Forensics Helps Widen Architecture’s Mission

Working with Amnesty International, the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture used photographs and videos primarily from social media to create a 3D model reconstructing one of the heaviest days of bombardment in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

LONDON — Last year, Israeli police officers raided a Bedouin village in the Negev desert called Umm al-Hiran. The Israeli authorities said that during the raid a villager had purposely run over an Israeli officer, killing him. They called it a terrorist attack. The villager died at the scene. Silent police helicopter footage seemed to show his car accelerating into the officer.

Forensic Architecture uncovered a different story.

You may recall Forensic Architecture from headlines a few years back. It investigated the killing of two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank. Local and international media crews were on hand when the teenagers were killed. Security cameras recorded the shootings. At first, Israel’s minister of defense said the teenagers had been throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, despite security footage showing otherwise. The minister said the footage had been doctored.

Forensic Architecture combed through the videos and social media posts. Using architectural rendering software, it pieced together a computer model of the site and tracked the trajectory of the bullets. That pinpointed the soldier who fired them and the weapon he used. Comparing acoustic signatures, Forensic Architecture then matched the fatal shots to the distinct sounds of live ammunition, contradicting the military’s claim that only rubber bullets had been fired. All this contributed to Israeli officials reversing themselves, and charging the soldier with manslaughter.

A survey of Forensic Architecture’s work is now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, through May 6. A collaborative of designers, filmmakers, coders, archaeologists, psychologists and others, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture acts more or less like a detective agency. It partners with groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Its funders include the European Research Council. And its investigations are whodunits. Eyal Weizman, an Israeli-British architect, is the group’s founder and resident Columbo.

Instead of creating a house or skyscraper, the group scours for evidence of lies, crimes and human rights violations — combining the spatial and engineering skills of architects, the data-gathering prowess of librarians, the doggedness of investigative journalists and the storytelling finesse of screenwriters. Its reports have annoyed Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party, frustrated Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, provoked an attack from Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia Today news service, and infuriated officials in Israel.

Mr. Weizman has an especially long history of run-ins there. Born in Haifa, educated at the Architectural Association in London, he was just starting out as an architect in Tel Aviv when he began to study the legacy of town planning in the occupied territories. What he saw suggested to him architecture’s complicity in human rights violations. In 2002, with a colleague, Rafi Segal, he was hired to organize a show of new Israeli architecture. Mr. Weizman and Mr. Segal presented settlements in the occupied territories. Appalled, the Israel Association of United Architects canceled the exhibition and withdrew the catalog. The incident brought Mr. Weizman attention.

And it made him think.

His timing could hardly seem better, with technology rapidly democratizing the instruments of forensic research and the purview of young architects widening. He begins his recent book, “Forensic Architecture,” recalling the libel trial in London of the Holocaust denier and historian David Irving, nearly two decades ago. Mr. Irving’s shameful case relied on a tidbit of architectural evidence: he made much of fuzzy satellite imagery showing a demolished crematory at Auschwitz. Survivors had said they recalled poison cyanide gas canisters dropped through a hole in the crematory’s roof, but Mr. Irving said there was no hole in the satellite photos. “No hole, no Holocaust,” became the deniers’ catchphrase.

Mr. Irving lost his trial. But Mr. Weizman cites the case as a cautionary tale. The tools of forensic analysis can easily be perverted. Wielded especially by governments and other powers in defense of violence and crime, they need to be challenged by equally sophisticated means. Architecture and forensics may be disparate disciplines but brought together they could produce a new, “different mode of practice,” Mr. Weizman realized. They could help reverse “the forensic gaze” back onto state agencies “that usually monopolize it.”

Adopting a phrase coined by the photographer Allan Sekula, Mr. Weizman terms the practice “counter forensics.”

I stopped by the group’s office in southeast London the other day. A dozen or so researchers were staring into computer screens, Nick Masterton among them. He was tinkering with a timeline and 3D computer model of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people in London last year. Mr. Masterton and the rest of the Grenfell team have spent the last several months knitting together thousands of open-source photographs, videos and reams of metadata related to the fire.

Mr. Masterton told me he’s using some of the techniques he learned in architecture school when so-called parametric design was the rage. Forensic Architecture relies on computer programs and digital animation software that model exotic building shapes to reconstitute bombed-out ruins, identify debris patterns from drone strikes and document tragedies like the fire. And of course Mr. Masterton scours the Web for images.

