Forensic Architecture by Heather Formaini

Forensic Architecture: Jungian Analyst Heather Formaini introduces  a group of activist professionals challenging state crimes in Israel and beyond.

Shortly after Eyal Weizman completed his PhD in architecture in London, he and a colleague, Rafi Segal, working in Tel Aviv, won a competition to prepare the Israeli pavilion for the International Union of Architects Congress in Berlin (2002). Entitled  A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture, their exhibit depicted the architecture of the so-called ‘settlements’ over many years, examining their spatial form, and indicating how their physical organisation was determined by the strategic project being undertaken by the Israeli government.  They thereby exposed what the government of Israel was doing and how, via the drawing boards of complicit Israeli architects, architecture had become a tool of oppression against Palestinians and against the ancient land of Palestine.

On seeing what Weizman and Segal had designed, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Association of United Architects cancelled the pavilion in Berlin and destroyed, so they thought, all of the catalogues.  Fortunately, however, the exhibition went ahead in Venice, albeit with slight modifications.

Whilst the government of Israel may have imagined that this incident would be quickly forgotten, it became a vital thread in the minds of Weizman and many of his colleagues – an ever-expanding bridge – so that by now it has gone on to form an entirely new set of readings of architecture and its meanings.

In choosing to exhibit the architecture of the ‘settlements’, those illegal colonies whose hilltop buildings overlook Palestinian villages below, the two young architect-activists revealed something much more sinister than the crimes committed on drawing boards.  They established that the true intention of the Israeli government was to normalize the business of every-day spying and turn it into a daily preoccupation for the ‘settlers’. From their ‘pastoral and biblical’ sites, architecture itself was co-opted to enable the colonists to observe every movement in the lives of the Palestinian villagers below. It was a collaborator in the imprisonment of the Palestinians on their own land.  In Israel, the practice of architecture can be described as inscribing a creeping state violence.

Five years later, in 2007, Weizman, who identifies as British/Israeli, and two other architect-activist colleagues – Sandi Hilal (Palestinian) and Alessandro Petti (Italian) set up DAAR – the Decolonizing Art Residency in Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem.  This is a project which imagines – and indeeds works for, through the minds of artists, film-makers and activists – a time when the illegal settlements will no longer be inhabited by ‘settlers’, but will be abandoned to an altogether different Palestinian future. In this vision, Palestinian families will return home, even if not to the houses they left in 1948, or 1967.  The DAAR’s work now has the active participation of international architects and artists – activists all – from around the world.  Theirs is a radical project of political and artistic imagination: politics and art, working in unison.

In continuing his dramatic reinterpretation of the very nature and potentialities of architecture, Weizman established in 2010 a research agency at the Centre for Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London,where he is Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures.

With a staff of two, the Centre began to expand the nature and scope of this project of radical architecture, or perhaps a form of radical critical architecture, now employing their many technical skills to confront state crime and the lies told by world governments to cover them up, beginning with the fabrications of the Israeli government. Today, only eight years on, the group has a multi-disciplinary team of around eighteen: architects, lawyers, journalists, photo-journalists, a clinical psychologist, and technical experts, undertaking human rights work all around the globe. These are the pathologists of buildings, able to read ruins, interview witnesses, and then to reconstruct events in forensic detail.  World governments should rightly be forewarned – Forensic Architecture now has all of the skills to see into and even beyond malign intent, trace its history, and then to publish the findings. In its search for justice in truth, forensic architecture is outspoken, and courageous in its confrontation of state and government lies and violence.

The methodology which allows forensic architecture to arrive at this truth means that they examine the surfaces of a built environment which has been destroyed, perhaps by an act of war, or perhaps by ‘accident’. Their team of building-pathologists can examine bomb-sites, or fields ploughed by Caterpillar machines, with each member of the team bringing their own particular skills to map all of the spaces over time and their dynamic relationship. When at length they arrive at their conclusions, their results are published.

One example of this work was nominated for the 2018 Turner Prize and  is now an exhibit on display at Tate Britain Gallery (1).

For this exhibit the team examined ‘an incident’ – that is to say, two killings which took place when the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Naqab/Negev Desert was subject to a night raid in preparation for its destruction, in January 2017.  Almost by accident, and unbeknown to the perpetrators, this ‘incident’ was caught on camera by an activist photographer.  Called out in the middle of the night she herself was in hiding from crossfire at the time, even forgetting where she had dropped her camera.  Only when the noise had subsided did she emerge from hiding to search for it and discover what her camera had captured on her behalf.  After exhaustive technical work, precise to the milli-second, the group was able to disprove the falsehoods of the Israeli government, the IDF, the police, and the media.

The Israeli government claimed that a Palestinian had been shot in self-defence while intentionally driving his darkened car at speed into a group of policemen, killing one. Forensic Architecture was able to prove that the Palestinian had been shot in cold blood, that he was not driving at the Israelis invading his village, that his headlights had been on, and that the car only careered out of control towards the policemen after he had been killed.

We can think of this as a microcosm of the relationship between the Israeli State and the Palestinian people more generally, confirming that ‘power corrupts…’  Another ‘incident’ in that story was Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza in ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2008-9. The world passively accepted Israel’s justification for its violence. In its aftermath Judge Goldstone was asked by the UN to investigate claims of war crimes, which he did painstakingly, producing a report which Israel and its Western supporters successfully campaigned to suppress. Weizman has explored this parallel in detail in a paper entitled ‘Only the criminal can solve the crime’ (2).

It is unfortunate that the judges chose another shortlisted artist for the Turner Prize. Whatever the artistic arguments, they had the chance to confront the mainstream media with a project that radically undermines the assumptions by which they report – or choose not to report – the progressive Judaization of Israel/Palestine. Still, given what has been achieved by Weizman, his activist-colleagues, and his team at Goldsmiths, one can only wonder what future years will bring.

Heather Formaini

Lucca, Italy

8 December 2018

Eyal Weizman is Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures and founding director of the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths College, University of London.  He founded the research agency, Forensic Architecture, in 2010. The work of this agency is documented in the book Forensis (Sternberg, 2014) and in Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (Zone/MIT, 2017) and in exhibitions throughout the world.




Further links about Forensic Architecture to explore:

Eyal Weizman’s new introduction to his renowned book, Hollow Land (essential reading):



Testimonies of dispossession, destruction, and return in the Naqab/Negev:


SAYDNAYA: Inside a Syrian torture prison: