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In recent years, the group Forensic Architecture began using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN. Forensic Architecture has not only shed new light on human rights violations and state crimes across the globe, but has also created a new form of investigative practice that bears its name. The group uses architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction, as well as to cross-reference a variety of evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, witness testimony, and crowd-sourcing.

InForensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group's founder, provides, for the first time, an in-depthintroduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice. The book includes an extensive array of images, maps, and detailed documentation that records the intricate work the group has performed. Traversing multiple scales and durations, the case studies in this volume include the analysis of the shrapnel fragments in a room struck by drones in Pakistan, the reconstruction of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, a blow-by-blow account of a day-long battle in Gaza, and an investigation of environmental violence and climate change in the Guatemalan highlands and elsewhere. Weizman'sForensic Architecture,stunning and shocking in its critical narrative, powerful images,and daring investigations, presents a new form of public truth, technologically, architecturally, and aesthetically produced. The practice calls for a transformative politics in which architecture as a field of knowledge and a mode of interpretation exposes and confronts ever-new forms of state violence and secrecy.
Year:
2017
Edition:
Hardcover
Publisher:
Zone Books
Language:
english
Pages:
304 / 361
ISBN 10:
1935408860
ISBN 13:
9781935408864
File:
PDF, 30.53 MB
Download (pdf, 30.53 MB)

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PRAISE FOR THE WORK OF FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

"Eyal Weizman is pioneering the art and science of 'forensic architecture' to
reveal the true extent of state-sponsored violence." -New $dentist
"Weizman has developed a whole new field of 'forensic architecture' he
describes as 'the archaeology of the very recent past' and has powerfully
applied it to the traces left on the ground by the Israel-Palestine conflict."
-Times Higher Education
"This forensic process -what Weizman calls 'architecture in reverse'- shows
how the analytical and presentational skills of architects can be deployed
in graphic, damning detail, in circumstances that extend way beyond the
comfort zone of the drawing board." -Guardian
"As the director of Forensic Architecture, Weizman has invented a new academic discipline, perhaps even a whole new science, a committed, engaged,
citizen science .... Weizman has found a way to harness our everyday digital diversions, for a fierce, moral purpose." -Wired
"Groundbreaking." -London Review of Books
"A scholarly masterpiece." -New York Review of Books

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Forensic Architecture
VIOLENCE AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

Eyal Weizman

ZONE BOOKS • NEW YORK • 2017

© 2017 Eyal Weizman

ZONE BOOKS
633 Vanderbilt Street
Brooklyn, NY 11218
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming, recording,
or otherwise (except for that copying permitted by Sections 107
and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for
the public press), without written permission from the Publisher.

Printed in Belgium.
Distributed by The MIT Press,
Cambridge, Massaclmsetts, and London, England

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Weizman, Eyal, author.
Title: Forensic arcliitecture : violence at the threshold of
detectability / Eyal Weizman.
Description: Brooklyn, ; NY : Zone Books [2017] I Includes
bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016050515 I ISBN 9781935408864 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Forensic sciences. I Forensic anthropology.
I Human rights. I Arcliitecture - Political aspects.
Classification: LCC GN69.8 .w45 2017 I DDC 614/.17-de23
LC record available at https:/ /lccn.loc.gov/2016050515

Contents

PREFACE

9

INTRODUCTION

At the Threshold of Detectability

13
17

Negative Positivism

18

Toward a Forensic Architecture

22

Drone Vision

31

Visual Extraterritorialization

34

PATTERN OF DRONE STRIKES

36

Under the Veil of Resolution

44

The Architecture of Memory

PART ONE

What Is Forensic Architecture? 49
55

CRACKS: LINES OF LEAST RESISTANCE

57

Conflict Surveyors

60

STARO SAJMISTE: THE INVERTED HORIZON

64

Forensis

68

Counterforensics

72

A KNOCK ON THE ROOF

74

Engaged Objectivity

76

WHITE PHOSPHOROUS

78

The Forensic Turn

80

The Era of the Witness

85

SAYDNAYA: INSIDE A SYRIAN TORTURE PRISON

94

Forensic Aesthetics

97

Image Space

101

BEFORE AND AFTER

104

LOCATING AIR STRIKES IN SYRIA

108

ABU RAHMA: FROM VIDEO TO VIRTUAL MODELING

114

Patterns

116

COUNTERPATTERNS

118

Field Causality

121

GUATEMALA: ENVIRONMENTAL VIOLENCE

125

THE LANDSCAPE AGAINST THE STATE

128

The Truth in Ruins

PART TWO

Counterforensics in Palestine
THE FORENSIC DILEMMA

131

133
137

Architecture Against Architects

138

POLITICAL FORMS AND FORCES

140

THE NAKBA DAY KILLING

Precedents

143

THE PYRAMIDS OF GAZA

144

Ruins in Inverse

145

Lawfare

149
154

HANNIBAL IN RAFAH

"Counter-Cartography"

141

Intersections

165
169

Rafah, Black Friday; August 1, 2014

171

The Timeline

175

The Prisoner's Dilemma

180

Hannibal Unleashed

186

Image Space

191

Air: Nephanalysis of Bomb Clouds

196

Subsoil: The Underground Manhunt

210

To Kill A Dead Man

211

Meanwhile ...

212

Postscript: Trial As Denial

PART THREE

Ground Truths

215

219

"A Tribe against a State"

228

The Aridity Line

233

The Conflict Shoreline

236

Meteorological Traces

238

NEGEV SETTLEMENTS, VEGETATION, AND PRECIPITATION

239

The Bedouin Nakba

241

The Politics of Drought

250

PLANT VIGOR AS A POLITICAL SENSOR

252

AL-'ARAQIB IN 1998, 2002, 2008, AND 2014

253

Colonialism and Climate Change

258

The Climate of the Naqab's History

264

The Testimony of the Weather

268

Orientalist Meteorology

275

The Earth Photograph

283

Military Archaeology

288

Life at the Threshold of Detectability

302

POSTSCRIPT: THE SLOW VIOLENCE OF THE "SPLIT SECOND"

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

305

NOTES

309

Preface

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE-the investigative practice that this book introduces - refers to the production of architectural evidence and to its presentation in juridical and political forums. It regards the common elements
of our built environment - buildings, details, cities, and landscapes, as well
as their representations in media and as data - as entry points from which
to interrogate contemporary processes and with which to make claims for
the future.
Forensic Architecture is also the name of a research agency I established
in 2010, together with a group of fellow architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers. We undertake independent research or
act on commission from international prosecutors and environmental and
human rights groups to investigate state and corporate violence, especially
when it bears upon the built environment. The agency produces evidence
files that include building survey, models, animations, video analyses, and
interactive cartographies, and presents them in forums such as international
courts, truth commissions, citizen tribunals, human rights and environmental reports, and, on one occasion, in the UN General Assembly.
We use the term "forensics," but we seek, in fact, to reverse the forensic
gaze and to investigate the same state agencies - such as the police or the
military-that usually monopolize it. For this purpose, our investigative
work tends to exceed the procedural limitations and necessities of the legal
forums in which we present. We locate incidents in their historical contexts
and pull from their microphysical details the longer threads of political
and social processes-conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and
technologies -and reconnect them with the world of which they are part.
We also try to use our investigations as an opportunity to embark upon
longer-term theoretical and historical inquiries about the relations between
architecture, media, and violence, which we make public in exhibitions and

9

texts, such as this book. Architecture, in our practice, to paraphrase Carlo
Ginzburg, is "not a fortress but a port or an airport, a place from which we
leave to other destinations."1
Following an introductory chapter that presents, by way of a historical narrative, the forensic condition of "the threshold of detectability" - a
concept central to our understanding of the challenges and limitations of
our practice - the book proceeds in three parts. The first, "What Is Forensic Architecture?" is, as its title suggests, a kind of practical manual. Its
aim is to outline the methods, assumptions, and critical vocabulary relevant to the field, but also to discuss its constraints, potential problems, and
double binds. The issues discussed in this part are interspersed with brief
examples from the investigations our agency has pursued in various places
worldwide as well as relevant reference materials.
The second part of the book, "Counterforensics in Palestine," presents
a sequence of recent investigations in Palestine-a place where the trajectory that led to the establishment of forensic architecture had its origin. It
describes the way our practice evolved in relation to recent political challenges and to changes in the nature of human rights that have seen the most
relevant evidence increasingly produced by the people experiencing conflicts firsthand.
In the third part of this book, "Ground Truths," the site that typically
organizes the optics of forensic architecture has grown to the size of a
larger territory, perhaps even to that of the planet, which appears as simultaneously both a construction site and a ruin. The investigation at the center of this part was presented in a citizen-organized truth commission on
the site where the Bedouin village of al-'Araq"ib on the northern threshold
of the Naqab/Negev Desert, a place of habitation that was destroyed and
rebuilt more than one hundred times. Part 3 connects the history of this
local land struggle to larger-scale and longer-term environmental transformations, to desertification and climate change along desert thresholds
worldwide, and to the conflicts that such changes have provoked.
Despite there rarely being a simple "who dunnit" logic to our investigations, accounts of the cases presented in this book follow something of
the convention of the detective genre, to the extent, at least, of having two
entangled plots: one involving the crime in the past, the other the investigation in the present. The two plots connect with the evidence, whether
material, testimonial, or media-based. Both "forensics" and "architecture"
refer to well-established disciplinary frames. Brought together, however,
they shift each other's meaning, giving rise to a different mode of practice.

10

PREFACE

Architecture turns the attention of forensics to buildings and cities. Forensics turns architecture into an investigative practice, a probative mode for
enquiring about the present through its spatial materialization. It demands
that architects focus their attention on the materiality of the built environment and its media representations. It also, importantly, challenges architects to use their disciplinary tools to make claims publicly and politically
in the most antagonistic of forums.