It has become a cliché that smartphones and social media today flood the world with pictures that change public debates around power, policing, violence and race. For Mr. Weizman, the “image flotsam,” as he calls it, can be as confounding as it can be useful and it needs to be assembled. It requires “construction and composition — thus, architecture,” in his words. The resulting “architectural image complex” functions like a lens, letting people “see the scene of a crime as a set of relations between images in time and space.”

Christina Varvia is now Forensic Architecture’s research coordinator. “What we do is in the tradition of ‘paper architecture,’” she told me, when I asked how her work relates to what she did as an architect. “Except we expect results. As architects, we’re also trained to bring different people together to produce a design. But instead, we synthesize evidence.”

Since 2011, when Mr. Weizman founded the agency, its work has expanded beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories to Mexico, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Europe. Its investigation into whether a German undercover agent lied about witnessing the murder of a man of Turkish descent at an internet cafe is one of the most intriguing and mysterious cases at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

One of the most heartbreaking involves Saydnaya, the infamous prison outside Damascus.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war, thousands have disappeared inside that country’s detention centers. At Saydnaya, prisoners are kept in darkness, tortured and beaten if they speak. No outsiders are allowed access. There are no recent photographs of the inside.

Working with Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture interviewed five former Saydnaya detainees in Istanbul. The researchers asked the prisoners to describe the building. Trauma unhinges memory, but architecture can provide an anchor. No detail was considered too trivial. Based on remembered smells of grease and blood, and sounds like an idling truck engine delivering new prisoners or the approaching thud of guards beating inmates, cell by cell, Forensic Architecture constructed a computer model of Saydnaya.

“When a state commits a crime,” Mr. Weizman explained, “it cordons off an area, which is the privilege of the state. That site becomes a work of architecture, defined by the cordon. A prison by definition is architecture. You can try to break through the state cordon via leaks, media images, satellite photographs. And when they’re not available, memory is a way around the cordon. In any case, the cordoned area is our ‘building site.’”

At Umm al-Hiran, the Bedouin village that was raided, the building site became the dusty hill where the car struck the police officer. The supposed terrorist in that case was a farmer named Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an. The Israeli policeman he ran over was named Erez Levi.

Collaborating with ActiveStills, an Israeli-based photographic collective, Forensic Architecture used photogrammetry and collected, time stamped and synchronized every available image and video of the raid, producing a corresponding soundtrack. The soundtrack, when played alongside the thermal-imaging videos, revealed the pops of three gunshots where heat flashes emerged from a policeman’s weapon that had been overlooked in the silent helicopter footage. The weapon was fired at Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s car just before it accelerated down a hill and into Mr. Levi.

Not long after that discovery, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a leaked autopsy report revealing that Mr. Abu al-Qi’an had suffered two bullet wounds, one in his right knee, the leg controlling the gas pedal. The wound raised an alternative explanation for why Mr. Abu al-Qi’an, who had been moving slowly, with his lights on, suddenly accelerated, as if losing control of his vehicle.

The police continued to insist he was a terrorist, but more than a month after the raid Israel’s security service and Ministry of Justice changed the story and attributed the incident to a police blunder.

That still left unexplained the second bullet, which villagers testified to seeing an Israeli officer fire at point-blank range into Mr. Abu al-Qi’an after his car had stopped.

So Forensic Architecture continued its investigation.

With volunteers, it reenacted the event at Umm al-Hiran, using the same model car, confirming that the scenario in which a wounded Mr. Abu al-Qi’an lost control and sped down the hill matched the video evidence. It also turned out that the doors of a Land Cruiser lock automatically when the vehicle reaches 20 kilometers an hour, as Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s car did before swerving to a standstill at the bottom of the hill.

In helicopter footage, the driver’s side door can be seen to open when the police surround the stopped vehicle, implying Mr. Abu al-Qi’an willingly opened it. A single gunshot then pierces the soundtrack.

That second bullet lodged beneath Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s heart. The leaked autopsy report said he bled to death from this wound, while medical aid was withheld.

An investigation by the justice ministry into the event recently concluded, without any apparent indictments. The case awaits a final verdict by the state attorney.

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