Architecture’s Detectives Follow Clues to Help Solve Crimes

Architecture’s Detectives Follow Clues to Help Solve Crimes

And it made him think.

His timing could hardly seem better, with technology rapidly democratizing the instruments of forensic research and the purview of young architects widening. He begins his recent book, “Forensic Architecture,” recalling the libel trial in London of the Holocaust denier and historian David Irving, nearly two decades ago. Mr. Irving’s shameful case relied on a tidbit of architectural evidence: he made much of fuzzy satellite imagery showing a demolished crematory at Auschwitz. Survivors had said they recalled poison cyanide gas canisters dropped through a hole in the crematory’s roof, but Mr. Irving said there was no hole in the satellite photos. “No hole, no Holocaust,” became the deniers’ catchphrase.

Mr. Irving lost his trial. But Mr. Weizman cites the case as a cautionary tale. The tools of forensic analysis can easily be perverted. Wielded especially by governments and other powers in defense of violence and crime, they need to be challenged by equally sophisticated means. Architecture and forensics may be disparate disciplines but brought together they could produce a new, “different mode of practice,” Mr. Weizman realized. They could help reverse “the forensic gaze” back onto state agencies “that usually monopolize it.”

Adopting a phrase coined by the photographer Allan Sekula, Mr. Weizman terms the practice “counter forensics.”

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Forensic Architecture’s most recent work reconstructs the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 71 people.

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Forensic Architecture

I stopped by the group’s office in southeast London the other day. A dozen or so researchers were staring into computer screens, Nick Masterton among them. He was tinkering with a timeline and 3D computer model of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people in London last year. Mr. Masterton and the rest of the Grenfell team have spent the last several months knitting together thousands of open-source photographs, videos and reams of metadata related to the fire.

Mr. Masterton told me he’s using some of the techniques he learned in architecture school when so-called parametric design was the rage. Forensic Architecture relies on computer programs and digital animation software that model exotic building shapes to reconstitute bombed-out ruins, identify debris patterns from drone strikes and document tragedies like the fire. And of course Mr. Masterton scours the Web for images.

It has become a cliché that smartphones and social media today flood the world with pictures that change public debates around power, policing, violence and race. For Mr. Weizman, the “image flotsam,” as he calls it, can be as confounding as it can be useful and it needs to be assembled. It requires “construction and composition — thus, architecture,” in his words. The resulting “architectural image complex” functions like a lens, letting people “see the scene of a crime as a set of relations between images in time and space.”

Christina Varvia is now Forensic Architecture’s research coordinator. “What we do is in the tradition of ‘paper architecture,’” she told me, when I asked how her work relates to what she did as an architect. “Except we expect results. As architects, we’re also trained to bring different people together to produce a design. But instead, we synthesize evidence.”

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To shed light on the 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat by a neo-Nazi group, Forensic Architecture reconstructed the internet cafe in Kassel, Germany, where he was shot. It made a computer model simulating the dispersal of gunpowder residue and its smell to evaluate whether an intelligence agent at the site may have witnessed the murder.

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Forensic Architecture

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A composite of Forensic Architecture’s physical and virtual reconstructions of the internet cafe where the murder of Halit Yozgat occurred.

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Forensic Architecture

Since 2011, when Mr. Weizman founded the agency, its work has expanded beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories to Mexico, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Europe. Its investigation into whether a German undercover agent lied about witnessing the murder of a man of Turkish descent at an internet cafe is one of the most intriguing and mysterious cases at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

One of the most heartbreaking involves Saydnaya, the infamous prison outside Damascus.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war, thousands have disappeared inside that country’s detention centers. At Saydnaya, prisoners are kept in darkness, tortured and beaten if they speak. No outsiders are allowed access. There are no recent photographs of the inside.

Working with Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture interviewed five former Saydnaya detainees in Istanbul. The researchers asked the prisoners to describe the building. Trauma unhinges memory, but architecture can provide an anchor. No detail was considered too trivial. Based on remembered smells of grease and blood, and sounds like an idling truck engine delivering new prisoners or the approaching thud of guards beating inmates, cell by cell, Forensic Architecture constructed a computer model of Saydnaya.

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Commissioned by Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture investigated torture in Saydnaya prison in Syria, constructing a computer model of the interior based on detainees’ memories of sights, smells and sounds.

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Forensic Architecture

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Forensic Architecture reconstructed the interior of the prison based on details remembered by detainees.

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Forensic Architecture

“When a state commits a crime,” Mr. Weizman explained, “it cordons off an area, which is the privilege of the state. That site becomes a work of architecture, defined by the cordon. A prison by definition is architecture. You can try to break through the state cordon via leaks, media images, satellite photographs. And when they’re not available, memory is a way around the cordon. In any case, the cordoned area is our ‘building site.’”

At Umm al-Hiran, the Bedouin village that was raided, the building site became the dusty hill where the car struck the police officer. The supposed terrorist in that case was a farmer named Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an. The Israeli policeman he ran over was named Erez Levi.

Collaborating with ActiveStills, an Israeli-based photographic collective, Forensic Architecture used photogrammetry and collected, time stamped and synchronized every available image and video of the raid, producing a corresponding soundtrack. The soundtrack, when played alongside the thermal-imaging videos, revealed the pops of three gunshots where heat flashes emerged from a policeman’s weapon that had been overlooked in the silent helicopter footage. The weapon was fired at Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s car just before it accelerated down a hill and into Mr. Levi.

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The process of positioning the actors and car in Forensic Architecture’s re-enactment of the events of January 2017, according to police helicopter video footage.

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Forensic Architecture

Not long after that discovery, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a leaked autopsy report revealing that Mr. Abu al-Qi’an had suffered two bullet wounds, one in his right knee, the leg controlling the gas pedal. The wound raised an alternative explanation for why Mr. Abu al-Qi’an, who had been moving slowly, with his lights on, suddenly accelerated, as if losing control of his vehicle.

The police continued to insist he was a terrorist, but more than a month after the raid Israel’s security service and Ministry of Justice changed the story and attributed the incident to a police blunder.

That still left unexplained the second bullet, which villagers testified to seeing an Israeli officer fire at point-blank range into Mr. Abu al-Qi’an after his car had stopped.

So Forensic Architecture continued its investigation.

With volunteers, it reenacted the event at Umm al-Hiran, using the same model car, confirming that the scenario in which a wounded Mr. Abu al-Qi’an lost control and sped down the hill matched the video evidence. It also turned out that the doors of a Land Cruiser lock automatically when the vehicle reaches 20 kilometers an hour, as Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s car did before swerving to a standstill at the bottom of the hill.

In helicopter footage, the driver’s side door can be seen to open when the police surround the stopped vehicle, implying Mr. Abu al-Qi’an willingly opened it. A single gunshot then pierces the soundtrack.

That second bullet lodged beneath Mr. Abu al-Qi’an’s heart. The leaked autopsy report said he bled to death from this wound, while medical aid was withheld.

An investigation by the justice ministry into the event recently concluded, without any apparent indictments. The case awaits a final verdict by the state attorney.

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