PREFACE

11

INTRODUCTION

At the Threshold of Detectability

began with a bizarre legal battle. The David Irving
trial, which unfolded at the English High Court between January and April
2000, involved one of the most detailed and intense presentations of architectural evidence undertaken in a legal context - drawings, models, aerial
and ground-level photographs of buildings - as well as aggressive crossexaminations of it. The case involved a libel suit filed by David Irving
against an American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for calling him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for
Holocaust denial" and a falsifier of history.1 Awkwardly, the process forced
the veracity of the events of the Holocaust to be put on trial, subject not to
historical methods, but to legal rules of evidence. 2 On the tenth and eleventh days of the trial, January 26 and 27, the legal debate revolved around
the architecture of one of the gas chambers - an underground structure
that was part of Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the deadliest of
the five Auschwitz crematoria, where in a space of 200 square meters,
approximately half a million people were killed.
It was also one of the only structures related to the extermination process whose destruction was incomplete. There were, in fact, two stages in
the attempt to destroy Crematorium IL After the extermination process
was stopped in November 1944, SS operators attempted to erase the evidence for the killings by dismantling the gassing instruments. On January
20, 1945, after most of the camp already had been evacuated, Crematorium
II, along with all other Auschwitz crematoriums, was dynamited. The concrete roof of the underground structure was supported by seven columns.
The demolition team might have placed dynamite next to all of them, but
only six detonated. The concrete roof snapped around the single surviving column at the southernmost end of the structure and remained held
THE NEW MILLENNIUM

13

up like the peak of a devastated tent. This detonation failure made it possible, decades later, for Holocaust deniers, or negationists, as they were
sometimes referred to, to enter a small part of the original chamber. On
one occasion, Fred Leuchter, a former US penal system execution specialist, was smuggled in there to chisel out concrete samples from the interior
and check for cyanide traces (as depicted in Errol Morris's documentary
Mr. Death). That random samples taken more than four decades after the
last gassing didn't contain the level of cyanide that Leuchter would have
expected to find in an execution gas chamber in the United States proved
nothing, but was presented by Irving as an argument to counter the determination that the building ever functioned as a homicidal gas chamber. 3
Many of the other details of the structure were subjected to close scrutiny. One, however, became the center of debate. Irving, representing himself, focused the cross-examination of the expert witness facing him - an
architectural historian specializing in the history of Auschwitz, Robert Jan
van Pelt- on the existence of four small holes in the ceiling of the concrete
roof of the structure.4 According to the few surviving witnesses, both victims and perpetrators, it was through short chimney shafts connected to
these holes that the Zyklon B canisters containing cyanide were introduced
into the room.

Robert Jan van Pelt pointing to the ruins of
Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The
gas chamber is on top, and th e arrows point to
the probabl e location of the holes in the ceiling.
HOLOCAUST HI STORY PROJE CT, 2000

14

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Van Pelt had been studying the architecture of Auschwitz since the late
1980s. His analysis concentrated on the surviving plans, in which he read
not only the meaning of lines drawn, but also traces of those erased. On
one occasion, he noticed razor-blade erasure marks around the icon that
architects use to mark doorways - a quarter circle - on the tracing paper on
which the Crematorium II was drawn. In 1942, when the morgue that occupied this building was turned into a gas chamber, the direction of the door
hinges had to change. When the bodies inside the room were pressed against
the doors, they could no longer be opened inward, and the door had to open
toward the outside. This erasure thus confirmed the beginning of a process
of industrialized mass killing.
In the trial, Judge Charles Gray addressed van Pelt directly: "You have
not seen any holes in the roof, have you, in the ... when you went there?"5
Van Pelt answered in the negative. His expert report, submitted to the
court in advance of the trial, presented convergent photographic and testimonial evidence for the existence of the holes, but it conceded that "these
four small holes ... cannot be observed in the ruined remains of the concrete slab." He explained that finding the holes was impossible due to the
state of the roof. Not only had the concrete roof slab broken and crashed
as a result of the explosion, but it was exposed to the elements in the following fifty-six years. He also suggested that it would have been logical
for the Nazis to backfill the holes with concrete before they evacuated the
camp in November 1944, in the same way that any murderer would get rid
of a gun. Irving claimed that it was impossible to condemn the Nazis (and
him) without producing the weapon itself. Traces of the holes would be discovered in an examination that was undertaken a few years later, 6 but in
2000, the court heard the following exchange.
IRVING

You do accept, do you not, that the whole of the story of the

500,000

people killed in that chamber rises or falls, rests or falls on the existence of those holes in that roof?
VAN PELT

No.

IRVING

[Without it] we only have the eyewitness evidence.

vAN

I disagree with that. The whole story rises and falls on the evidence
that this room was a gas chamber, which is a slightly different issue.7

PELT

At the end of this cross-examination, Irving offered van Pelt nothing less
than a deal:

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

15

IRVING

And you do accept, do you not, that if you were to go to Auschwitz the
day after tomorrow with a trowel and clean away the gravel and find
a reinforced concrete hole where we anticipate it would be from your
drawings, this would make an open and shut case and I would happily
abandon my action immediately?

v AN

PELT

I cannot comment on this. I am an expert on Auschwitz and not on the
way you want to run your case.

IRVING

There is my offer. I would say that that would drive such a hole through
my case that I would have no possible chance of defending it any
further.a

Irving seemed to enjoy the pun - "I am going to keep on driving holes
in this case until your Lordship appreciates the significance of the holes,
or their absence"9 - but there was also some logic, albeit a hermetic and
elliptical one, to his argument: without these holes, the cyanide in Zyklon B canisters could not have been introduced into the room, and without cyanide, the room could not have functioned as a gas chamber. In that
case, the witnesses were either deluded or lying. If the structure was not a
gas chamber, Auschwitz could not have been a death camp. Without Auschwitz as the functional and symbolic center of the extermination process,
the Holocaust, as a premeditated industrialized policy of racially motivated
killing, could never have happened. "No holes, no Holocaust" already had
been the formulation of master denier Robert Faurisson for several years.10
And if the Holocaust didn't happen, Irving could not be accused of falsifying history-quod erat demonstrandum!
While Irving was satisfied with proclaiming the Nazis innocent of genocide and himself a victim of libel, the cascading linear logic of denial was
extended by some groups that, since the US designation of the Pol Pot
regime as genocidal, supported Holocaust denial as an anti-imperialist practice. Without the Holocaust, the entire apparatus of "Western democratic

Fredrick Tiiben, an Australian Holocaust denier,
going through a break in the roof of Crematorium
II at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is trying to demonstrate that the opening was too large to have been
one of the lethal holes.

FREDRICK TiiBEN, "To THE

MANNHEIM JAIL : JUSTICE ANO TRUTH IN CONTEMPORARY
GERMANY," JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL REVIEW 20.3 (2001) ,
AVAILABLE AT COMMITTEE FOR OPEN DEBATE ON THE
HOLOCAUST, COOOH .COM / LIBRARY/DOCUMENT /2978

16

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Robert Jan van Pelt pointing to the
roof of the gas chamber in Crematorium
I, captured on an aerial photograph
by an Alli ed reconnaissance mission
on August 25, 1944 . This image is
rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise in
relation to the previous aerial image.
EYAL WEIZMAN

post-World War II imperialism" - the Fourth Geneva Convention, the 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the concept of genocide, the United
Nations as a system aspiring to manage conflict and maintain international
order-would stand on nothing, they believed.11

NEGATIVE POSITIVISM

Staking the nonexistence of the Holocaust on holes in a fragmented and
almost pulverized concrete slab and imbuing a single architectural detail
with such overarching geopolitical significance might appear to be a desperate act - but the use of material evidence to negate survivors' testimony was by then the established method of Holocaust deniers. Witness
testimony, Faurisson - in whose footsteps Irving was following elsewhere
claimed, produced "too much metaphysics, not enough materialism" and
lacked the power of the thing in itself.12 Even van Pelt felt compelled to
admit that "Faurisson made a very radical, but also perverse, epistemic
shift" in Holocaust history "from various classes of evidence in which eyewitness testimony has a place to considering material evidence," because
"in terms of Holocaust historiography [he] forced us to look at a much
larger body of evidence."n
A similar approach in 1983 brought Irving some fame for being the first
to identify as fake the "Hitler Diaries," which had been bought by the German magazine Stern for a huge sum - after several of their pages had been
authenticated by distinguished historians who focused their analyses on
issues of style, voice, and historical fact. From the floor of a pressroom
at the publishers' headquarters in Hamburg, into which he was smuggled

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

17

uninvited, Irving shouted: "Check the ink!" before being thrown out.14 The
ink was dated to the 1950s.
In the London trial, it was not ink, but architecture - or more precisely,
the absence of a particular piece of material-architectural evidence-that
Irving sought to mobilize against human testimony. It was not positivism
that led him to insist on materiality-there would be nothing wrong with
adding a material dimension to other evidentiary techniques - but rather
negation, which fundamentally meant negation of the ability of witnesses
to speak to history at all. Posing matter against memory, he seemed to
advocate a history without witnesses and beyond language.
Because the evidence concerned not only matter, but its absence-the
absence of holes - the issue revolved around a rather confusing absence
of an absence.15 The fact that the holes could not be found was presented
by Irving as "negative evidence" for the process of extermination. "Negative evidence" is an oxymoronic term that legal professionals and scholars
employ when the very absence of material evidence is used as evidence
in its own right. In legal terms, it is a kind of antibody meant to disrupt
and dismantle the assemblages of evidence on which cases rest. Defense
teams mobilize negative evidence to disrupt prosecution cases: despite
overwhelming converging evidence, they hope a crime cannot be proved if
there is no body or no weapon, or, as in our case, if there are no holes. For
prosecutors, on the other hand, negative evidence can also indicate that
evidence was destroyed and that this act of cover-up might be considered
incriminating evidence in its own right. 16 By blowing up the building, the
Nazis were engaged in Holocaust denial, but inadvertently confirmed that
a crime had taken place inside.

