Image from Forensic Architecture's reconstruction of a drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan
Forensic Architecture Image from Forensic Architecture's reconstruction of a drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan

In early March, an Israeli architect named Eyal Weizman and a team of sound and static engineers, smell specialists, cameramen, and other architects gathered in a basement conference room of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, just a few hundred yards from the German parliament building in Berlin. Using scaffolding, plexiglass sheeting, Ikea furniture, and blue-painted drywall, they constructed a full-scale model of an internet café in Kassel, a city about a four-hour drive to the southwest. Their goal: justice.

More than a decade earlier, at the real café, the owner’s son, 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, was manning the front desk when he was shot twice with a silenced pistol. The attack was the work of a trio of far-right terrorists later dubbed the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Between 1999 and 2010, the group planted bombs in Cologne, murdered 10 people of Turkish or Kurdish descent as well as a policewoman, and robbed 14 banks. At the time, authorities blamed the deaths and bombings on ethnic mafias or family quarrels, and police in several German states publicly dismissed the possibility that they were hate crimes or terrorism.

A scene from the Kassel café reconstruction
Forensic Architecture A scene from the Kassel café reconstruction

Yozgat’s case featured a bizarre twist: a police officer named Andreas Temme was in the café at the time of the murder. But he didn’t intervene or even stick around. It took two weeks for officials to track down Temme, who claimed he didn’t come forward earlier out of embarrassment. A married man, he said he was using the café to anonymously surf internet dating sites. Besides, he claimed, he didn’t see or hear anything unusual in the café at the time of the shooting.

The NSU was exposed when two of its members died in a fire and the third turned herself in, leading to one of the most-watched trials in postwar Germany. For his part, Temme was cleared—but his unlikely story and hastily closed case left victims’ families and activists in Germany unsatisfied. If Temme’s testimony was demonstrably false, it might point to a larger official cover-up. If the officer was lying about being a witness, was it possible that he might have been an accomplice or even a direct participant?

“Our aim is to see if the police were right in closing the file on Andreas Temme,” said Weizman, standing in front of the re-created café’s front door in March. “We’re conducting an investigation of the investigation.”

The smoke machine in the café reconstruction
Forensic Architecture The smoke machine in the café reconstruction

The reconstruction was more than a media-friendly stunt. It was the sort of painstaking analysis that Forensic Architecture (FA), a London-based research agency founded by Weizman, has pioneered over the past seven years, in the process unraveling official accounts of killings and human rights abuses from Gaza to Guatemala.

FA’s work has been presented as evidence in courts around the world, before United Nations panels, and in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Israel’s B’Tselem. “What makes Forensic Architecture stand out is they are one of the few groups to isolate core skills like modeling and design and apply them to very urgent matters,” says Brendan Cormier, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who included the organization’s work in his “A World of Fragile Parts” exhibition at the Venice Biennale last year. “In the fog of war, they seek out the truth.”

The NSU investigation is a classic example. Using floor plans of the three-room space, stills taken from YouTube videos, witness testimony, thousands of pages of official investigation material, and 1 minute, 18 seconds of leaked police video of Temme retracing his steps during his testimony, FA created a precise computer reconstruction of the scene. They applied specialized eye-tracking software to show what Temme was able to see as he moved through the space. An accurate digital reconstruction allowed the agency to test dozens of different scenarios: Could a gunshot have been heard in the café’s back room? Did Temme have an obstructed view of the front door, or of the shooter? How long would it have taken for the smell of gunpowder to dissipate after the two shots were fired? “We need to see if he was a witness—an eyewitness, an earwitness, or a smell witness,” Weizman says. “Is there enough information, in other words, to show that Temme was lying?”

An image from the café reconstruction
Forensic Architecture An image from the café reconstruction

To “ground truth” or verify the computer model’s accuracy, FA built the café replica. Some parts were reconstructed precisely: The two mugs on the café’s front desk, the spoon in an empty cereal bowl, the mouse plugged into a desktop computer. Other aspects were portrayed in outline: Strips of white tape traced the locations of the café’s computer cabins and rear wall. Over the course of two days, the team calibrated the computer model. State-of-the-art microphones measured how audible a 130-decibel silenced gunshot was from different parts of the café. A smell specialist had configured a smoke machine to release puffs of “gunsmoke” that were then tracked using GoPros.

