Architecture and its Past Symposium 5/9: ‘Forensic Architecture'

Series: Symposium
Date: Friday 21 May 2010
Time: 11:00
Venue: Lecture Hall
Running time: 88 mins

Mark Cousins introduces the speaker, Eyal Weizman, praising his program at Goldsmiths, which has fostered in London, and in Britain in general, a much more systematic questioning in the realms of politics, human rights and territoires.

Eyal aims to establish a relation of architecture and history through the term ‘forensics’. In that field, there is a certain history that is written by scientists. He introduces the term political plastic: space is a political plastic inasmuch as built forms and landscapes are continuously shaped and reshaped by political forces: translating those transformations into physical forms. The question then is whether it is possible to read backwards form into politics and into history. Also, if there is some sort of immediate transparency in it or, in the contrary, are we entering a field which is a little bit more complicated than that. Forensic architecture might be the frame in which we can question that relation between an analysis of form and an event. The question is how to unlock complex historical events from structures or from their remanences, a process that is not mediated by architecture history at all. He shows a mosque in Kosovo catalogued into its elements, that aroused a historical debate. There was a broadcasted meeting between the architectural historian, Andras Riedlmayer -world known expert in ottoman architecture- and Slobodan Milosevic. They discuss the destruction of the Hadum mosque; Milosevic suggests that the mosque had been destroyed by a bomb and the historian argues that the minarette was decapitated by a small caliber artillery, and it then fell into the building causing a series of other collapses. Both are reading different histories in the rubble, they take the ruin in their own terms. Milosevic continuously questions the historian’s ability to speak on behalf of the rubble, being that he is not a ballistic specialist or a structural engineer and therefore argues for some kind of skill missing. The court fails to give a verdict and so has happened in subsequent occasions. The problem was not convicting those people, but that the mosque was to be rebuilt by UNESCO, a UN body. At that point Eyal was asked by Riedlmayer himself to recreate the scenario. In international law, you need to prove the facts in 85%, that is the threshold of truth. They (Forensic Architecture) needed to provide a file in which they presented the cause of the destruction 95%. Finally, they realised they could not provide that certainty, but sent a sketch of two monuments, one next to the other, one saying that it was destroyed by certain nationalists; the other one describing the way it was destroyed by NATO. In the following years to this trial, architecture and its representations (plans, photographs) started to frequent the courts and media forums of international justice. The reasons are varied, on the one hand, war became a very urban phenomena, on the other hand, we had new technologies, like aerial satellite images. Forensic architecture as a practice is an analytical method for reconstructing events or histories inscribed in built environments. It seeks to turn a built structure from illustration to an epistemic resource. Until this moment, pictures of ruins and rubbles in international law just served as illustrations, nobody was looking into them until very recently. Besides, the object or the thing of the structure should not be seen in isolation, but as a part of a complex assemblage. Matter is under constant transformation and interlinking, so it should be taken as an entry to retrace networks of connections. Eyal is interested in extending the term forensics beyond the legal realm and through that discourse move on towards thinking the object in the making of history. In fact, the origins of the term forensics are not legal, but a part of rhetorics: not related to the speech of humans, but to the speech of things and mediated by humans. In forensics, things speak and take part in conversation. In latin rhetorics, the speech of things is called prosopopeia: a rhetorical device in which the orator would bring down the gods from heaven, evoque the dead, or give voices to states, objects, buildings and cities. Forensic archaeology, another emerging disciplines, together with forensic anthropology are huge disciplinary apparatuses, but both of them are barely two decades old. Clyde Snow, who investigated the remains of people in Tutankhamun's tomb, refers to his work as osteobiography, saying: “There is brief but very useful and a very informative biography of an individual contained within his skeleton, if you know how to read it. Bones make great witnesses, they speak softly, but they never forget and they never lie.” The idea that they “never lie” is something Eyal would like to contest; as to tell the truth, you don’t need to speak, because the minute you speak, obviously, you start lying. If material evidence is technically understood, then it is legally acknowledged as capable of speech; as witnesses of the non-human variety. Like this, we might need another extension of the term of forensics. Material evidence turns into material witness. Eyal discusses the statement of a collector of nazi memorabilia, who claimed that being a military geek made him a better investigator. It was obviously not understood like that in his circles. This situation  could lead to a tentative proposition, that forensics is a kind of fetish and that good forensic analysts are necessarily fetishist. Collateral damage estimations in military operations are not an abstract proportion of calculations, but a material practice that results in the configuration of physical strategies: the design of the ruin (by designing the ruin of a building one can estimate the casualties of one attack). The calculation of life and death is an engineering calculation of structural blast; forensic architecture is the relationship between that structural engineering and ethics. The violence of giving voice to the things is like torture, things are made to speak by subjecting them to additional violence. The field of forensics can be described as the torture of objects. He ends showing an archive of photographs of destroyed refugee camps in Gaza. Following a question from the audience, he discusses the crimes of drones: there is an international debate around what to do with the crimes of machines. He is interested in the possibility of doing history as you do design.

The focus of the symposium is on the teaching of architectural history within architectural trainings. It is frequently admitted that architectural students do not find their history programmes useful or interesting. Why is this? The conference will address this question and consider how problems within architectural history might be productively changed by a different approach to the architectural past.

The AA has sought to reformulate its syllabus of how the issue of the past is dealt with in architectural terms. The symposium will consider ways in which the issue of the architectural past can be fashioned into a productive element in the training of an architect. 

Friday 21 May
10.30 Brett Steele (Director of AA), Welcome
10.45 Mark Cousins (AA), Introduction 
11.00 Reinhold Martin (Columbia University), Professional Histories 
12.00 Brian Hatton (AA and John Moores University), Wandering in the Museum 
2.00 Adrian Forty (Bartlett School, UCL) Dissecting the Cadaver 
3.00 Irene Sunwoo (Princeton University), The Static Age 
3.45 Panel discussion on Archives and Publishing, Tom Weaver (AA Files), Edward Bottoms (AA Library) and Irene Sunwoo 
4.30 Tea
5.00 Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths) Forensic Architecture: only the criminal can solve the crime 
Saturday 22 May
10.30 Mark Campbell (AA)
11.30 Jeff Kipnis (Ohio State University), Honour Thy Bungling Epigone
12.30 Lunch
2.00 Mark Cousins (AA), Architecture and its Unconscious
3.00 Panel discussion, Mollie Claypool (AA), Ryan Dillon (AA) and AA students.

All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.

May 2019
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