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Forensic Architecture

Eyal Weizman’s new book The Least of all Possible Evils explores architecture’s twin role in modern warfare, both oppressor and potential liberator

At the heart of Eyal Weizman’s new book is an engagement with the problem of violence, in particular of state violence and the calculations that manage it in the contemporary world. Weizman argues that humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law have become crucial technologies in calculating what constitutes a just or balanced war, and that forensic analysis is frequently at the forefront of this necro-economy. This corresponds with the shift of emphasis in the 1990s from human testimony to objects of material evidence in the investigation of war crimes and, as conflict became increasingly urbanised, representations of the built environment, fragments of buildings, satellite imagery of destroyed buildings etc being used as evidence in courts of law. This resulted in what Weizman calls forensic architecture: existing at the intersection of architecture, history and the laws of war, forensic architecture is both an analytical method for reconstructing scenes of violence as they are inscribed in spatial artefacts and the practice of interpreting and deliberating over them in legally constituted forums.*

The book begins with an account of the 1755 natural disasters (earthquake, tidal waves etc) that wreaked havoc on both sides of the Atlantic, as told in Voltaire’s Candide. The tale’s protagonists, Candide and Pangloss set out on a sea voyage, but are shipwrecked and washed ashore in Lisbon, only to be subjected to a devastating earthquake. Emerging from the ruins, Pangloss explains to Candide that behind all these disasters was a divine calculation that optimised the relationship between good and evil, and that all that had happened was for the very best. This theology serves as background to Weizman’s analysis of contemporary conflict, except that in today’s world, the economy of the best of all possible worlds has given way to an economy of the least of all possible evils and divine calculation to human speculation. This does not seek to end conflict, devastation or war, but to regulate, shape and moderate it in order to make it more effective.

The book presents a number of case studies in which elements of the humanitarian present, including humanitarians themselves, humanitarian law, architectural artefacts, spatial organisation or destroyed buildings have colluded with or are evidence of this calculus. His precedent is again the Lisbon earthquake, when detailed records of buildings destroyed by it circulated around Europe, illustrating the horror of the event. The first of his case studies examines the role of humanitarian organisations in the Ethiopian famine of the mid 1980s and traces the way in which humanitarian relief became lethal to the people it claimed to serve. The second analyses the physical and procedural siege mechanisms applied by Israel in the Gaza Strip, governed by the standards of the humanitarian minimum. The third examines scientific and probabilistic models used in the analysis of the rubble left by war, to show that these are based on the same lethal technologies they set out to monitor in the first place. The book concludes with an archive of photographs of buildings destroyed in Gaza by Israel’s attack in the winter of 2008-09 compiled by the Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing.

This makes extraordinary claims, not only for forensic science, but also for architecture. Weizman tells the story of the interrogation of an architectural model in the Israeli High Court at the time when legal challenges against Israel’s separation wall were being heard. The model was the expert witness in the court’s deliberation about the line the wall should take to be a lesser evil alternative. Weizman’s narrative of the court proceedings is hilarious. He tells of how no one knew where to place the model and of how normal courtroom protocol was undone by the model’s presence, but what is more important here is that the model was expert evidence or agent in the deliberation that followed. Weizman states it thus: ‘The legal process came to resemble a design session, with the parties making their points on the model, sometimes balancing their pens on its miniature topography to try out alternatives’. In another example, Weizman exposes the use of software by the US Defense Intelligence Agency during the war in Iraq to model the relationship between buildings, their construction materials and techniques, people in and around them at various times of the day and type of bomb, fuse and direction of attach, to plan and reduce damage, devastation and loss of life.

Here once again, architecture, in this case virtual architecture, served as expert evidence in the calculation of the lesser evil. These examples draw attention to architectural artefacts, technologies and procedures as key components in the current warfare-humanitarian nexus. They serve not only as evidence of past crimes, injustices and disproportionalities, but also bear witness to possible futures; forensic architecture is both analytical and speculative. From Weizman’s meticulous critique of humanitarianism and its current dilemmas, architecture emerges as an instrument to invent new forms of struggle that are recognisant of the current paradigm of power, but which also evade, subvert and escape its calculations. For anyone involved in the field of humanitarian design, this makes devastating sense.

* Weizman and his colleagues in the European Research Council funded Forensic Architecture Project at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London University are undertaking such research in a number of human rights cases, including the ‘Left to Die Boat’ (Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani and Situ Studio), which provided evidence that other European countries and NATO abandoned and contributed to the deaths of 63 refugees who were fleeing Libya last year.

The Least of all Possible Evils. Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza

Author: Eyal Weizman
Publisher: Verso
Price: £16.99

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