TOWARD A FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Harun Farocki's 1989 film Images of the World and the Inscription of War
presented an inadvertent prequel to this story. On a cloudless day, August
25, 1944, a US reconnaissance mission was sent to photograph a petrochemical factory- Monowitz-Buna - located next to the Auschwitz-Birkenau
extermination camp. The five-by-three miles of ground territory captured
by one of the 35-millimeter negatives shot by a US Air Force Mosquito
plane included the roof of Crematorium II, somewhere close to the edge of
the frame in the lens's area of barrel distortion. The fact that this image,
along with a few other aerial photographs from the spring and summer of
1944, captured the crematorium was noticed only in 1978, by two CIA image

18

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Harun Farocki, Images

of the World and the
Inscription of War, 1989 .

analysts named Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer. When the image was
enlarged, Brugioni and Poirer spotted four blurry marks on the roof of the
crematorium building and simply annotated them as "vents."11 These were
the small chimney shafts that led to the infamous holes.
Irving claimed that the film on which the shafts were recorded was
inauthentic. When he looked at it under high magnification, he noticed a
strange interference pattern at the place where the vents were marked.is
This, he claimed, indicated that the negative had been tampered with by
the addition of "brush strokes" sometime after the film was shot.19 But the
court was also provided with a report prepared shortly before the trial by
Nevin Bryant, "supervisor of cartographic applications and image processing applications" at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and an expert in the analysis of aerial and satellite images.20 Bryant
used state of the art digital magnification to peer into the molecular composition of the film . At stake was the way in which the photographic process
captured and recorded objects on the scale of the silver halide crystals or
"salts" that make up the chemical composition of the film . Film resolution
depends on the distribution and the ranges of sizes of these grains. Bryant
determined that from the altitude of 15,000 feet and at the resolution of the
negative, a single grain represented an area of about half a meter square on
the ground. He suggested that the interference pattern identified by Irving
was a phenomenon that occurs at the level of the grains in the emulsion of
the film when images of objects on the ground are captured at or close to
the size of the grains in the film. The same kind of interference patterns
occurred also in another part of the same roll. The photograph there captured a group of prisoners being marched within the camp. Irving referred
to these interference patterns as "brush strokes," as well. Responding to

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

19

the judge's request for clarifications, van Pelt quoted Bryant's conclusion:
the interference pattern was caused when "the size of a head of a person is
the same as the size of a grain in the emulsion of the film, and the result
of that was that [of] a moire effect, which occurs also in the newspaper
when you photograph a picture which has been screened twice."21 That the
indivisible unit of photography represents half a meter square of ground,
roughly the same as the size of a person seen from above, is a coincidence
that continued to haunt the practice of forensic architecture, as I will
explain later.
The shafts on the roof of Crematorium II were also the same size, half
a meter by half a meter. It was the shadow cast on that cloudless day that
created the blurred interference pattern.
When the size of an object recorded on the negative - here, a person
or a shaft-is close to the size of the material element that records it-the
single silver salt grain -it is in a condition that I refer to throughout this
book as the threshold of detectability: things that hover between being
identifiable and not. They leave a chemical signature on the negative, but
cannot be verified. At the threshold of detectability, both the surface of
the negative and that of the thing it represents must be studied as both
material objects and as media representations. 22 In other words, this condition forces us to remember that the negative is not only an image representing reality, but that it is itself a material thing, simultaneously both
representation and presence.23
As the cross-examination went on, it became clear that against the linear argument mobilized by Irving's negative evidence, van Pelt had woven
a complex and overwhelmingly convincing network of converging evidence, both for the existence of the holes and for the entire operation of
the structure as a death chamber. These included architectural plans, letters, diaries, logbooks, testimonies, and ground-level photographs. 24 Irving
lost the trial and later also lost the appeal. My aim here is not to reopen
the case, but to show how it turned on the condition of the threshold of
detectability. It also demonstrates the ongoing tension between testimony
and evidence - material and linguistic practices, subject and objectand the complex interdependencies between violence and the negation
of evidence that are central to the field of forensic architecture. I also
begin this book with the Irving trial because it serves as a warning: an
independent forensics analyst challenging officially sanctioned truths
with the typically limited means afforded to activists is not a guarantee of
progressive politics.

20

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

A group of prisoners being marched through a gate in Auschwitz, U.S. Air Force, 25 August 1944, As the
prisoner group turns 90 degrees, the narrow neck seems to be a gate. There is another group of prisoners
moving along the main north-south route. The size of the head of a single prisoner is the same as that of
a single silver salt particle in the film. COURTESY o, NEVIN BRYANT, NASA

The roof of Crematorium II, rotated 90 degrees clockwise in relation to the first image on page 17, AuschwitzBirkenau. US Air Force photograph, August 25, 1944. Nevin Bryant explained that the four dark areas are
the shadows cast around the Zyklon B chimneys. He identified the short interference path next to the
rightmost hole as a person, possibly a member of the 55, standing on the roof. It is possible that gassing
was going on at the time when the image was taken. couRTESY

OF

NEVIN BRYANT, NASA

DRONE VISION

I recalled the story above about the holes and the Irving trial when Forensic Architecture began its investigation of Western drone strikes. 25 At the
end of 2011, we were commissioned by several organizations: Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism,
asked us to investigate a number of strikes for a report on drone warfare
in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza that he eventually
presented at the UN General Assembly; the Pakistani human rights lawyer
Shahzad Akbar asked us to prepare evidence for a legal action he presented
to the UK Court of Appeal; and the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked us to collaborate to uncover patterns of drone strikes in built
environments. 26
The reason we were commissioned (despite having only recently been
formed) was that for several years drone strikes had shifted from targeting vehicles along roadways to targeting buildings in dense urban environments. The evidence had an architectural dimension, and there were
no other organizations providing architectural analysis. Two years into the
drone campaign, the Taliban forces in the Federally Administered Tribal
Area (FATA) on the Pakistani frontier with Afghanistan learned to avoid,
or at least to minimize, traveling between remote bases and moved into
towns and cities. The CIA killer drones followed them there-27 While testimonies and evidence of civilian casualties in the towns of FATA started to
emerge, the CIA was still persistent in denying that its drone campaign was
taking place at all.
However, a particular type of evidence also started to emerge. The
effect of drone strikes on buildings had a distinct signature - small holes
in the roof. The targeted building would remain intact, except for a hole
that the missile had pierced on its way in to detonate within a room inside
the structure.
These holes, our study later established, were the result of the kind
of missiles employed in these strikes. As long as drone strikes targeted
vehicles, the CIA munitions of choice, primarily Lockheed Martin Hellfire antitank missiles, would do. 28 Since 2007, the US had invested millions in modifying these missiles for the task of striking buildings within
urban environments. The "Romeo" Hellfire II or AGM-114R was tested in
2009 and put into action in 2010. It was, in fact, a counterarchitectural
technology. One of the important developments introduced in this model
of the missile had to do with improving its charge and delay fuse. A few

22

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Diagram of the path of a delayfused missile through a building .
FO REN SIC A RCHITECTURE

milliseconds delay between first impact on the roof and detonation, which
could be differently set for each strike, allows a missile to break through
several layers of roof, walls, and floors made of adobe, brick, or concrete
before detonating in a room deeper within the structure, where a payload of hundreds of lethal steel fragments is designed to destroy flesh, but
leave the structure intact. Most other airborne munitions detonate upon
impact, leaving most of the blast force outside the structure. To ensure
the deaths of the people inside, large payloads are needed to bring the
structures down.
The apologists described their drone missiles as a "humanitarian technology" because they saved lives and produced less collateral damage
than those authorized and used by other military planners.29 The argument rested on the idea that they are "saving people" from what the
United States otherwise would have done to them. The "humanitarian
violence" of drone warfare could thus be presented as one that both kills
and saves.
The critics of drone warfare objected to the Pentagon's account of the
missiles' accuracy (deviation from aiming point) and precision (dispersion of damage).30 They were not always as accurate and precise as they
cleaimed to be. However, in general, criticism of covert drone warfare
shifted between two seemingly contradictory positions: it was both too
precise, allowing operators to kill from half a world away, and not precise
enough, unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

23

Traces of roof-penetrating munitions.
Tuffah, Northern Gaza, 2009. Being
able to study similar strikes in Gaza
assisted the analysis undertaken remotely
in Pakistan. KENT KLICH

A man is seen through a hole made
in his roof by a US drone strike in
Damadola, Bajaur region, Pakistan,
on January 13, 2006.
© TARIQ MAHMOOO/AFP/ GETTY

The issue, we believed, related to the fact that decisionmakers authorized their use because drone munitions were perceived as highly precise.
Like other techniques and technologies of the "lesser evil," the perception
that drone munitions could be precise was an important factor in allowing
for drone strikes to be continually authorized in densely inhabited civilian
areas, in markets, in homes, in mosques, and in schools, leading, cumulatively, to the proliferation of civilian casualties. Of the 380 strikes that one
of our partners, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), recorded in
Pakistan from 2004 and 2014, we have established that more than 234, or
about 62 percent, were targeted domestic buildings. The holes in the roofs
across FATA thus demonstrated the relation between the microscale technology of drone missiles and their effects on a larger territorial scale in an
extended campaign that according to the BIJ, by the end of 2014 resulted in
as many as 1,614 civilian casualties in Pakistan alone.Ji
However, the confirmation of such architectural traces of drone missile
strikes was not easy to come by. The areas where drone warfare took place
were made inaccessible to journalists and human rights investigators from

24

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TOP :

An enlargement of a satellite image at the presumed location of a March 30,

2012,

drone strike in Miran-

shah, FATA, Pakistan . We were unable to identify the hole in the roof because it is smaller than the size of
a single pixel.

BOTTOM :

The hole in the roof through which the drone missile entered the same building.

DIGITALGLOBE , MARCH 31 , 2012 ; MSNBC BROADCAST, JUNE 29 , 2012

The photographic modulor: pixel sizes
in relation to the dimensions of the

human body.

