News | Migration / Flight - Southeastern Europe The State as Perpetrator

Research group Forensic Architecture’s “building pathology” draws attention to unfamiliar perspectives


Frontex recently built a five-metre-tall, concrete-filled fence next to the Evros River along the Greek-Turkish border. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

Forensic Architecture (FA) is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, investigating human rights violations including violence committed by states, police forces, militaries, and corporations. FA works in partnership with institutions across civil society, from grassroots activists, to legal teams, to international NGOs and media organizations to carry out investigations with and on behalf of communities and individuals affected by conflict, police brutality, border regimes and environmental violence. 

Stefanos Levidis is an architect. He lives in Athens where he coordinates FA’s work on border violence and migration.

The group’s investigations employ cutting-edge techniques in spatial and architectural analysis, open-source investigation, digital modelling, and immersive technologies, as well as documentary research, situated interviews, and academic collaboration. Findings from their investigations have been presented in national and international courtrooms, parliamentary inquiries, and exhibitions at some of the world’s leading cultural institutions and in international media, as well as in citizens’ tribunals and community assemblies.

Two representatives of FA, Stefanos Levidis and Christina Varvia, will speak on Friday, 10 November in Berlin at the conference “Europa den Räten” sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Friedrich Burschel, director of the foundation’s Athens office, spoke with Levidis in the run-up to the event.

There is a large and constantly growing fan base that admires and celebrates the investigative work behind Forensic Architecture’s approach. Where does FA come from and what is the philosophy behind it?

Forensic Architecture was established in 2010 with the help of a European Research Council (ERC) grant given to our director, Eyal Weizman. The team began to engage in case work and investigations while developing their research culture through a series of seminars at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Our practice responds to an evolution in practices of state violence. Contemporary conflicts and human rights violations increasingly take place in urban areas, amongst civilian neighbourhoods. The built environment is no longer simply the site where conflict plays out. On the contrary, buildings often are the target, and weapons are designed accordingly.

The tissues of the urban fabric therefore record and index the violence that unfolds through it, allowing us — architects, spatial practitioners — to examine the crimes that have been perpetuated in their vicinity. Forensic Architecture, in that sense, began as a certain type of “building pathologists”, by reading and analysing the imprints of a specific violent event on its surrounding environment — in a similar way [to how] an archaeologist would read the ruins, or a coroner a body. 

At the same time, the environments we inhabit have become increasingly surveilled and densely media-rich. The proliferation of smartphones has meant that human rights violations in conflict have never been so thoroughly documented. However, such cases can be complex, and understanding what has taken place can be challenging. Beyond reading traces of violence on space itself, we also use space as a medium through which to archive, navigate, and understand images and the events they capture. Architectural analysis and digital modelling techniques here enable us to unravel that complexity, and to present information in a convincing, precise, and accessible manner — qualities which are crucial for the pursuit of accountability.

The results of our investigations may be deployed in “traditional” forums of accountability, in national and international courts, human rights forums, parliamentary inquiries, truth commissions, and people’s tribunals. Our evidence is also frequently featured in the news media, or in arts and cultural institutions, where we seek to exceed the procedural limitations inscribed in legal processes. We seek to expand the later fora into sites of accountability, and venues for the political struggle in their own right.

Now something new has popped up in the FA universe, called Forensis. What is Forensis?

Yes, in 2021 we founded our sister agency, Forensis, as a non-governmental, not-for-profit association (e.V.) in Berlin. Drawing on techniques and methodologies developed at FA, Forensis focuses on building case files for exacting accountability for human rights violations that are relevant to the German and European context, including police brutality, systemic racism and antisemitism, border regimes, surveillance, [and] environmental destruction, and is aimed at supporting reparation claims for colonial crimes.

We call what we do ‘counter-forensics’, wherein we try to unsettle these asymmetries of power, by contaminating and examining the obscure truths that the official institutions often produce.

In the first two years of our work, we have investigated cases as diverse as shipwrecks, drift-backs and fires in refugee camps in the Aegean Sea, the racist terror attack in Hanau, war crimes in Ukraine, and genocide in German colonial Namibia. Our office is situated in the same building as the headquarters of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), with whom we co-host the Investigative Commons, an expanded and multidisciplinary community of practice that works towards social justice and accountability.