Outside the conference room, activist Tim Klodzko—part of the National Socialist Union Tribunal project, a coalition of NGOs devoted to bringing attention to the case and its implications for German society—watched with visible emotion. “Forensic Architecture could prove the statements of the police are wrong, using their methods,” he says. “Seeing this reconstruction, I’m really impressed. I have the feeling this can change something.”

A Dynamic New Evidence Model
Since Weizman, 46, founded FA in 2010, it has established itself as a unique hybrid of architecture studio and human rights investigator. The agency’s reports balance high-flown architectural theory with cold facts. “To build a quasi-discipline requires a combination of theoretical, historical, experimental, and technical capacity—along with serious historical analysis and serious theoretical understanding of the relationship between the architectural materiality and events,” Weizman says. “On the other hand, we’re very practical. It’s important to provide evidence to convince people and win cases.”

In one of their recent high-profile projects, FA teamed with Amnesty International investigators to create an architectural model of Saydnaya Prison, a Syrian military facility near Damascus notorious for torture and summary executions. Access to the prison, controlled by the Bashar al-Assad regime, was impossible, so FA used aerial satellite images and testimony from survivors about how the prison sounded to reconstruct the interior.

FA's model of Saydnaya Prison
Forensic Architecture FA's model of Saydnaya Prison

For Amnesty International, more accustomed to gathering evidence using pen and paper, the collaboration was a window into entirely new ways of presenting and analyzing evidence. “That element of dynamism and creativity is so useful for us as human rights activists,” says researcher Nicolette Waldman, one of Amnesty International’s Saydnaya investigators. “Their process isn’t necessarily linear or step-by-step, but in the end it’s amazing.”

Published online last summer, the interactive map of the prison was, technically, an appendix to an authoritative report based on dozens of hours of witness testimony and fact-finding. But, Waldman says, the way the model allowed viewers to virtually enter the notorious prison resonated beyond Amnesty’s usual audience. In addition to CNN, the BBC, and NPR, the project was covered in outlets like Wired and Fast Company. “It allowed us to reach a whole new segment of the population,” Waldman says, “people who wouldn’t read an Amnesty International report but might click on a tour of the prison.”

Saydnaya case study

The agency’s flair for showmanship is thanks in no small part to Weizman himself, who manages to marry undisputed intellectual heft—he’s published more than a dozen books (Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability comes out in May) and teaches at the University of London and Princeton University—with undeniable stage presence. Take his appearance outside an Israeli Army base in the West Bank, filmed for a 2014 Al Jazeera documentary called The Architecture of Violence: Weizman initiated a shouted exchange with an unseen (but presumably armed) soldier concealed inside a tall concrete watchtower. “Is this place only yours? It’s everybody’s place,” Weizman yelled in Hebrew, with an exaggerated wave and theatrical shrug. “Why are you here, anyway? Is that tube your home? It’s not even your home and you’re sitting in that tube telling me what to do?”

Point made, Weizman turned his back on the tower and strode through a scrubby field back to the waiting camera, sporting a toothy grin under aviator shades. “Fuck them,” he said dismissively. “Doesn’t he look ridiculous, inside his pipe house? Like he’s king of the hill, inside his tube?”

Weizman’s dramatic style often helps give FA’s presentations an extra emotional impact. After the Israeli army used artillery shells full of white phosphorus over the dense urban center of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard worked with Weizman and his team to bring a case against the army in court. FA reconstructed the explosion of a single white phosphorus shell and modeled how the prevailing winds that day would have spread the burning chemical over the city below, presenting the evidence to a U.N. panel in Geneva in 2012.