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Pakistan and worldwide; as such, there were very few images in public circulation. The most common way to investigate would have been satellite
images. From their perspective, however, the hole in the roof was smaller
than the area captured by a single pixel in the resolution to which publically available satellite images were degraded.
This resolution posed a digital version of the problem that had emerged
with the silver salt particles in the negatives of the 1944 reconnaissance
photographs of Auschwitz. In both cases, the hole indicated that the room
under it was an execution chamber, and in both cases, such holes and the
violence they evidenced were at or under the threshold of detectability.
The point here is not to compare attempts to exterminate a whole people
in gas chambers to a secret and largely illegal assassination war conducted
in civilian areas, but to show that the forensic-architectural problem was
analogous in the sense that it forced us to examine the relation between
an architectural detail, the media in which it could be captured, a general
policy of killing, and its acts of denial.
Unlike the randomly disturbed grains of analog photography, digital
images, such as satellite images, are divided into a grid of equal square
units, or pixels. This grid filters reality like a sieve or a fishing net. Objects
larger than the grid are captured and retained. Smaller ones pass through
and disappear. Objects close to the size of the pixel are in a special threshold condition: whether they are captured or not depends on the relative
skill, or luck, of the fisherman and the fish.
Throughout recent decades, the resolution in which satellite images
were made publically available gradually improved. In the 1970s, the first
of the Landsat earth-observation satellites beamed back images of the
earth at 60 meters per pixel. Small villages were swallowed in the single
monochrome square. In the 1980s, the pixel size was reduced to 30-meter
squares, then, at the turn of the 1990s, it was down to 20. 32 At that resolution, as architect Laura Kurgan has explained, human rights violations
begin to be recognizable as environmental transformation: one can see, for
example, the traces of mass graves in agricultural fields; however, buildings and neighborhoods are captured as an undifferentiated mass. At the
turn of the millennium, individual buildings came to be differentiated at
2.5 meters per pixel, then a few years later, the publically available images
sharpened further to 0.5 meters per pixel. However, this gradual process
of the earth's coming into focus was then halted. The pixel resolution of
contemporary, publically available satellite images is not only a product of
optics, data storage, or bandwidth capacity, but of legal regulations that

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

27

bear upon political and even geopolitical rationales. Throughout the height
of the drone campaign and for the entire duration of our investigation,
the resolution at which satellite images were made publically available
was legally kept at o.s meters per pixel, with each pixel representing half
a meter by half a meter of ground's surface-incidentally, also approximately, the same ground surface area captured by a silver halide grain in
the analog aerial images debated in the Irving trial.
The reason for halting the process of improving the resolution of publically available satellite images was that at o.s meters, the pixel resolution corresponds to the dimensions of the human body- an area o.s meters
by o.s meters is roughly the size of the human body as seen from above.
As such, the pixel could be thought of as analogous to what Le Corbusier
called a "modular" - a system of proportions and measurements that relate
to the human body.JJ The satellite images' modular was not meant to help
organize space, but rather to remove the human figure from representation. The human body was now drowned within the pixel resolution available to independent groups to analyze human rights violations.
The o.s-meter resolution was selected as a limit for publically available

Leaked footage from Italian military
drones flying in Iraq-originally published in December 2015 in L'Espressohelped us estimate that the rough
pixel resolution of these drone-mounted
cameras is between 1 and 2 centimeters
per pixel. The black squares on this
image, marking the size of a single pixel
in a satellite photograph at the time
we undertook our investigation, contain
1,681 pixels in this image.

28

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

L'ESPREsso

images because it bypassed risks of privacy infringement when recording
people in public spaces, much in the same way that Google Street View
blurs the faces of people or car license plates. But the regulation also has
a security rationale: important details of strategic sites get camouflaged at
the 0.5-meter resolution, as are the consequences of violence and violations
such as drone strikes on buildings.
In a further radicalization of the geopolitics of resolution, US satellite
image providers make an exception to the 0.5-meter rule in Israel and the
Palestinian territories it occupies. An amendment to the US Land Remote
Sensing Policy Act of 1992, which established the permitted resolution of
commercial US image satellites, dictates that these areas are shown only
at a resolution of 2.5 meters (later effectively eased to 1.0 meter per pixel),
a resolution at which a car is depicted as two pixels and a roof, another
common target, is depicted by four. The screen thus placed over Israel's
violation of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza contributed to
Turkey's decision, after the Gaza Flotilla incident of May 2010, to send
its own image satellite into space and make available 0.5-meter-per-pixel
images of Palestine/Israel. 34 Eventually, in June 2014, the 0.5-meter limit
was changed to 31 centimeters per pixel after an appeal from a commercial
satellite company to the US Department of Commerce convinced them that
a person could still not be recognized at this resolution - a change that,
again, applied in all places but Israel.35
The resolution of satellite images also has direct, if inadvertent, consequences for our ability to investigate drone strikes. Although at a resolution of 0.5 meters (in use until the end of our investigation in early 2014)
the general features of individual buildings can be identified, a hole in a
roof - the signature of a drone strike, often no wider than 30 centimeters
in diameter-would appear as nothing more than a slight color variation, a
single darker pixel, perhaps.
UN bodies - primarily through the UN satellite analysis unit of UNOSAT - tend to undertake investigations by studying before-and-after satellite images. Because satellite images render people invisible, the scale of
analysis shifts to architecture or to the environment - to buildings and
ruins or cities and landscapes. The analysis depends on what difference can
be detected in a before-and-after image. But when examining sites known to
have been struck by drones, no such difference is noticeable. This might give
another meaning to the helplessness captured by the term "UN resolution."
US agencies are not limited to the satellite image resolution that the
public is. The resolution of cameras on US spy satellites is much higher.

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

29

The satellites of the Pentagon's Keyhole program can see to a resolution of
about 15 centimeters, or 6 inches, per pixel, but these are not available to
the public or to human rights groups. 36 The United States can also use other
platforms, such as airplanes and drones, to peer into the territory of the
publically available pixel. The optical resolution of military drone cameras
is still kept secret. Former operators have said that the images are sharp
enough to identify individuals by their faces. Others have said that the resolution is not sharp enough to differentiate between children and adults
and that spades could be mistaken for guns. The images and footage that
have been made public recently seem to be in high resolution and in color,
but examples of visual misidentification abound - in Gaza, medics loading
gas canisters were attacked when the Israeli military mistook the canisters
for missiles.37
The difference in resolution demonstrates the imbalance of power.
While the human body is the scale to which drone optics are calibrated,
it is the very thing that publically available satellite images are designed
to mask. 38
In contemporary conflicts, both the killing and its investigation are
image-based practices. However, investigating drone strikes by analyzing
satellite images inverts one of the foundational principles of state forensics
as practiced since the nineteenth century, namely, that to resolve a crime,
the investigator, the police, must be able to see and know more than the
perpetrator, the criminal, to have better access to vision and to historical
and comparative data. This principle led to the introduction of photography, chemistry, and fingerprinting to police work, notably by such pioneers
as the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, the Swiss forensic photographer Rudolphe A. Reiss, and the French police officer Alphonse Bertillon. 39
In our case, however, it is the killer who has had access to better optics,
data, and information than the investigators.
This inversion is nested in another: in police work, the state investigates the crimes of individuals, but here, a state is the alleged criminal,
undertaking both secret assassinations and their denial, and individuals
and independent organizations undertake the investigations. The visual
spectrum between the high resolution used for killing and the low resolution available for monitoring the killing is the space exploited by deniers.
The practice of counterforensics at the heart of this book has to engage
a condition of structural inequality in access to vision, signals, and
knowledge, and to find ways to operate close to and under the threshold
of detectability.

30

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VISUAL EXTRATERRITORIALIZATION

The threshold of detectability intersects with other important threshold
conditions, both territorial and juridical. Targeted assassinations almost
exclusively take place in particular kinds of place - frontier regions such
as those of FATA, on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan,
or in Northern Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza that are all, to a lesser or greater
extent, outside the effective control of the states in which they exist.
Between June 2004 and 2014, FATA was the central focus for the drone
campaign. It is an area governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulations
(FCR), a vestige of British colonial rule that in 1901 rendered the region
extraterritorial to the Raj - physically within its borders, but outside its
full jurisdiction. In FATA, the juridical rule of law was replaced by regulations and executive rule. On the one hand, under this regime, the area
benefited from limited local autonomy, but on the other, it was subjected
to collective punishment if individuals or organizations were perceived to
be threats to state security. Villages were destroyed, and mass exile and
imprisonment were enforced without judicial oversight or the possibility of
appeal. This extraterritorial condition was retained by Pakistan after independence in 1947, and although the regulations were continually revised,
FATA is still considered exceptional in relation to the rest of the country.
It is also outside the threshold of its civic responsibility: Pakistan's central
government is still not obligated to provide infrastructure, such as schools
or hospitals, for FATA's seven million residents. Child mortality and levels
of illiteracy there are the highest in the country.
The maintenance of the region's extraterritorial status, now against
the will of most of its inhabitants, has been essential in the pursuit of the
drone campaign. People cannot be detained and brought to trial because,
according to the Pentagon legal advisers, targeted assassinations can be
permitted only if they are undertaken as imminent self-defense and where
"a viable arrest opportunity" does not exist. The United States thus repeatedly has referred to FATA as "lawless" in order for violence to be legitimately imposed from the outside, and this without noting the role both
it and Pakistan have played in imposing that very status. It is thus precisely the closing of juridical options that opened the door to targeted
assassinations.40
The extraterritorialization of FATA also enabled a peculiar temporal inversion. According to US executive regulations, targeted assassinations cannot be justified as retributions for crimes that individuals have

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

31

perpetrated in the past - this is the role of the judiciary and requires
habeas corpus, the presentation of evidence, and a fair trial - but rather
can be employed only in a predictive manner in order to stop "imminent
attacks" that otherwise would be committed in the future. Gradually, the
category of imminence has become elastic and its applicability has been
pushed back in time, losing its sense of immediacy. 41
Predictive forensics - the futurology of contemporary warfare - studies the future mathematically by using tools that most closely resemble
those of risk management by financial or security companies and those
employed in marketing. 42 The pattern analysis undertaken by the CIA in
Pakistan and Yemen scans various bits of data about people's lives-for
example, their movement along certain roads determined by the Pentagon
to be "toxic," telephone calls to specific numbers, congregation in particular religious buildings -for patterns that might "correspond to a 'signature'
of preidentified behavior that the United States links to militant activity."43
Until 2015, when this process, referred to as "signature strikes," was officially discontinued, the CIA assassinated people who were determined by
an algorithm to pose an "imminent risk," without their identities or names
being known.
The legal extraterritorialization of FATA is enforced by an old-fashioned
territorial siege. FATA is officially considered a "Prohibited Area" that nonresidents require special permission to enter. Pakistani military checkpoints
established along the border of the region filter movement in and out of it.
But it is not only suspected militants whose movement is interrupted. These
military checkpoints, along with others established by the Taliban themselves, also disrupt the movement of journalists and human rights researchers, and informal regulations intercept the bringing in and taking out of
electronic equipment, including mobile phones, cameras, and navigation
equipment.
These checkpoints are thus part of a media siege, which in the early
years of the campaign was largely successful - only a few photographs and
eyewitness testimonies were made available outside of these regions. So
while other conflicts, in Syria, Ukraine, and Palestine, for example, generated massive amounts of images and data, the ones in FATA, much like
those in parts of Yemen and Somalia, remained in the shadows in both
social and mainstream media. In the early days of the drone campaign,
this fact helped Pakistani and US spokespersons deny that it ever existed
and misleadingly claim that the casualties of drone strikes died instead in
"bomb-making accidents."44