You have traced the most horrible recent incidents in Greece, like the murders of the rapper and anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas (2013) and the LGBTQIA+ activist Zak Kostopoulos (2018), the Pylos mass murder (June 2023), the killing of the refugees Muhammad Al-Arab and Muhammad Gulzar at the EU-borders, the permanently ongoing push-backs, and the denial of the rule of law along the Greek external border of the EU. How do you select your cases? Who pays for your highly regarded, unerring expertise?

With state violence proliferating all across the globe, we unfortunately get more requests than we can respond to. We are very careful in choosing the cases we will take on, according to several criteria. For us to launch an investigation into a case, it must involve a human rights or environmental issue not otherwise adequately addressed by the state in which it took place. More often than not, in fact, in the cases we choose to investigate, the state itself is the perpetrator. There also needs to be a spatial, architectural, or multimedia dimension that our techniques can engage with, and our analysis can help unravel. Last, we also aim to take on cases that offer us an opportunity to develop new research techniques and, of course, achieve meaningful accountability and change.

Our work is detailed and often lengthy, which means it is also demanding in terms of resources. We are primarily supported by academic, human rights, technology, and arts grants. We also sometimes receive funding from commissioned investigations, and from exhibitions. All income generated through these activities is funnelled back into the team to support ongoing research. We never ask the communities, families, or individuals affected by the violent incidents we are investigating on their behalf to fund the work. In this difficult road, support by foundations such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has been crucial.

I know that your results have been denied, for example in the German National Socialist Underground (NSU) case, in which you reconstructed the murder of Halit Yozgat in 2006: the Higher Regional Court in Munich and the parliamentary inquiry neglected the FA’s findings in their examinations. How would you estimate the impact of your work? Do the authorities you focus your investigations on ignore them? What happens with the appalling evidence you bring to light, if states and authorities ignore it?

Our practice is relatively new and innovative, which can make rigid legal procedural protocols hard to challenge. Our findings also often introduce perspectives around certain violent incidents and put forward truth claims that might make state perpetrators and courts uncomfortable. 

The very term “forensics” refers to a practice that is typically associated with the state. It is the art of the police and the official institutions who, sealing off a crime scene and restricting access to evidence, always maintain an optical advantage towards a violent event and are able to claim a monopoly over the production and dissemination of truth claims. However, our practice attempts to undo this advantage. We call what we do “counter-forensics”, wherein we try to unsettle these asymmetries of power, by contaminating and examining the obscure truths that the official institutions often produce. We see this as a radical act of witnessing and evidence production that is an important part of processes of political resistance.

Ours is the practice of making evidence public, whether in a court of law or in a museum space.

Sometimes authorities will heed our findings. A good example is the trial of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn in Greece, where our investigation into the murder of antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn hit squad was presented in court and contributed to the conviction of the organization’s core members.

We are prepared for the possibility that this is not possible; we make sure to operate in different (and sometimes conflictual) fora beyond the legal sphere, such as cultural spaces and the media. In doing so, we return to the original Latin meaning of the term “forensics”: that which belongs to the Forum, a space of public dialogue and political engagement.

In the case of the murder of Halit Yozgat by the NSU, our work was shown in the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, 500 metres away from the shop that Halit was murdered in. The space of the exhibition was visited by tens of thousands of people, including several residents of Kassel, as well as prominent members of German politics and the police, who had been involved in the original investigation into the murder. They were all faced with the evidence, as was the key witness whose role in the murder we were investigating: the Verfassungsschutz[intelligence service] agent Andreas Temme.

Ours is the practice of making evidence public, whether in a court of law or in a museum space.

You are currently working on a project funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the border river Evros, between Greece and Turkey. What is that project about?

We are working on a large investigation — thanks, to a large extent, to funding received from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation — which explores the gradual construction of the Evros/Meriç border river between Greece and Turkey as a zone of border death in the 100 years since its delineation in the mid-1920s. The project operates across two distinct but overlapping timescales, exploring the slow transformation and militarization of the river landscape by both littoral states over the past century, and how this acts into the present to make the Evros/Meriç into one of the opaquest and deadliest frontiers of the EU today.