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From Adolf Loos to the Grenfell tower, from figurative to literal crimes, architecture used as evidence exposes how claims of truth are constructed

Window frames ‘significantly narrower than the gap between the concrete surfaces of the columns’; poorly cut insulation made of ‘combustible’ material; composite cladding with a plastic core that itself ‘appears to be highly combustible’; cavity barriers of ‘insufficient size specification’ to prevent a chimney effect in the event of a blaze. These are just some of the many ‘deficiencies’ identified in the recently leaked forensic report on the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Police as part of its ongoing investigation, the report is authored by the building certification firm BRE Global. Their fire safety experts were granted extensive access to the charred remains of the tower which, as an active crime scene, remains cordoned off. The report’s main conclusion is as unequivocal as it is damning: the fire would not have spread beyond the flat of origin, and would not have caused a single death, if the original facade of the building had not been re-clad. And yet, due to the cumulative effect of so many breaches of building regulations, the failure of a single fridge-freezer in an apartment on the fourth floor caused a fire which, once it took hold on the new cladding, engulfed an entire 24-storey, 70-metre-high tower block. Claiming 72 lives.

‘If Adolf Loos’s notorious rant against ornament as ‘crime’ was meant in a figurative sense – as a crime against modernity – the cladding of Grenfell’s original facade is currently being investigated as a literal crime’

The leaked report is due to be entered into evidence in a number of parallel legal proceedings, including the ongoing public inquiry into the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire. But how exactly can architecture become evidence? What particular conditions of politics are opened, or closed, by the collapse of the architectural field into the legal one? Grenfell, the deadliest civilian incident to take place in the United Kingdom in the past three decades, fundamentally hinges on a matter of architecture. This fact alone seems to call for a re-examination of the intricate relation between architecture and evidence, through which a recent history of architecture’s claim to truth may be reconstructed.

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Forensic Architecture’s digital model and media archive of the Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017, with crowdsourced footage synced and mapped onto a 3D model

If Adolf Loos’s notorious rant against ornament as ‘crime’, formulated in 1910, was meant in a figurative sense – as a crime against modernity – the cladding of Grenfell’s original facade is currently being investigated as a literal crime. There is more than rhetoric to be heard in this troubling echo. Loos’s pamphlet, which counts among the founding texts of the Modernist design discourse, advocated a new set of aesthetic values attuned to modern rationality; to be true to its time, design was to become plain, forthright, transparent. Over a century later and marking a thorough disavowal of such values, the 2015-16 refurbishment of Grenfell was largely decided in order to conceal the appearance of the postwar tower block from the affluent neighbouring areas of Kensington and Chelsea. Arguably, the Grenfell Tower first emerged as a public concern because it too evidently revealed its original function: that of providing low-cost homes to the working class.

Evident: from Latin ex-, ‘out’, and videre, ‘to see’, whose outside appearance reveals its inner truth. In that sense, evidence can be said to constitute one of the core values materially pursued by modern architecture. Yet the legal sense of the term is quite different: a piece of evidence is anything but self-evident; it requires interpretation, mediation and deliberation in order to convince and convict.

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This model of the Omarska concentration camp, near Prijedor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was submitted as evidence in the Brđanin case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

For this reason, evidence could later be turned against architecture. Indeed, the dismissal of Modernist collective housing in Britain was largely achieved through the register of the trial. Building statistical links between traces of ‘social malaise’ – such as litter, graffiti or vandalism – and architectural features in council estates, Alice Coleman’s 1985 book Utopia on Trial served as the theoretical foundation for housing policy reforms under Margaret Thatcher’s administration. In spite of the highly disputable character of its conclusions, the book generated a long shadow. To this day, crimes taking place within council estates are still commonly presented as evidence of the inherent deficiency of their architecture.

‘To this day, crimes taking place within council estates are still commonly presented as evidence of the inherent deficiency of their architecture’

Evidentiary discourses have thus served both the emergence and the demise of modern architecture. On the one hand, in their attempt to match simple programmes with simple forms, Functionalist schemes often found themselves at odds with the actual complexity of the social processes they tried to encase – which were never as evident as the Modernist architect or planner would present them. On the other hand, the formal straightforwardness of Modernist, and in particular Brutalist architecture, has lent itself to condemnatory arguments that could be just as diagrammatic, oversimplified or tautological as the ones that supported much of its design in the first place. Rather than offering an infallible access to truth, the framing of architecture as evidence merely ushers it into the conflicted realm of truth politics.

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Diagram featured in the 1974 documentary The Writing on the Wall, which follows Oscar Newman, author of the ‘defensible space’ theory, as he walks around the Aylesbury Estate in south-east London

The rapprochement between architecture and law, and in particular international law, accelerated significantly from the 1990s onwards, through the rise of urban warfare. With cities increasingly turning into battlefields, the built environment became a key witness to the violence of war; as such, architecture started to be examined and cross-examined in international courts. One case in particular, concerning the destruction of the Hadum Mosque complex during the 1999 war in Kosovo, captures the key tension at work in the presentation of architectural evidence. In response to the expert witness that had surveyed the destroyed mosque and whose report pointed to the responsibility of Serbian paramilitaries, Slobodan Milošević, speaking from the dock of the accused in The Hague, limited his defence to asking the knotty question: ‘Can you speak on behalf of the rubble?’