32

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Thereafter, when the facts of the campaigns could no longer be refuted,
the form of denial employed by US agencies took the form of the "Glomar
Response," so named for the Glomar Explorer, a ship built by the CIA in the
1970s to recover a Soviet nuclear submarine that had sunk in a deep area
of the Pacific Ocean and operated under a cover story that it was a marine
geology research vessel. Under the terms of the Glomar Response, US
agencies "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence" of such
covert activities and of documents requested under freedom of information acts. Simply to say, "This is untrue" or "This did not happen" requires
a plausible counternarrative. Glomarization, however, is a form of denial
that aims to add no information whatsoever. Everybody knows, not least
the people terrorized by airborne violence, that drones constantly hover
over their cities, but Glomarization is a form of denial that enabled the continuation of the assassination campaign: it allowed the United States to
avoid questions about the legitimacy of its preferred mode of killing and
the Pakistani government to deflect protests over its collusion. Glomarization continued even after Obama publically acknowledged, in 2012, the
existence of the covert drone campaign in Pakistan.
Glomarization is not only a rhetorical formulation, however; it is also
based on a territorial blockade meant to make unavailable access to groundlevel images and testimonies and on the fact that traces of the violence
cannot be identified in the resolution of available satellite images. The resolution of satellite images themselves often can "neither confirm nor deny the
existence or nonexistence" of holes in roofs that would otherwise constitute
evidence of drone strikes.
Drone strikes can thus be understood not as a direct, linear relation
between a drone, via a missile, and a target, but rather as a set of operations enabled by the production of thresholds - territorial, juridical, and
visual. Juridical thresholds extraterritorialize entire territories, physical
thresholds filter the movement of people in and out of regions, and photographic thresholds filter objects in and out of visibility. 45

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

33

PATTERN OF DRONE STRIKES

Pattern analysis can also be used as a counterforensic technique by investigative journalists and human rights groups seeking to unveil some aspects of state violence. In
2012, Forensic Architecture was asked by the BIJ to analyze patterns of CIA drone

strikes in FATA/Pakistan. Our analysis sought to examine the relation between strikes
on buildings and civilian casualties. The research was based on an extensive database
compiled by the BIJ that logged in thousands of news reports, witness testimonies,
and field research on drone strikes between 2004 and 2014. 46
We trawled through the BIJ's archive, looking for and tabulating spatial information that had not been previously looked at by them. We entered each incident
into a new database that had multiple categories and tags: space/time coordinates,
target type- domestic, public, religious, and commercial buildings, outdoor gatherings, or vehicles-and the extent of death, injury, and structural destruction caused.
An interactive cartographic platform then spatially visualized the relations between
hundreds of strikes. Different patterns, relations, and trends emerged across this
aggregate data, helping to reveal relations between a large multiplicity of separate
incidents that otherwise had not been obvious. We could notice a distinct escalation in targeting buildings and an increase in civilian casualties immediately after the
December 2009 suicide attack in the CIA's Camp Chapman, for example.
Our pattern analysis also demonstrated the way in which the Taliban's tactics
evolved in reaction to US strike policy and adapted to the hunter algorithms behind
the CIA's signature strikes, with the result that both hunter and prey coevolved.
Accordingly, the Taliban shifted their pattern of movement in space. 47 Adapting to
CIA targeting patterns was the reason the Taliban retreated into the cities.
As strikes shifted away from vehicles, the analysis showed that domestic buildings
became the most frequent targets and that the number of civilian casualties consequently grew. In total, our analysis with the BIJ revealed homes were the target of

61 percent of all drone strikes in Pakistan, and it was in their homes (often misleadingly referred to by Western media as a "compounds") that most civilians were killed.
The shift in the pattern of targeting was supported by the development and introduction of the new generation of missiles with improved capacity of penetrating
walls and roofs.48

RIGHT:

Casualty heat map of drone

strikes in FATA/Pakistan, 2004-14.
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE WITH THE
COLLABORATION OF SITU RESEARCH

34

35

UNDER THE VEIL OF RESOLUTION

Investigating a number of drone strikes, we sought to engage the testimonies of people who experienced drone strikes first-hand. I will recount
only two such cases, each involving another form of testimony. The first
involves analysis of video testimony shot in the aftermath of a drone strike
by an unidentified person and smuggled out through the blockade that
cordoned FATA off. The second involves using architectural modeling as
a way to enhance the testimony of a survivor of a strike who managed to
escape the region and return to Europe.
Both these testimonies added precious information where there was little else, but also had the potential to confront sovereign denial with the
moral force of first-hand experience. They also had another aspect in common: both testimonies involved risk-taking by the people who spoke out.
As such, they exemplified the power of parrhesia, a classical Greek term
that Michel Foucault took to mean the courage to risk one's life in order to
speak an unpopular truth. Parrhesia "demands the courage to speak the
truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth
takes place in the 'game' of life or death."49
The video testimony was recorded using a handheld camera, likely
a mobile phone, in the aftermath of a March 30, 2012 drone strike in
Miranshah, North Waziristan, FATA, one in which four people were
reportedly killed. It was a rare piece of evidence, one of very few videos
documenting a site destroyed by a drone strike to be made available outside of Waziristan, and it had to be physically smuggled out to be seen.
NBC screened forty-three seconds from it. Amna Nawaz, NBC's Islamabad
bureau chief, who obtained the video clip, explained how they got the
video to their Islamabad offices. "In order to take this piece of video out,
we actually had to take a couple of weeks to move the video from place to
place until it was safely in the hands of somebody we knew can transmit it
back to us."50 When screened, the video showed a rather indistinct architectural ruin, confirming only its own destruction.
Photography theorist Ariella Azoulay urges us to study the circumstances by which images are produced, broadcast, viewed, and acted upon,
as well as to follow the set of relations that the photograph establishes
between the people photographing and the spaces and subjects photographed. In this case, such relations extended to those moving and smuggling the footage, those broadcasting it, those looking at it, and those, like
us, modeling and helping to decode it. 51

36

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NBC NEWS EXCLUSIVE

The aftermath of the March 30, 2012, drone strike in Miranshah, North Waziristan . The size of the dark area
around the window opening suggests the videographer shot from some depth within the room .

MSNBC ,

JUNE 29 , 2012

The video clip had two distinct sequences, each shot in a different room.
The first was shot out of an unfenestrated window opening on the third
floor. Out of the window we could see the destroyed roof of a lower building,
two stories high, located in a dense market street and surrounded by what
seemed to be residential and commercial buildings.
The roof seemed badly damaged, likely because it was struck by several
missiles. The video clip's second sequence showed the interior of a room in
the damaged building bearing hundreds of blast marks on the walls. There
was a distinct hole in the ceiling through which the missile entered and
where sunlight now poured in. While the first room revealed something
about the videographer, the second revealed something about the people
killed in the blast.
In the first sequence, a large part of the image was masked by the window frame and the wall around it. This space around the window opening was rendered dark because the light meter was calibrated to the sunlit
outside. However, it was not dead information. Its changing position and

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

37

-

'

,_ ------------

A collage pieced together from individual frames extracted from the footage allowed us to identify distinct
features of the building that would later help find the building in a satellite image of Miranshah. On
the left, closest to the videographer, is a series of beams that fanned out in a radial pattern, and there is a
distinctly visible higher building on the left side of the building near the bend in the road .
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE WITH THE COLLABORATION OF SITU RESEARCH

proportion from one video still to the next helped us reconstruct the videographer's movements inside the room. The videographer moved from
right to left and from as far as a meter away from the window to as close as
a few centimeters from it, all the while panning to capture the full extent
of the ruin outside, and this without ever crossing the window line. In this
way, the videographer would have remained invisible to a person standing
at street level outside and also to anyone looking from above.
Cameras record from both their ends: the objects, people, and spaces
their lenses capture, as well as the position and movements of the invisible

38

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

TOP :

Comparing similar elements in the video and the satellite photograph, we were able to locate the tar-

geted building within the city of Miranshah .

BOTTOM :

By analyzing video and satellite images of the scene

and the shadows cast in them, we were able to build a computer model of the targeted building (in white)
and the market area around it (in gray).

photographer. Blurs are important in revealing things about the photographer. Rushed and erratic camera movements might indicate the risk involved
in taking some images. A blur is thus the way the photographer gets registered in an image. As such, looking at blurry images is like looking at a scene
through a semitransparent glass in which the image of the photographer is
superimposed over the thing being photographed.
Similarly, the concrete window opening captured in the image frame
may have recorded the videographer's sense of danger and that the danger was perceived to come from outside. It might be that the videographer feared being seen filming by locals or by US drones overhead. Drones
sometimes strike the same spot twice, killing first responders and people
gathering in proximity in a process known as "double tap." 52
The second room captured in the video clip was the one in which people were reportedly killed. The hole in the ceiling is where the missile
entered the room. The wall was scattered with hundreds of small traces
from the explosion. These were caused by the metal fragments that the
blast propelled outward. We inspected the interior wall and marked each
one of the traces of the blast. Each fragment hit the wall at a different
angle, allowing us to reconstruct the location and height of the blast. That
the missile was detonated in midair confirmed it was a delay-fuse missile,
likely the "Romeo" Hellfire II AGM-114R mentioned above. After marking all the traces, we also noticed two distinctly shaped areas in which
there weren't any traces. If there were people in the room, their bodies would have absorbed the fragments and stopped them from reaching
the wall. It is thus possible that the blank spots were the "shadow" of
the casualties. In this case, the wall functioned as a photographic film,
with the people exposed to the blast recorded on the wall in a similar
way in which a photographic negative is exposed to light. It is an analogous process to the one in which the bodies of residents of Pompeii
were exposed to the ash layer of Vesuvius or the way in which in Hiroshima, the nuclear blast left a shadow of a man on the steps outside the
Sumitomo Bank.
The interior walls in the room in the building in Miranshah thus functioned as recording devices. It was through a process of double photography- the video stills of the room were photographs of a photograph that the human bodies destroyed by the drone strike, which otherwise disappeared in the pixels of satellite images, could be made present.
These shadows connected a representation of dead bodies with that of a
destroyed building.

