Home Spotlight Forensic architecture - a new dimension to old profession

Forensic architecture – a new dimension to old profession

Forensic architecture refers to the production and presentation of architectural evidence – buildings and urban environments and their media representations.It is an emerging field yet to become part of curriculum in universities. It is a recent concept emerged as a consequence to several converging phenomena, such as the urbanisation of warfare, the erosion of trust in evidence in relation to state crimes and human rights violations. Multiple utility of smartphone which is nowadays used widely as camera for video shooting which in turn has led to its usage for documenting human rights violations in urban conflict is perhaps one of the main reasons for proliferation of forensic architecture. Also, rapid growth of open source media and the increasing awareness and activism of civil society which wants to have its own means of evidence production for application in law, politics and advocacy are other factors that have contributed to its growth.

In its purest sense, Forensic architecture has got nothing to do with the conventional architecture. It is an art (or vaguely a science ) of using architectural evidence in cases of war crimes or other human rights violations.

The inventor of this concept is 1970 born Eyal Weizman, a British Israeli intellectual and architect. He studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London, and completed his PhD at the London Consortium. In 2010, he set up an agency called “Forensic Architecture” (FA) to provide advanced architectural and media evidence to civil society groups, with the help of several European Research Council grants, as well as other human rights grants. This is how the term Forensic Architecture has made its origin and caught the world wide attention.

Incidentally, the first project undertaken by FA was an investigation into the killing of Bassem Abu Rahma in Bil’in in a demonstration in Israel-Palestine disputed territory.

On April 17, 2009, Bassem Abu Rahma was shot and killed in Bil’in during a demonstration in Israel-Palestine disputed territory. Abu Rahma was hit with a tear- gas canister shot from across the wall and Israel military had claimed that the hit was unintentional and was not directed towards anyone specific. Forensic Architecture took up the case upon the request by attorney Michael Sfard, who foughtfor Abu Rahma’s parents, and the Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselemto ascertain whether the shot that killed Abu Rahma was aimed directly at him. Fortunately for Forensic Architecture at the time of demonstration there was an abundance of video cameras present. Forensic Architecture traced the movement of each of the the cameras on a digital model of the terrainwhose general contours wereobtained from maps and satellite images. One of the videos had covered the fraction of second of the shooting which eventually killed the victim. FA used that video to reconstruct the path of the munition in a virtual model of the scene. Because of the FA report identifying the place and angle from which Abu Rahma was shot and the trajectory of the munitions the military prosecution opened a criminal investigation, fifteen months after the killing.

The Grenfell Tower fire incident which took place recently in London, FA’s role was different one where the agency is collecting thousands of videos of the fire, taken by Londoners on their cameras and smartphones and assembling them within a 3D model of Grenfell Tower. These pieces of footage will become a continuous ‘3D video’ of the fire, mapped onto its architectural model of Grenfell Tower. FA’s aim here is to create a powerful and freely-available resource for members of the public to explore and better understand the events of the night of the fire. “This is an open-ended project that we expect to continue for a year or more,” says FA.

FA analysis also helped in identifying the damages and its consequences at the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Hospital in Syria, also known as M2 which was subjected to fourteen strikes by pro-government forces from June to December 2016. The strikes were predominantly carried out by air to surface missiles, but also included illegal cluster munitions, barrel bombs, naval mines, and artillery. FA used photographs and videos taken in and around the hospital while analysing the consequences of these strikes. Further, there were a number of CCTV cameras in the hospital that were continuously on, capturing every strike. Each piece of footage captured only a small part of the building; however, by combining and cross-referencing these clips FA was able to reconstruct the architecture of the building as a 3D model and locate the exact sites of the bombings and the resultant damage. The spatial link created as a result of this investigation enabled to corroborate the range and multiplicity of the strikes, raising questions about the intent behind this destructive pattern of events.

These are some of the cases taken up by FA on the request by human right activist groups or on its own. Now FA is spreading its wings to other parts of the world too.

But forensic architecture is no architecture and architects involved in this are not known for building skyscrapers or any other monuments but known to combine the spatial and engineering skills of architects and engineers, the data-gathering prowess researchers, investigative mind of journalists and putting the entire results in beautiful narrative. It is not an extension of architecture profession but can be considered as an arm detective agency. However, architectural tools and software are widely used in forensic architecture and that may be partly due to its inventor has architecture background.

Presently, usage of forensic architecture is restricted to certain geographical regions of Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Syria which are a happy hunting ground for human right violation activists. Again, the inventor of forensic architecture has Israel origins and that may be the reason he had chosen the region as a starting point. However, of late the concept is slowly finding its way to other regions like Mexico, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Europe. In India, it may take some more time for forensic architecture to make its presence, not because there are no human rights violations here or ours is accident free society (compare Kamla Mills fire with Greenfell Tower fire) but because we are not sure of the acceptability of the findings of   forensic architecture as evidence by our judiciary. So, somebody has to take courage to bell the cat.

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