When they brought the case before Israel’s High Court of Justice, Sfard says, the FA took the analysis a step further. It superimposed the resulting rain of fire on maps of Paris, New York, and Tel Aviv, literally bringing the effects of the controversial weaponry home to the Israeli court. “The judges could see which buildings would have been hit,” Sfard says. “It seemed to me they were impressed.” In 2013, shortly before the court was scheduled to rule in the case, the army announced it would voluntarily stop using the weapon in populated areas.

FA's "Bomb Cloud Atlas" at the Venice Biennale
Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia FA's "Bomb Cloud Atlas" at the Venice Biennale

A Team of Designers Seeking the Political Edge
On a gray December morning in London, the FA studio—a white-painted brick loft on the second floor of Goldsmiths College, University of London—is cold enough that several of the young architects bent over their laptops at spare trestle table desks are wearing puffy down jackets and watch caps.

Aside from the tables, the office’s furnishings consist of little more than a lone Ikea Kallax bookshelf and some framed images: forensic reconstructions of the remains of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the subject of Weizman’s 2012 book Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics. A whiteboard in the corner lists projects the office is working on; the one-word project nicknames read like a catalog of the world’s trouble spots: Saydnaya, Negev, Guatemala, Karachi, Gaza.

FA is largely funded by the European Research Council, which awarded Weizman a five-year, €1.2 million grant in 2011. Last year, it renewed the agency’s funding through 2021. Other funding comes from museums that exhibit the agency’s work or NGOs it partners with. FA employs a wide range of professionals from disciplines as far-flung as art, law, and computer science. Yet architecture remains at the core of its mission, and Weizman is a restless presence in the middle of it all, wearing a blue blazer over a black sweater with a purple scarf knotted around his neck against the indoor chill.

An image from FA's Miranshah drone strike reconstruction
Forensic Architecture An image from FA's Miranshah drone strike reconstruction

Most of the bundled-up collaborators in the loft were trained as architects; the work they’re doing uses programs like Rhinoceros 3D, Blender, QGIS, Agisoft PhotoScan, and 3D Studio Max to model everything from the Kassel internet café to Pakistani sweatshops. By design, each project is a one-off. “We’re not training people to repeat work that has already been done here. Each project tries to push a certain dimension in new directions,” Weizman says. “On the one hand they open up new political or technological possibilities and on the other, they are relevant—they are where the political edge is.”

Weizman himself studied architecture at London’s Architectural Association in the 1990s. While still a student, he began volunteering for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s planning office. It was just after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which galvanized a generation of young left-wing Israelis like Weizman, who was born in Haifa.

Weizman discovered that Palestinian planners didn’t have access to modern cartography and were relying on outdated Jordanian maps and colonial-era plans instead. As an Israeli citizen, Weizman could freely access Israeli sources. He volunteered to work as “something like a lower-grade industrial espionage person,” culling information about the geography and infrastructure of Palestinian-controlled areas from Israeli open-source documents and providing them to Palestinian planners. The work inspired Weizman to begin thinking about maps as a way to represent the daily lives of the oppressed, a means of revealing the sheer physical brutality of the occupation. He was already theoretically inclined, he says: “I managed to walk through the AA without designing much.”

A sketch made by a survivor of a drone strike in Mir Ali, Pakistan
Forensic Architecture A sketch made by a survivor of a drone strike in Mir Ali, Pakistan

When scholar Edward Said and others called for a “counter-mapping” movement to use colonial cartographic techniques in the service of indigenous communities in the mid-1990s, Weizman saw a way he could combine architectural tools with political convictions. Weizman began applying the techniques he had learned as an architect to look at human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli government, particularly the way buildings and urban planning disrupted Palestinian communities.

“There has been a shift in architecture in the past decade to see architectural investigation as something that is not directed at design solutions,” Weizman says. “The linear thread that connected research to construction is being snapped and architectural knowledge, architectural intelligence, architectural investigation are being used to unpack other situations.”

