “In this particular building, we're looking at every bit of shrapnel”.

By comparing architectural models with photographs and even physical models, Forensic Architecture tries to piece together events ranging from an enforced disappearance by Colombian security forces in the 1980s, to a 2006 neo-Nazi killing in Germany, and the killing of a black man, Harith Augustus, by the Chicago Police Department in 2018.

In the last case, synthesising footage from eight different body cameras, the team was able to show that the victim was reaching for his licencse when he was shot. “And that is material that goes into court and into newspapers in order to expose these forms of violence.”

In the West Bank, the group worked with Al-Haq to locate the exact place where Israeli forces fired the bullets that killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and the ammunition that was used. He said this evidence was submitted by Abu Akleh’s family to the International Criminal Court investigation into her death.

In other examples, such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, which killed dozens people, the models have been used as “gateways to recollection”, to help hundreds of witnesses that were too traumatised to remember exactly what happened.

“Being architects and also artists, we are participating in many exhibitions worldwide,” said Weizman. Forensic Architecture presented a model of the Miranshah building it created for the UN at Venice Biennale 2016, for example.

In one case, after being invited to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York, the team used machine learning algorithms to create a project showing that the museum’s vice chairman was profiting from munitions and tear gas — which led to his resignation and divestment from the arms industry.

“Our work is presented in courts, but it's also presented in exhibitions, because we believe in the function and in the potential of art and culture, to allow places for accountability; to allow places where precise information about the most important aspects and the most important violations of human rights [can] be exposed.

“I think that this is a small example of how agency and accountability could be exercised through the creative process, through collaboration between artists, architects, lawyers and journalists, and how we can go across those disciplines in order to find a new way to exercise our art.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see more photos from days one and two of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi

Updated: October 27, 2022, 11:13 AM