For decades now, the bleeding edge of architecture has treated building itself as a foil, even an adversary—the mirror image of a self-styled critical practice. As the paper architecture of the 1960s and ’70s developed into a wide range of institutionalized alternative practices, from curatorial projects to multimedia installations, timeworn disciplinary concerns of matter and materiality seemed condemned to retrograde status, the stuff of unreflective designer-minions serving the interests of powerful clients. But this attitude takes a paradoxical twist in the work of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency of architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers. Forensic Architecture rejects traditional professional practice—indeed, it epitomizes the field at its most multifarious and mediatic, dealing in building surveys, maps, models, animations, and videos—yet its central claim is that the built environment remains a potentially radical medium. As its name suggests, the agency uses architecture as material evidence, leading independent investigations and partnering with international prosecutors and environmental and human-rights groups to find, reconstruct, and expose violence.
Initiated by Eyal Weizman in 2010 and based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture’s development has coincided with a surge in conflict and crisis around the world, and a creeping sense of exhaustion within the academy. The discipline, anxious to engage, struggles with its own historical bias against instrumentalized knowledge. Weizman’s model of theory—a shrewd, pragmatic approach in which methodological tools and concepts are tested against unfolding global events, and findings are made legible in public political forums far removed from both architecture studios and the halls of the academy—is articulated in a new book, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, as well as an outstanding exhibition, “Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aestheticism,” currently on view at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and at Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, the most comprehensive institutional presentation of the practice to date. The exhibition—organized in both locations by Rosario Güiraldes and given incisive graphic form by the design firm Other Means—instantiates this theory-on-the-fly. At MACBA what begins in the opening gallery as a theoretical and historical introduction to the work segues into a display of more than twenty projects—presented as “evidence files,” and comprising narrated videos, supergraphics, 3-D-printed models, and the occasional installation—that interrogate processes of contemporary urban warfare, drone assassinations, environmental violence, refugee emergencies, and accompanying governmental cover-ups.
In the first gallery, we learn that the roots of Weizman’s method can be traced back to “counter-forensics,” a practice that originated in Argentina in the 1980s, when activists exhumed and analyzed the bodily remains of victims of political repression as part of an effort to hold the state accountable for its crimes. By the ’90s, exhumation practices had spread across the globe, as unspeakable atrocities in places such as Chile, the former Yugoslavia, Honduras, and Rwanda lent increased value to physical evidence—primarily bones, but also other types of material. In this “forensic turn,” Weizman saw an opening for architects, arguing that we could understand “the materiality and texture of a building as a surface upon which events get imprinted and upon which process becomes form.” The crucial assumption underlying Forensic Architecture’s work is thus that buildings, cities, and territories are themselves sentient witnesses. Yet the agency’s approach has an undeniable, if grim, logic: In cases of secret drone assassinations, or in the midst of misinformation campaigns and media blackouts, the cracks, holes, and scars in a building’s walls become potentially powerful evidence of violence.
The clearest demonstration of this idea in the exhibition is an investigation of a March 2012 drone strike that killed four people in Miranshah, Pakistan. Forensic Architecture’s point of departure was a forty-three-second video clip of a damaged building (the clip was smuggled out of the military-controlled area and broadcast by NBC News). Breaking down the video frame by frame, the team assembled a panoramic collage, looking for such features as a blast hole in the roof, “the distinct architectural signature of drone strikes.” The composite images were verified against satellite photos, from which a 3-D computer model of the targeted building and its surroundings was constructed. Once the size and location of the structure were determined, the team superimposed still footage from inside the room where the missile struck to locate and analyze scars in walls. As Forensic Architecture alleged in a report prepared for the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and presented at the UN General Assembly in 2013, the absence of fragments in certain portions of the walls could indicate where people were killed, effectively tracing human shadows.
A 2016 investigation of the notorious Saydnaya military prison in Syria, conducted in collaboration with Amnesty International, entailed a shift from eyewitness to “earwitness” testimony. The prison is off-limits to journalists and monitoring groups, and so, to help illuminate this humanitarian black hole, researchers reconstructed the architecture from survivors’ memories, exploiting, in particular, their acute sensitivity to sound within the dim, quiet prison environment. As former prisoners recollected spaces and objects (torture instruments, furniture, and so on), an architect created a 3-D model in real time that aided further recollections, serving as a mnemonic device in itself.
Forensics, Weizman writes, “slows down time and intensifies sensibility to space, matter, and image.” Taken out of context, this could describe a kind of rarefied connoisseurship, a romantic attitude toward buildings and materials that prioritizes aesthetic contemplation and suggests passivity or even disengagement. Instead, Forensic Architecture has found a way to direct the techniques of the aesthete back onto the world, dissociating urgency from speed, matter from stasis, and architectural knowledge from blind complicity.