As much as the tools and techniques of architecture can expose and explain crimes against humanity, there’s a flip side, argues Weizman. Architects can be accomplices to violence, war, and human rights violations. Architecture itself, he says, can be a weapon as deadly as any gun. In his 2007 book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, he describes a purposeful, decades-long “strategy of turning natural and built features [to] serve military ends.”

courtesy Forensic Architecture

After founding FA, Weizman discovered a new topic for his research: drone strikes. Over the course of a decade, drone-launched missiles, once an anti-vehicle or anti-personnel battlefield weapon, had increasingly become a tool used to kill people in houses, often in the middle of dense urban environments. The weapons were touted as precision munitions, but as their use proliferated, so did “collateral damage,” in the form of civilian casualties.

Designed to penetrate a building’s roof before exploding, drone-launched missiles leave a telltale small hole in the top of a building while devastating everything inside. For Weizman, missiles can have theoretical implications: He describes them in his book Forensic Architecture as “counterarchitectural technology,” interacting (via delayed fuses) with the materials of targeted buildings to achieve their effect. On a more practical level, Weizman argues that by billing the contained explosions as “surgical strikes,” planners justified their widespread use on homes and in dense urban areas, increasing the number of children and innocent civilians killed.

Proving it, though, was complicated: Journalists are forbidden from traveling in the “federally administered tribal areas” along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, a prime hunting ground for U.S.-directed drones. Working with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, FA used pixel-by-pixel analysis of an MSNBC clip showing the aftermath of a 2012 drone strike to map the shrapnel spray inside a house in Miranshah, Pakistan. Spots without shrapnel divots, they concluded, traced the ghostly outlines on the walls of two people whose bodies absorbed part of the impact. Another strike was reconstructed based on the testimony of a traumatized survivor.

The results, featured in a 2014 exhibition in Berlin, “Forensis,” combined a millimeter-level look at the effects of drone strikes with a broad look at their frequency and geographic distribution. It was one of the most detailed unclassified looks at this little-scrutinized weapon of modern war. Among other things, it showed that as drone warfare shifted to urban targets, the number of civilian casualties went up—counter to the claims of drone proponents.

The Challenges of Going Solo
In court, opponents sometimes dismiss FA’s work as ideologically motivated or question whether the testimony of architects should be admissible as expert evidence in human rights cases in the first place. Weizman bristles at the implication that the agency’s projects are unfairly biased—a charge, he points out, that’s rarely levied against the police: “We often confront state experts, sometimes in uniform. I don’t think anyone is asking them whether they’re biased or not.”

Drawings from FA's Miranshah drone strike reconstruction
Forensic Architecture Drawings from FA's Miranshah drone strike reconstruction

The team’s unconventional approach, meanwhile, is often born of necessity. As an NGO adamantly opposed to cooperating with state authorities, FA has to rely on unusual sources—satellite imagery, witness testimony, still photos gleaned from Al Jazeera B-roll and CNN stand-ups—to reconstruct events or crimes. “States defend themselves against independent investigations,” Weizman says. “Sometimes, we don’t even have images.”

The NSU investigation was a case in point. Adamantly refusing to cooperate with German authorities—“we don’t work with the police,” Weizman says—the agency cobbled together various pieces of evidence from open sources. When he was in Berlin, Weizman explained that the results of that project will take months to compile. They’ll be presented in May at an event in Cologne organized by German NGOs, then as an installation at the 2017 Kassel Documenta festival.

Miranshah case study

Meanwhile, FA is beginning to look at cases where environmental change—both in the short and long term—can be seen as a potential instrument of violence. “There is the violence of architecture, planning that slowly encroaches, envelops, and suffocates the life out of an area. There is a slow violence of environmental transformation, destroying fields and changing a rural landscape into suburban industrial one,” Weizman says. “Then there is the slower violence of climate change, which has started to affect our region very critically.”

To train the next generation of designers to practice his “insurgent forensic work,” Weizman has just established a degree program in forensic architecture at Goldsmiths, open to architects and those in other fields, such as the social sciences, the arts, and journalism.

“All these things we used for the first time within this field have now become more commonplace,” says Lorenzo Pezzani, a slight Italian grad student and veteran of several FA projects who runs the program. “In a sense, I think that’s the interesting aspect of the project as well—it introduces new languages and tools and they become part of a larger movement and a larger attempt for justice.”