40

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

The still frames representing the interior of the targeted building from
the MS NBC footage. The interior footage
allowed us to reconstruct the location
of the blast within the room targeted.
MSNBC, JUNE 29, 2012

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LEFT : All the video still frames from the interior of the room combined into a single panoramic collage. The
parts in black are those not caught on video. We marked all identifiable blast traces on the wall. RIGHT : A
reconstruction of the trajectories of shrapnel and the location of the blast. The different colors indicate
distance from the blast point. FORENs1c ARCHITECTURE

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A full-scale reconstruction of the targeted room
in which the blast occurred, enabled by the occasion
of the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture. This
model allowed us to verify the blast point. Where the
distribution of fragments is of lower density, it is
likely that people absorbed them. The red lines mark
the likely places where people were hit. This room/
model is a spatial representation of video footage.
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE ; PHOTO : MATTHIAS BdTTGER

I'

I

'

\}

I

THE ARCHITECTURE OF MEMORY

The second case dealt with another limit condition of testimony: a survivor's
memory. Responding to a request from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)-a German human rights group-we
traveled to Diisseldorf in Germany to meet one of the few witnesses of a
drone strike who had made her way back to Europe. She was a German
woman who wanted to publicize the event she had witnessed, but who was
also keen to remain anonymous. Several years earlier, she had moved to
Pakistan with her husband and his brother. On October 4, 2010, she was at
her home on the outskirts of the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, when it
was struck by several missiles. The attack killed five people, some of them
suspected terrorists. The witness returned to Germany, where she and her
husband were subjected to long interrogations by the security services. A
few months later, she started speaking publically, first to the human rights
advocates and lawyers of ECCHR and later in the media. Her aim was to
advocate against the continuation of drone strikes and the German intelligence agency's involvement in providing information that facilitated
them and to communicate, through her personal story, the reality of living
under drones. However, some of the details of the strike were obscured in
her memory.
When delivering testimony, victims of extreme violence must recall and
reconstruct the worst moments of their lives, moments when they were
physically hurt or experienced, at close hand, the loss of loved ones. Victims might remember what happened before a traumatic incident or after
it, but the closer one gets to the essence of a testimony, to the heart of the
most violent incidents, the more elusive memory can become. Such testimonies are rarely straightforward records of events and cannot be interpreted

44

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

LEFT : The computer modeling of the
site and event of the strike in Mir Ali
on October 4, 2010, took one full day.
RIGHT : The witness chooses objects
to be located within the model of

her house.

FORENs1c ARCHITECTURE

LEFT : The first location of the fan
within the model of the house.
RIGHT : The second location of the fan

in the model.

FORENs1c ARCHITECTURE

only for what exists in them, but, significantly, for what is missing, distorted, or obscured. Such testimonies are often riddled with memory loss,
resulting in lacunas, contradictions, and blackouts. It is this dimension of
victim testimonies that led deniers of all sorts of cases of historical violence to denigrate them and to consider them wrong or biased and thus
invalid. But these memory gaps are somewhat analogous to disruptions and
blurring in the video images discussed above. What blurs and masks part
of the evidence reveals something else. In their book Testimony, Shoshana
Felman and Dori Laub explained that it is often in the failings and shortcomings of memory-in the silence, confusion, or outright error-that the
trauma of the witness and hence the catastrophic character of the events
they experienced are inscribed. Paradoxically, it is testimony's imperfections that bear witness to the fact of violence. 53
Together with the witness from Mir Ali, we decided to try another route
to memory. We would help our witness build a digital model of her house.
She would build it as she remembered it and in as much detail as she could
provide. We would not make any predeterminations regarding what is
important to model, but furnish the model with all objects she could tell us
about- doors, windows, rooms, furniture, utensils, and other objects - in
as precise a way as possible. We would then try to position her point of
view within this virtual environment, allowing her to walk through the
spaces where the event took place. The presence of her lawyer, Andreas
Schuller, from ECCHR, gave our witness confidence to speak. A Germanspeaking architect, Reiner Beelitz, digitally constructed the house as fast
as our witness described it, employing the same software used by architects to present clients with a quick impression of an interior design.
The witness seemed empowered in directing the reconstruction process.
Slowly, as she was sizing the rooms, locating the windows and doors, and

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

45

placing mundane objects in this virtual environment, she started narrating
fragments of life in this house and some of the aspects of the incident itself.
Here, the role of architecture was not that of material evidence. We had
no access to the site, no ruins to study, and no photographs except a satellite image that showed nothing except the blurred contours of her house.
Architecture, in this investigation, functioned as a mnemonic technique, a
conduit to testimony. The model was a stage on which some of her memories could be accessed and performed. 54
An important reference point in our work was the classic and medieval
tradition of mnemonic techniques as told by Frances Yates in The Art of
Memory. The ancient and lost art reserved a special place for architecture
as a medium for establishing relations between memory, narrative, and
destruction. 55 The technique, made famous by the rhetoricians and orators of antiquity such as Cicero and Quintilian, advised orators tasked with
remembering long and complex speeches to commit the spatial arrangement
of known buildings to their memory or to construct new ones mentally.
Every room in these buildings was to be furnished with objects relating to
the issues that the orator needed to bring up- a fountain, a dagger, a plant,
a chair, or a bed. In delivering the speech, the orators would imagine themselves walking through the building, passing through corridors, traversing
courtyards, opening and closing doors, encountering objects, and in this
way recalling different issues and ideas. The same building could be used
for different speeches. All that was necessary was to remove one set of
objects and bring in new ones, then "walk" through the building again. 56
WITNESS

Here was a big heavy iron door like on the other side. Correct. I would
widen it a bit more. Yes, it is okay like this. Stop. I now remember. The door

LAWYER

was over here and the window on this side. Can I see it from above?
Does this visualization help to remember what happened two and half

w IT NE s s

years ago?
It helps me a lot. Without the plan I could have not remembered it like that.

The witness from Mir Ali and a female friend were in the house the
evening it was struck. A group of men, some of them guests unfamiliar to
the two friends, had just sat down to eat when a number of missiles landed.
The witness's son, age two, was outside the compound walls with his
father. "While we were eating," the witness recalled, "we heard a very loud
bang. The house shook, and a lot of earth fell on us from the roof ... everything was covered in thick smoke." She did not see the missiles land, but
heard them and then screams, followed by the smell of burned flesh and

46

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

smoke, and then she heard the weaker moans of the dying. She ran outside.
Later, she returned to the house. In the courtyard, she saw "a big black hole
where the missile hit. Everything was burned. There were pieces of cloth,
and metal from the rocket." Her brother-in-law was killed, along with at
least four others.
Elements modeled in the reconstruction that were significant to the
investigation included toys and a child's walker that we located, according to her testimony, in the open courtyard. These, when seen from above,
should have indicated to the drone operator that a small child, the witness's
son, was in the premises when it was attacked. There was also, significantly, a fan . During the modeling process, the witness returned to it again
and again. She seemed uneasy about it, repeatedly adjusting its location.
Initially, she placed it as a ceiling-mounted ventilator. Later, she asked to
place it as a freestanding fan inside the room. A few moments later, she
again shifted its location, taking it outside and placing it within the small
courtyard for the women. When "walking" through the model in the digital aftermath of the strike, she mentioned that she had found human flesh
on the fan's blades. Here, architecture and memory got entangled in a way
that cannot be easily divided into subject and object, testimony and evidence, matter and memory.
WITNESS

And the fan is still missing. Yes, in the courtyard, at this position here.

LAWYER

A standing ventilator?

WITNESS

Yes, standing and with a round shape ... ! found burned pieces of flesh and
hair in the fan.

The interior courtyard with the
fan and the child walker, modeled
and rendered according to
the description of the witness.
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

AT THE THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

47

PREVIOUS PAGES:

Survey Area I and J in Staro Sajmiste,
Belgrade.

FORENs1c ARCHITECTURE,

SCAN LAB, AND CAROLINE STURDY COLLS

FORENSIC ARCHITECTS deal with "the application of architectural facts to
legal problems," as one practitioner puts it.1 These facts, according to a firm
providing such services, are the "cause and origin of architectural defects
such as construction, windows, wall and roofing failures; floor problems;
accessibility issues and architectural design errors."2 The legal context is most
often an insurance dispute, for which forensic architects provide reports or
testimony under oath. 3 There were building surveyors for almost as long as
there were builders, but according to Dale Paegelow, a forensic architect who
in 2001 self-published something of an introduction to the practice, the term
"forensic architecture" emerged only in the early 198os. 4 It is hard to verify
this claim or information regarding the number of practitioners who refer to
themselves as "forensic architects," because there are no professional registration bodies, no courses in the subject, and there is no official accreditation. However, judging by the number of corporate firms that have recently
started advertising forensic services, their numbers seem to be growing,
something that might indicate the expanded role of insurance in the actuarial and litigational culture of the contemporary building industry. Structural
and infrastructural analysis are also key to risk analysis in its evaluation of
damage yet to come - "low-probability, high-impact disasters" - caused by
the forces of man, nature, or, increasingly, their combination. 5
Because forensic architects are the students of architectural failure and
because their service is often mobilized on behalf of clients and against
designers, they are not particularly popular in architectural circles. The
practice occupies a marginal place in the professional landscape and is
ignored by virtually all architecture schools worldwide. For architects,
building surveying might seem too ordinary and unimaginative a practice,
but surveyors understand a fundamental thing about buildings often lost
on architects: buildings are not static entities. Rather, they continually
undergo dynamic transformations. These transformations are not aberrations of an ideal state embodied by the hard lines of a drawing, but are
inherent to all built structures. Each of the different materials of which

