Issue 1/2018 - Books

Eyal Weizman:

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

New York (Zone Books) 2017 , EUR 34

Text: Noah Chasin

The old architectural history has exhausted itself. Inquiries into the genealogies of style are, and will be, ever-present, yet most result in reflexive exercises reaffirming the legitimacy of the discipline. More weathered historians extol the authority of Modernism’s acclaimed form-givers, recursively rehearsing outdated narrations. As I was finishing this piece, the eminent Yale historian Vincent Scully passed away at age 97 on 30 November 2017. Though he remains one of the most impassioned and brilliant minds behind several generations of twentieth-century architectural historians, his formalist legacy is one largely devoid of contextual thought; the seismic shifts now underway in architectural history are marking the way for a new century of intellectual activity. New classes of doctoral students comb the discipline’s remaining lacunae and aporias to find something underappreciated or, even better, undiscovered within its discursive legacies.
Architectural history, indeed, was predicated on the primacy of form. Whether functional, symbolic, allegorical, deconstructed, or nostalgic, these real and virtual objects served as launching pads for formal, typological, tectonic, and social analyses. Today we live, increasingly, in a world bereft of objects, and dwell within the spaces left by their absence. The scenes of the crimes, the theft of our things, announce a shift away from truth-telling—such is the wobbly legacy of poststructuralism. The void is salutary, but it is also isolating. Without physical forms and the spaces between them, we find a need for new discursive strategies in order to tell our stories and to uncover the ones that may otherwise be relegated to history’s dustbin.
Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability rips away the veil of uncertainty. Here is a book that manages simultaneously to reinvent the field and also to present a newer, better way forward. To be fair (and Weizman makes sure to mention it early on), forensic architecture is not a new idea, but its existence prior to Weizman’s appropriation and redefinition of the term was mainly within the highly specialized field of architects who worked against and with the insurance industry to determine accountability in cases of structural defects or failures in buildings.
Weizman—who works collaboratively and who is exceedingly generous toward his colleagues throughout the book, even if retains sole authorship—likewise works largely within juridical boundaries. The social justice ethos of the forensic architecture project requires the deployment of legal activism toward the self-declared and reflexively enacted invulnerability and sovereignty of most nation-states. As an Israeli, Weizman cut his teeth on the inequities and volatility of geopolitics in the Middle East, and the present book does not stray far from that territory (though many Forensic Architecture affiliates have worked outside that general area). Methodologically, however, Forensic Architecture astounds the reader with unveiled conspiracies, redefinitions of “landscape” and “boundary,” and clear and penetrating explanations of technological constraints (e.g. not only access to, but also resolution limits of, high-definition satellite imagery).
I was familiar with a number of the projects in the book before its publication, due to the ever-increasing exposure Weizman et al. have been receiving in critical, journalistic, and exhibition venues. Still, I found myself devouring the book as I would a police procedural, reminding me of Philip Johnson’s blurb on the cover of Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) comparing author Reyner Banham’s exemplary history of modernism to the hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett.
What stands out most exceptionally in the work of Forensic Architecture (both the collective and Weizman’s book itself) is the brilliant implementation of what I would term “techno-bricolage.” These collaborators are not experts in coding or software engineering; they come from the ranks of architects who have mobilized around the shared enterprise of using publicly accessible datasets, photographs, witness testimony, and other documentary records to reconstruct scenes of human rights abuses that have occurred, as the book’s subtitle declares, below the “threshold of detectability.” We still rely on the tools of documentation to provide some level of truth-telling, even if the chasm between the “ground truth” and its virtual doppelgänger is quite wide: “[t]he translation from the surface of the terrain to the surface of the film” (p. 289) might be the most succinct definition of this threshold.
The book is deliberately non-linear though, at times, a bit breathless with its overarching narrative punctuated throughout with supporting projects and vignettes. Being a Zone book, it is beautiful, and bountifully illustrated in color (critical for decoding many of the maps and charts herein). It is hard to imagine a more important book appearing at a more opportune time. Scholars of all disciplines will find methodological motivations within its searing pages.