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An axe to grind should make you sharper
Fernanda Eberstadt
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three

In 2002, Eyal Weizman was a high-flying young Israeli architect, running what he would later describe to me as the « coolest architectural office in Tel Aviv » on a beachfront boulevard. That year, he and his partner Rafi Segal were chosen to provide Israel’s official entry to the World Congress of Architecture in Berlin. But there was this grit in the corner of Weizman’s eye, a need to expose what’s hidden. At the outbreak of the Second Intifada, that need had already led him to crisscross the West Bank, compiling the first-ever comprehensive map of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories for the human rights organization B’Tselem. He was 32 years old at the time — an age when an anti-government firebrand might still wind up an establishment leftist, a Sunday afternoon activist.

The exhibition that he and his partner Segal designed for the World Congress of Architecture confirmed him in a different path. Entitled A Civilian Occupation: the Politics of Israeli Architecture, it argued, through urban planners’ blueprints, aerial photographs, and Weizman’s own map of the West Bank, that architecture in Israel is a tool of an illegal military occupation, used to dominate, displace, and surveil an indigenous population, deliberately cutting off Palestinians from their agricultural land, families, neighbors.

It’s as if you were a doctor involved in torture, Weizman wrote. The « most basic gestures of architecture — lines drawn on paper » become « crimes against the landscape and people », generating « social and political harm.»

In November 2022 I take a train to see Weizman, who is now the founding director of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based in London where artists, architects and computer programmers come together with botanists, meteorologists, osteologists, munitions and ballistic experts and lawyers, to investigate state and corporate crimes worldwide, both present-day and historical. Among many other projects, they built an interactive 3D digital model of the fire in Grenfell Tower (the London public housing high-rise destroyed in 2017), investigated the May 2022 killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh via computer simulations, and mapped the archaeological site of a six-thousand-year-old city in present-day Ukraine, which is being exhibited in 2023’s Venice Biennale. The ancient city's non-hierarchical structure challenges the assumption that civilization begins with kings and priests and the centralized control of food supplies. « It’s a narrative against the state, » Weizman beams...

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This map was the basis of B’Tselem’s 2002 study Land Grab: Israel’s Settlement Policy in the West Bank. It was subsequently used by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 ruling against Israel’s Separation Wall, as well as by the US State Department and — according to Weizman — the Israeli Defence Forces, since it was better than anything they had.

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (Zone Books, 2017).

The exhibition was later reconstituted and shown at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture and other European venues; the catalogue was published by Verso.

The investigation, entitled Restituting Evidence: Genocide and Reparations in German Colonial Namibia, is being co-authored with FA’s Berlin partner Forensis.

Forensic Architecture.