Diploma 15 invited Christina Varvia, AA Alumni and Researcher & Project Coordinator at Forenstic Architecture to illuminate us about their research strategies and data transformation into exhibited visual content. First of all she introduced us the background and the structure of studio as well as some basic notions of their research field.
Forensic Architecture is between an architecture studio, an NGO and a research agency based in Goldsmith university, which undertake spatial and media analysis at conflict zones and in events of violence. Their team is mainly composed by architects but they also collaborate with artists, filmaker, journalists, lawyers and sociologists, disciplines to create projects that tackled with complex conflict situation. The studio also works in collaboration with different NGOS and Human Rights institutions.
Established by Eyal Weizman in 2011, the first research started when a group of Phd students were founded by a grand from the European Research Council and from other institutions. Their supports came with the mandated that for every project, Forensic Architecture team had to develop new techniques, so to design methodologies with which they would work and research – this is the main principle. This means that each project is unique not only in the outcome but also in the methodology applied in the research.
Forensic architects are like the pathologists of buildings, they do the equivalent of an autopsy for building. Forensic comes from Latin word Forensis = pro-train to the forum. The Latin forum is the space of politics, economy and law however the term Forensic is now used only to define how building collapse. The studio is trying to reinstated the original meaning not only as an analysis of building but also on how it is communicated with a broader public.
The reason they are doing that is because warfare is becoming more and more urban, so the people that are more capable of understudying what is happening in those affected cities are architects. Forensic Architects can find through a thorough media and data analysis of collapsed building what has happened.
Christina has explained us several projects which had very different conditions of conflict situation, data collection, scale and outcome in terms of visual representation however we are going to report three of the ones we think are more relevant in relation with our unit research topic.
The first investigation is on a drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, happened in 2012. For such project the architects traced the trajectory of drone strike through the marks and hole within all the perforated layers of the building to understand what happened during the explosion. In this case the studio had to challenge the lack of media coverage because this region had media embargo, only thing they had was a 20 seconds video that showed the aftermath of the strike.
By comparing satallite images before and after the explosion they found the exact location of the collapsed building however their analysis was legally restricted by the maximum resolution allowed from satellite image because 50 cm is the size that fits human body. In this occasion the opening caused by the strike fit within the visual limitations meaning that this media was not enough to get all info straight away. Therefore they investigated on the origin of the 20 seconds footage and by tracing one by one all the marks left by the bomb explosion on the walls they noticed a small shadows within that is possible people have died. In such way they can approximate the location of someone’s death within the scale of the body and within the scale of the room.
The studio made a visual representation of this research for this year Venice Biennale, in the exhibition Reporting from the Front where instead of making a 1.1 remake of the room they used the opportunity to go further in the investigation. They created a 3D model by which they traced back the trajectory of the marks to find the moment and the location of the explosion, a classic forensic technique, called spatter analysis. Thanks to this they found out that the bomb exploded mid-air which means that the weapon used was delayed-use bomb, an Hellfire Romeo. It is an architectural munitions that instead of exploding on the impact as soon as it touches a surfaces it starts to count milliseconds and because of this delays it penetrates deeper and deeper within the building allowing the explosion to happen in a very specific room, to be a targeted assassination.
Christina stressed on explaining that this bomb in order to succeed its goal had to be configured in a way that has to consider architecture.
When they then mapped other strikes within the area and what came out is a paradoxical situation. The technology that allows the sophisticated targeted assassination is not what have caused less civilian casualties but what has allowed for a completely different scale of war against terror that proliferates the attacks. This very precise weapons are also causing numerous civilian casualties because most killings are happening within homes so the building itself has also become the weapon.
The second project is the Rafah: Black Friday, in Gaza, an investigation initiated by the Amnesty International where Forensic architects found themselves in a very different technological landscape where social media is saturating the images of war. Christina introduced us some historical background of the event.
The Black Friday strikes happened during the Operation Protective Fedge conflict, when the Israeli army entered into Gaza in the summer of 2014 with the purpose to find and destroy the tunnels that might lead to Israel. In august 1st both parties, Palestinian and Israeli, agreed to cease fire which was quickly broken because of the capture of a Israeli soldier from Hamas fighters. The Israeli force did anything in their power to retrieve the capture soldier even if that meant risking his life. Because of that one soldier capture what followed was the heaviest day within that war, 135 people died within a one day.
Here the challenge of Forensic architects was to make sense of what we have received through mainstream media and social media. They tried to find pieces of footage which might be related one-another in a specific strike by comparing the shape of the bomb could left in air. Every bomb cloud is unique in every different moment of the strike acting as a fingerprint. In this way they could synchronize the clips and locate the event.
By marking different buildings they measured them in a very repetitive way, treating the photo as an elevation and the satellite image as the plan. This accurate process led the researcher to determine the location of the strike by corroborating the viewing axes of the compared photographs. For this investigation the team was lucky to find the satellite image that captured the moment were the explosion was happening and different traces that allowed them to understand what has happened.