‘Rather than offering an infallible access to truth, the framing of architecture as evidence merely ushers it into the conflicted realm of truth politics’

Architecture’s entry into international courts can be understood as a particular instance of a ‘forensic turn’ – which law and media theorists Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman trace back to the mid-1980s – whereby material evidence has taken over from human testimony as the truth value of reference in both legal and cultural practices. Yet in spite of its claim to pure objectivity, forensics never resolves the issue of bias; on the contrary, the persuasive power of forensics can also be employed to conceal truth, or to propagate lies.

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Slide from Colin Powell’s A Failure to Disarm presentation at the UN Security Council, 5 February 2003

With a view to grasp the challenges surrounding the use of architecture as evidence, one might learn much from the examples of its abuse. On 5 February 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a momentous PowerPoint presentation in the UN Security Council. Throughout his speech, a series of low-resolution, cursorily annotated satellite images of industrial sites were offered as irrefutable evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Powell’s presentation was instrumental in justifying the US-led invasion of the country at international level; and while US troops later failed to find any of such weapons on the ground, the deadly conflict ignited by that military intervention still rages in Iraq 15 years later. Powell’s now infamous slideshow constitutes a paradigmatic case of state lies camouflaged as an objective site survey report.

‘Architecture’s entry into international courts can be understood as a particular instance of a ‘forensic turn’ whereby material evidence has taken over from human testimony as the truth value of reference in both legal and cultural practices’

At the other end of a spectrum of deceptive architectural forensics, one could place the argument advanced by Holocaust denier David Irving, the invalidation of which became the focus of his notorious trial in London in 2000. Irving claimed that because no holes were ever found in the roof of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, those rooms could not have functioned as gas chambers – an argument he summarised by the formula ‘no holes, no holocaust’. A 700-page report by architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt, which combined the analysis of rubble on site, historical photographs and original architectural drawings of the camp, succeeded in refuting Irving’s claim and secured a ruling which durably consolidated the truth status of the Holocaust. Irving’s case points to the problem of an over-emphasis on material proof as the sole guarantee of truth – by which the apparent absence of such proof can be leveraged to contest the overwhelming evidence of a historical fact.

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US Air Force reconnaissance photograph of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp taken in August 1944 and re-analysed by the CIA in 1978. From Images of the World and the Inscription of War by Harun Farocki, 1988

Whether it is in the form of texts, drawings, photographs, physical models or digital ones, it is always as media that architectural evidence can enter into court – be it a legal court or a court of public opinion. Such practices of mediation leave room for an interpretative process which tends to mirror, rather than to cancel, the political space of deliberation between subjects. The forensic paradigm does not get rid of the problem of bias but rather displaces it from the subjective to the objective realm. When discussing architecture as evidence, it is therefore impossible not to speak of an architecture of evidence.

‘As a counterweight to the expert as a figure whose veracity is to be taken for granted, an architectural perspective on the question of evidence sheds light on the process by which truth claims are constructed while, at times, offering the means to deconstruct them’

Acknowledging the process of construction at the heart of all forensic evidence, including architectural evidence, is by no means equivalent to undermining the validity of its truth claims. On the contrary, it means affirming that truth is never evident, its access never immediate. A fundamentally shared condition, truth must be disputable in order to be considered such; it is formed and deformed in the public arena, as a result of the constant opposition between diverging claims and modes of discourses. The misuse of rationalism as a cover for authoritative claims and actions is a phenomenon that marked not only the political but also the architectural history of the 20th century. As a counterweight to the expert as a figure whose veracity is to be taken for granted, an architectural perspective on the question of evidence sheds light on the process by which truth claims are constructed while, at times, offering the means to deconstruct them.

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Representing Forensic Architecture, Francesco Sebregondi presents a report on the use of white phosphorus munitions in urban environments in the UN Office at Geneva, 12 November 2012

As skilfully designed as a piece of architecture may be, its significance is virtually null if it remains empty or ignored. In a similar way, the most convincing piece of evidence is effectively worthless if it is not acted upon. The case of the Grenfell Tower fire is a telling example of how architecture can provide evidence of a crime and expose its precise circumstances to the public eye. Yet exposure is but a means towards an end, while the value of any evidence may best be measured against its capacity to affect the conditions that it exposed. Whether the institutions currently overseeing the different inquiries into Grenfell are ready to pull all the threads uncovered by the architectural forensics; whether they will track the broad web of responsibility for the systematic recklessness at the origin of this tragedy; and whether the government – aware of the fact that 301 residential and public buildings over 18 metres tall are currently clad with the same ‘highly combustible’ material as Grenfell – will finally act to prevent another deadly blaze remains to be seen.

All images courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.