51

a building is composed - steel, plaster, stone, glass, concrete, wood, and,
increasingly, plastic and silicon - constantly permeate, move, and adjust
in response to environmental forces. Shifts in weight distribution - indicative of changes in the way a building is used - affect the levels of floors
and beams. Computers and servers generate excess heat that affects ceiling
panels, bending them out of their clips or screws.
Questions regarding the structure - often understood as "the bones" of
a building- are not the only ones that concern forensic architects. The performance of ever more intricate mechanical, electronic, or infrastructural
systems is increasingly subject to the study of flows and blockages. Records
of the atmosphere's interaction with buildings are deposited in layers of
dust and soot on their fac;:ades, and their microstratigraphy can provide a
rich archaeological resource for a study of urban air, containing information regarding changing levels of CO2, lead, or toxins in the atmosphere - a
vestige of a history of industrialization, transportation, and attempts at
regulating them. 6 Some of a building's transformations occur well below
the threshold of human perception and along extended time scales: it takes
years for an air bubble trapped between a wall and a fast-drying paint to
make its way up the building facade. Its expansion and contraction, the path
and the speed of its crawl, indexes year-to-year changes in temperature and
humidity, changes in the climate and efforts to regulate it.
Building surveyors might not always, or not yet, be so tuned to the
sentient materiality- indeed, the hyperesthesia - of buildings. Still, they
do understand decay as a process of form making that shapes the building
beyond the control of the architect and often despite it. If material deformations are a building's response to changing environmental force fields,
then, inversely, the formal mutations a building undergoes are processes
of recording: deformations as matter in formation are also information. From
this perspective, buildings are not only objects to be repaired, restored,
and lived in, but also sensors of the environment outside themselves (and
this before and regardless of the digital computerized sensors of smart
buildings that might be placed within them).
Every material object can be read as a sensor, but buildings might be
among the best sensors of societal and political change. There are several
reasons: buildings are immobile, anchored in space; they are in close and
constant interaction with humans; they are exposed both to the elements
outside them and to an artificially controlled climate within. And this
besides embodying, of course, the political, social, strategic, and financial
rationalities that went into their conception.

52

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

Architecture and the built environment thus could be said to function
as media, not because photographs of buildings might circulate in the public
domain, but because they are both storage and inscription devices that perform variations on the three basic operations that define media: they sense or
prehend their environment, they hold this information in their formal mutations, and they can later diffuse and externalize effects latent in their form.7
However, the built environment is not only a passive sensor of environmental and political change. It interacts with and affects the very processes
it records. For one example, buildings record the climate but the energy
they consume is also among the biggest contributors to climate change.
Buildings and cities, some geologists lately have suggested, have
added the most recent layer to stratigraphy that makes the rock record of
the earth. Spread the material that composes them evenly across the dry
surface of the earth, and it would pile almost a meter high. When seismic
events take place, the human-made crust of the top surface might crack
like all the other layers. Moving through the deep surface of the earth,
supersonic cracks tear through not only rock but also the thickness of the
atmosphere as if it were a solid medium. Geologists depend on earthquakes
to reveal hidden layers of rock. A structural crack reveals information
about the way a building was assembled, otherwise buried under stucco or
cladding. Cracks are material events that emerge as the result of force contradictions. They progress along paths of least resistance, exploiting and
tearing through different material substances where the cohesive forces of
aggregate matter are at their weakest. Each crack is a unique result of a
specific disposition of a force field and material irregularities on the micro
level. Cracks can move slowly, linger for years in a state of potentiality, or
accelerate and tear a building apart when force contradictions can no longer be absorbed. Leonardo Da Vinci filled his notebooks with the studies of
cracks. In giving practical advice to builders, he mapped the conditions that
produced them - an interaction between topography, the rock on which the
building rests, its orientation to the sun, the materials used, the construction process, and errors in its construction. It is cracks rather than buildings that are the most precise records of their environment and its changes.
Elsewhere, he recommended staring at cracks for training the imagination. 8
In considering buildings as historical documents, forensic architecture
has a claim to the history of architecture, especially at a time when the field
has largely disavowed the materiality of buildings in favor of the history of
architectural practitioners and the documents that they leave behind.9 It can
also potentially extend architecture's historiographical methods, because

WHAT IS FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE?

53

it gives accounts of the history of buildings as material things beyond the
history of their human conception with a biography that is beyond that of
an architect. 10 What forensic architects call "the structural history" of a
building includes terms such as "environmental root causes," "architectural
pathologies," "crises," "building failures," and "transformative structural
events" that almost comically connect the material history of buildings with
the conceptual terms of "historical materialism."
It is in this way that forensic architecture is able to invert phenomenology's categories of perception and experience: it is not concerned with how we
might experience a building, but rather, fundamentally, with how a building
might experience its users, how it might sense the way they move and act
within and around it. This is not to make an anthropomorphic point: buildings sense not in a human, but rather in a building sort of way. The same
principle, as I will later show, can also be extended to built environments and
larger territories across the dry surface of the earth. They also act as political
sensors to be read.
Forensic architects employ buildings as instruments of historical measure, but reading environmental, historical, and political processes from built
form is never straightforward. What could be learned from the processes
of degradation or from the traces of violence is partial and murky. If they
are to be considered as sensors, buildings should be understood as chaotic,
nonlinear ones, with inscription being weak and the reading process always
indeterminate. The dynamic transformation of their composite materials,
which sometimes perfectly align, most often not, is not linear and therefore
cannot translate environmental forces into material transformations in the
same fashion that quicksilver in thermostats, for example, translates temperature into volume. Buildings register some forces and erase others, and
any attempt at interpretation must acknowledge the limits of material registration and requires careful reading against other data. To read buildings as
sensors, we need other sensors - optical, chemical, and photographic - and
these are themselves conditioned in all sorts of other ways.
As a historical method, forensic architecture, as currently practiced,
is limited in other ways, too. The causal threads that building surveyors
currently take into account for the purpose of insurance cases, for example, are extremely short and close at hand. When surveyors study cracks
or other failures in the structural history of buildings, they interpret their
findings in relation to a narrowly circumscribed set of structural conditions
in which material deformations are traced back only to the most proximate
of physical causes, leaving out other causal relations.

54

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

CRACKS: LINES OF LEAST RESISTANCE

On April 23, 2013, cracks appeared in the floors and walls of a building used by the
Rana Plaza factory, a garment industry sweatshop" located in the deregulated Export
0

Processing Zone (EPZ) of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Municipal building surveyors came to
inspect. They photographed and marked the cracks with thick felt-tip lines and recommended the factory's closure. A crack is merely the potential for something to occur.
It might linger for years or expand suddenly and tear a building apart. The Rana Plaza
factory's owners, hard pressed to deliver goods cheaply to Western labels on contract,
assessed the risk of collapse in relation to the risks of delay on contractual obligations.
The management, located off site, ordered the workers in. At 9:00 a.m., an hour after
the start of work, the cracks expanded, cut through the building, and brought it down.
More than 1,127 workers, mostly women, died and a further 2,500 were injured. It was
the deadliest accidental structural collapse in history.
The legal process dealing with the collapse involved building surveyors both as
witnesses and among the accused. But the trial engaged only the construction quality
of the building, the thickness of reinforcing bars in the concrete columns, the floors
illegally added, and the loads of the industrial machinery that the building was never
designed or given permits to hold. However, the collapse also exposed a form of economic violence. Dhaka-based architect Sujaul Khan explained that it was created by
"a combination of two failures: the failure of the construction of the building" and
a political failure to protect workers from exploitation. The trial addressed only the
first of these. Left out of the trial were the factory owners, who through a tangle of
subcontracting chains to multinational corporations, had brought prices down and
productivity up through deregulated labor conditions that helped feed an endless
appetite for cheap fashion.11
In 2008, cracks started to appear in homes, public buildings, and streets in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood located next to the Old City of Jerusalem. In 2009,
the floor of a UN girls school collapsed; in 2010, cracks appeared in the main street;
and in 2011, serious damage was inflicted to the ground near Ain-Silwan Mosque.
Shortly beforehand, a Jewish settler association called El-Ad had started the illegal
excavation of tunnels through parts of an Iron Age site it believed to be the biblical °City of David," claiming its subsoil to be a holy site and those surface dwellers
above it "squatters" to be displaced. This excavation, undertaken beneath the Palestinian homes without the consent and regardless of the protests of their owners, was
echoed above ground, with El-Ad supporting settlers seizing or fraudulently buying,

55

inhabiting, and fortifying residential buildings throughout the neighborhood . What
started as illegal excavation turned into a project funded and recognized by the Israeli
Antiquities Authority and the municipality of Jerusalem.
The tunneling displaced layers of Muslim archaeology deemed irrelevant by the
diggers. It also removed layers of aggregate earth that normally would have absorbed
vibrations underneath building foundations. Small seismic cracks that might begin in
the limestone bedrock could now shoot up though archaeological strata to the surface, splitting the old, battered asphalt of roadways never maintained by the municipality. The cracks continued moving through the neighborhood's buildings, appearing
and disappearing as they cut through different material elements. One crack might
enter a building's foundation, crawl up a concrete column, moving along paths of
least resistance, finding uneven or imperfect parts of the concrete casting, perhaps
the place where a forty-year-old cigarette butt might have been thrown into the
cement mix during the process of construction .
In 2008, a case was presented in the Jerusalem District Court and later in the
Israeli High Court. Photographs of the cracks were presented. The historical and political context of the ongoing occupation of Palestine, above and below the surface,
was mentioned, but never heard. After ordering a short suspension of the excavation, the High Court rejected the residents' petition, accepting the state's claim that
the cracks were unrelated to the excavation, but likely the result of llpoor and illegal
construction" (without permits, there is hardly any lllegalll construction possible) and
authorized the continuation of the subterranean colonization. 12 On a recent visit to

LEFT :

the site, Jerusalem's major said: llWhen you stand in the City of David we see layer