They investigated on the exact time the video was shot. This was possible by looking at the shadows of the buildings. First they found the exact angle from the north then they build a 3d model and run a sun simulation, by Ecotech, in order to find the exact time that matches the shadows of the image. They funded to be at 10.53. Because this technique has some margin of error they deployed different techniques. Using an analogue system they treated the image has a two point perspective and tried to draw the plan.
The whole point of this investigation was to understand what happened as a sequence of events, so Forensic Architects plotted every strike that happened both in space and in time. By working backward and by having a satellite image which had very accurate metadata they built a chain of events what they call an evidence assemblage. After this process they created a timeline to locate all the strikes.
Another part of the work had a lot to do with satellite image by doing just a simple analysis of what pixel is different from one day to another they were able to see the tracks of the tanks and bulldozers. What they find is that the tanks are quite close to the Israeli civilian settlements so they were using also the human shield which is an important notion within humans rights. Israeli argued that Palestinians used humans shield but Forensic Architects figured out that Israelian did the same thing. By looking at patterns they tried to understand the strategies utilized and how that war developed within four days.
Instead of using an image archive they used the 3d model as an architectural platform within which they can analyse and investigate. The image complex is a set of spatial and temporal relationships of different kinds of evidence. In their case architecture is not only a design tool but it is also a methodological device that allow them to unlock different kinds of investigations.
The project took form of an online report, the first that Amnesty International did, and had a successful response. An articles from this year June reported that the Israeli force decided to revoke the Hannibal Directive which was what they were asking to do.
With every exhibition they produce they team re-appropriate all the information investigated and pick out different things that might not have made it into the human right reports. This investigation was shown at the Venice Biennale where they were also part of the V&A pavilion with the brief “World of Fragile Parts”. Forensic Architecture studio decided to look at the instant architecture of the bomb cloud as this moment the event that ties all together. They created four different models of bomb clouds of four conflicts as a way to concretize and freeze those moments.
The third project is the Saydnaya, inside a Syrian torture prison, finished last summer.
A project again initiated by Amnesty International which is about a building where opposite from the previous examples there are no images of it.
In Syria there a series of detention centers for who ever is opposed or supposed to be opposed to the government. The Saydnaya prison is an horrific place where a lot of torture happens and it is the last place where people might end up in where they would die or get released after years of prison.
The reason why Forensic Architecture was called is because there are no images of this place, what they were asked is to create an image and understanding on what goes on inside that goes beyond the testimony. The project team went to Istanbul and met five former detainees who are now refugees in Turkey. What they did was to conduct a very experimental investigation where they allowed the testimonies to build the model of the prison. What they designed was the way they would interview them, the witness would sit in the centre with big screen in front of him on his right side there was an architect who spoke Arabic who asked him question about the space and on the left there was a sound artist who would ask them questions about sound.
In this prison prisoner were never allowed to move outside their cells so they had no experience of the common spaces of the building and further than that they were never allowed to speak. Even when they were have been tortured they were never allowed to scream. The prison have this regime of silence which means that sound is a critical element of their experience. The witness specified that for them the most important thing was to hear when the guard was coming to their cell. As soon as the guard would enter the cell they would assume the safety position facing the wall and if they weren’t they would be tortured even more heavily which means they had to be constantly in a state of alarm. The witness were very eager to communicate and they were trying to simulate the sound with anything they thought to be sound similar.
In purpose to understand more of their experience they needed to ask them questions which could be seen as not relevant but allowed them to unlock their memories, like the size of the door.
This is why the team designed the interview in a way that could allow them to lead. As Christina explains: “ I think what was the most successful thing is that they felt slightly empowered by the process, they felt they were taking control of the account the gave so that it’s not just something that it is imposed on them.”
The project was meant to create public attention which resulted in an interactive website where the building is also the navigational tool to explore the material. By click on different spaces you access the information, the sound and the testimonies and the stories as videos.
Instead of just describing what the space was like or just giving a human right report, Forensic Architects described the fragments consistent within this experience that are not the most shocking thing you would have heard but something that would just allows us to see things differently. For the examples: the condition of timelessness, the fact there was absolutely nothing within the cells, there was no way of getting out. The psychological stress of boredom and of the denial of any information is also something vary hard to people to understand as a condition which is actually equally torturing has the physical pain.
Despite the great amount of information gathered, at the moment the website is curated showing only ten videos. They selected stories which tries to describe these little moments so the online museum is an affective process of reaching out and having a sense of this experience.
For this project the team used architecture not only has a way to describe the place but also as a mean to access the material itself. The investigation was a sort of cartographic process, where they were trying to describe the building but their medium was the soft matter of the brain so the architecture itself worked as a device which through they could navigate.
As Christina explained “ the most interesting thing is that when we were asking the witnesses how they would see the building now, most of them were actually saying they don’t want it to be demolished, they don’t want it to be destroyed, they wanted it to be a museum. The only value they could see on what they have gone through, to have felt to be like less human, is to communicate this back”.