Forensic architecture is on trial, says Edwin Heathcote, in a searing critique of Western interventionism
In his last book, Hollow Land (2007), Eyal Weizman presented a forensic and shrewd analysis of the militarisation and gradual annexation of Palestinian space by Israel. It was an extraordinary story that showed how the country had appropriated all but an impossibly thin sliver of Palestinian territory.
Israel had militarised its airspace and communication space, secured its borders so its citizens were required to undergo a humiliating process that implied their time was worthless.
Its underground services had been conscripted by Israel – even stretching to its archaeology, which privileged Jewish historical artefacts over Arab ones. It was a searing piece of work that showed the sinister way in which space could be co-opted by politics and, in a way, a warning against complacency elsewhere.
Israel, Weizman implied, was a particular place but the lessons learnt there were being insidiously implemented elsewhere under vague threats of terrorism familiar from George Orwell’s state of perpetual and fabricated war in 1984.
In The Least of All Possible Evils, the Israeli architect and academic turns his gaze towards the oxymoron he calls “humanitarian violence”. This is a very different kind of book, examining the political and philosophical means through which modern states pursue an agenda of war while portraying themselves as bringers of peace and stability.
He looks at how initially well meaning and seemingly neutral organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières can be unwittingly – and occasionally quite wittingly – co-opted to the side of evil in situations of war where real good is often difficult to ascertain.
For example, should a charity deny food aid to the starving or distribute it where it is clear it will be used to profit a savage rebel army or where its distribution will ensure the war drags on for longer? He analyses and punctures the way in which Western politicians intervene in conflicts where they have persuaded themselves that their waging of war is for a good cause – whether that is the furthering of “democracy” or regime change, they believe they are on the side of the lesser evil.
It is the slipperiest of slippery slopes examined through an array of thinkers from Jesus to Hannah Arendt. But it is at the end of the book that Weizman returns to the realm of architecture and its uses in the realm of politics with an intriguing series of observations on what he refers to as “forensic architecture”.
Weizman explores how architects and engineers are being brought into the complex process of international courts and tribunals to reverse-engineer destroyed architecture and infrastructure to help determine the method of destruction and, consequently, the guilt – or otherwise – of the perpetrators of war crimes. Weizman at last finds a use for all those parametrics and all that unused processing power in engineers’ offices. He finds that architects and engineers are being called in as expert witnesses to testify on evidence about how buildings have been ruined.
That method of destruction usually reveals the perpetrators – whether it was by bulldozer or guided bomb, drone or explosives, the techniques reveal a particular modus operandi, which usually points to a guilty party. That guilt might be obvious to everyone, but it needs to be tested in the international court, which has only recently begun to take off and is still finding its way in cases of genocide and mass murder.
Weizman compares the acts of destroying structures to test how they respond to torture, an interrogation and inquisition of materials. He sees this increasing emphasis on architectural forensics in legal process as part of the growing culture that fetishes working back from clues, from new productions of Sherlock Holmes to CSI and Patricia Cornwell.
Weizman seems to suggest that our obsession with architecture as object has enabled this new approach to buildings as evidence. The last two chapters change gear and sit a little oddly with the rest of the book.
Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has shown how the Jews of Germany and central Europe were forced to rationalise each stage of the oppression that would ultimately lead to the Holocaust, by going along with the Nazis incrementally, leading their own people to their deaths in an orderly manner and sacrificing more and more so as to allow a few to survive.
The least of all possible evils starts small, with minor losses of freedom and ends with the betrayal of the young and the old, the sick and the weak and, ultimately, everything.
Weizman takes this argument further and updates it, but it is during those chapters on the forensics and investigation that the book really comes alive. It is a sharp and chillingly readable analysis of the contemporary culture of urbicide and its potential consequences.
The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from