Cracks in a house in Silwan, East Jerusa-

after layer of foreign occupation, and when we reach the bedrock-there we find the
Jewish layer. After the heads of states visit here there would be no doubt who are the
true owners of this city.HB

56

Cracks in a house in Silwan . RIGHT :

lem. This photograph was submitted
to the Jerusalem district court in 2008
and later to the High Court of Justice.
LEFT : GAOi DAGON ; RIGHT : SILWANIC.NET

CONFLICT SURVEYORS

The challenge of this book is to demonstrate the ways in which forensic
architecture can exit the specialized framework of insurance disputes and
extend the lines of causality originating from architectural failure. 14 One of
the most important contexts in which an expansion of the terms of forensic
architecture is relevant and urgent is that of armed conflict. Because most
warfare now takes place in urban environments, homes and neighborhoods
bear the consequences. Buildings can thus become the medium upon which
traces of fighting are left and from which incidents can be reconstructed.
An explosion causes a rapid release of energy in several forms: sound,
heat, and shock waves. Highly compressed particles of air propagate radially outward from the explosive source at supersonic velocities. Walls bend
inward and break, initiating a progressive collapse. Air rushes in to fill
the vacuum, carrying high-velocity lethal debris and flying bits of glass.15
Most people dying in contemporary conflicts die in buildings, primarily in
homes.16 When the dust settles, the way it has settled can become evidence.
But the built environment cannot merely be considered as the location of
conflict or its incidental, collateral damage. Rather, urban and environmental destruction is often the very target of violence. The transformation of the
environment, buildings, and infrastructure is a means of exercising control,
facilitating displacement, or offering resistance. Architectural analysis can
provide an alternative pathology of contemporary conflict because it enables
a different perspective on the context and conduct of armed conflicts.
Cities are composite assemblies of structures, infrastructure, and technologies, of social and political structures, with some plant and animal life,
as well. These elements are in continuous interaction, sometimes in conflict
or competition with each other. Warfare in urban environments is equally
complex. It is not always manifested as a clash between two armies in a
built-up area, but as a set of asymmetrical and diffuse encounters between
large multiplicities of groups - militaries and guerilla forces, often different and rivaling, contract security providers, NGOs, and media organizations - in an environment that is largely civilian and with repercussions that
are immediately political.
The urban environment is highly sentient in both material, analogue,
and digital terms. It is a dense media environment saturated by optical
and other sensors' photographs, noise, meteorology and pollution detectors, security cameras, fixed-orbit and image satellites, and smart phones.
A conflict involves thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of people

WHAT IS FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE?

57

entering into an unfamiliar environment that is also home to hundreds of
thousands, sometimes millions of people. When this takes place, all elements of the city start recording, each in its own way. Buildings record
vibrations and the force of impacts. Plants record - crushed fields around
a city's agricultural outskirts register the movement of military vehicles
on them when they stop photosynthesizing, a signal that is captured by
remote sensors orbiting above and beamed back to earth. Air-quality sensors pick up increases in traffic as tanks roll in or refugees escape. People
remember - in processes that, as I have already shown, are often complex
and not straightforward - and increasingly use their camera phones to
record the events around them, uploading images, sound, and video online.
Each of these sensors is indeterminate, and patient investigative labor
has to be invested in reading anything from them and then later also in
cross-referencing and pulling the data together.
In this context, the work of forensic architects might seek to adopt the
imaginary gaze of a future archaeologist looking back at the present. The
archaeology of the present is not only physical, but requires all sorts of
digital sensors. As in archaeology, rarely are single buildings significant in
themselves. They are rather entry points through which one must navigate,
connecting and composing sets of relations between different structures,
infrastructures, objects, environments, actors, and incidents. "Evidence
assemblages" must necessarily establish relations between, say, digital photographs, material ruins, remains of ammunition, and human testimony.
The "architecture" in "forensic architecture" thus means several distinct
things: architecture is alternately the object of investigation, the method of
research, and the mode of presentation. The first is the most obvious: the
bruised materiality of buildings is at the focus of our investigations. Architecture in this context is what lawyers call the "primary evidence." But in
the forensic context, architecture can also be a mode of research, the means
of locating disparate bits of evidence and data and composing the relations
between them in space. In this context, architecture is considered as "secondary," or "illustrative evidence." Though forensics is generally understood
as a shift away from the ambiguity of testimony toward material evidence,
forensic architecture, as we have seen in the Introduction, can help create
a synthesis between testimony and evidence. The architectural models we
construct, often made together with witnesses or victims of violence, help
people recall incidents obscured by the experience of extreme violence and
trauma. Architecture in this context becomes a mnemonic device. Architecture can also be useful as a mode of presentation: architectural models and

58

FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE

animations, even if of complex events, are usually intuitively understood by
both legal professional and the general public.
If the figure of the detective was nineteenth-century literature's
response to the conception of the modern metropolis as a crime scene, the
building surveyor might be the indispensable figure to address the prevalent
condition of urban life as urban conflict. If understanding the environmental logic of contemporary conflict requires a building surveyor, however, it
must be a building surveyor of a different kind: the survey can no longer
be immediate and haptic; the trained surveyor's eye and the notepads on
which observations are recorded must be complemented by media, data, and
remote sensing technologies, and the lines of causation must splinter into
causal fields that extend to politics, the environment, economy, and law.

WHAT IS FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE?

59

STARO SAJMISTE: THE INVERTED HORIZON

Staro Sajmiste (the Old Fairgrounds), on the outskirts of Belgrade, was inaugurated in

1938 as the site of an international exhibition. A series of pavilions - each representing a state or a company-was built around a central tower. At the end of 1941, following the German occupation of the kingdom of Yugoslavia, the fairgrounds reopened
as the Semlin concentration camp, where both Jews and Romas were detained and
murdered, the former in the first systematic use of gas vans. The site later became
an internment camp for Communists, partisans, Chetniks, and other "enemies of the
state." The logic of visibility that dictated the layout of the exhibition site also suited
the panoptic regime of the camp. No major structural transformation was necessary,
except for a high fence that was erected around the compound . After the war, the
remaining structures of the Sajmiste complex became the home of several generations of people and included artists' studios, workshops, and small industries. The
fence around the former camp area was taken down . Some of the abandoned structures were occupied by a Roma community that included survivors of the Nazi persecution and their decedents . Since the war, Belgrade's urban expansion has placed
Staro Sajmiste at the heart of the city as a kind of extraterritorial island in which alternative culture could flourish .

The Semlin camp within the fairground
structure, Belgrade, RAF, 1944. The
tower is at the center and the pavilions
all around. Bomb craters-the result
of the allied bombing of Belgrade-can
be seen within and around the camp.
IMAGE COURTESY OF JOVAN BYFORD

60

Recently, another transformation of the site was announced: its planned conversion
into a Holocaust memorial center and a museum. One of the reasons was that as a candidate country for admission to the European Union (EU), Serbia was required, among
other things, to abide by the Stockholm Declaration, which demands llthe adequate
commemoration of the Holocaust sites on its territory.ll The impending transformation
would turn the site back into an exhibition ground, and the fence would have to be
erected once more, now to protect the museum. Disturbingly, these plans necessitated the displacement of local communities including, perversely, the Roma people
who were themselves victims of the Nazis. The first evictions began in the summer of
2013. It is an unacceptable contradiction, we thought, to see a Holocaust memorial

built on forcefully cleared ground. Forensic Architecture's investigation of the site was
part of an attempt to help the residents protect their homes in the belief that comStaro Sajmiste, extent of the area surveyed, 2012. 3D laser scan data . The
brown/yellow parts of the photographic
point cloud are the result of the scan.
The rectangular surfaces in blue are
GPR scans of the subsoil. The features
and areas captured are: 1. Central Tower
(incl. areas A, BJ; 2 . Italian Pavilion;
3, Spasic Pavilion; 4, Hungarian Pavilion;
s. German Pavilion (incl. Areas C, E, I).
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE, SCANLAB,
ANO CAROLINE STURDY COLLS

memoration does not necessarily contradict ongoing inhabitation.
In the spring of 2012, in an investigation coordinated by Susan Schuppli, Forensic
Architecture collaborated with forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Coils and the
Belgrade-based Monument Group in undertaking a study of the remnants of the site,
above and below ground . Sturdy Coils, in previous years, had developed a method
of llnoninvasivell archaeology involving the use of remote sensing and groundpenetrating radar (GPR), an instrument that transmits pulses into the ground to a
depth of up to fifteen meters to detect minute differences in densities. In the fuzzy
three-dimensional model of the subsoil she produces, one can identify irregularities in
soil structure indicating buried objects and voids . Subterranean objects do not have

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sharp, clear borders. They are made visible only as a gradual increase in the density
of the medium of the earth. Their identification often depends on probabilities and
interpretation. Objects can be confirmed only when excavated, cleared of their excessive earth, and their borders reestablished, but much information is lost. This is the
reason that Colls's remote sensing archaeology has been used in examining Nazi concentration camps in Poland, where rabbinical authorities forbid material exhumations.
The survey included also work with ScanLAB, a London-based laser-scanning
practice that recorded the entire site aboveground. When a laser beam hits an object,
it returns the signal to record the location of a point. A point cloud is a spatially distributed group of coordinate points that produce a photographic space within which
one can navigate virtually.
The aboveground and underground scanning resulted in an archaeological report
that presented the site as a long process of ongoing transformations, encapsulating all its periods of use, structural additions, and alterations without privilege . The
constant transformations, deformations, restorations, and conversions captured the
unique history of the site.
The report confirmed a counterintuitive fact: Staro Sajmiste stands today thanks
to its ongoing inhabitation, which has sustained it for the past sixty years.

0.15m

0.72m

1.24m

Survey Area I. A GPR survey undertaken in search of mass graves (none were identified). Feature A is likely
a water pipe from the era of the camp. Feature B is a path bisecting the survey area. Feature C, is likely
a back-filled ditch, but its purpose is unclear. Coils explained that its form and depth are also consistent
with buried structures of much earlier periods, such as a tumulus, or a Neolithic round barrow-a mound
of earth and stones raised over graves- specimens of whic