Co.Design

Architects Use 3-D Tools to Uncover a Murder

Situ Studio recreated the scene of a Palestinian man's death—causing Israeli officials to open a criminal inquiry.

A spatial forensics report from the Brooklyn architecture collective Situ Studio has forced Israeli officials to open a criminal inquiry into the death of a Palestinian man, who was killed during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Bil?in last year.

The report, prepared with Goldsmiths? Centre for Research Architecture, in London and the attorney Michael Sfard, supports claims that soldiers fired tear-gas grenades directly at protesters, fatally wounding 30-year-old Bassem Abu-Rahmeh. Originally, soldiers contended — and authorities believed — that the death was accidental. Now, after reading Situ's report, Israel's judge advocate general has ordered an official investigation, according to the human-rights group B'Tselem, which cosponsored the report.

Situ's report is a haunting collision of design, technology, human rights, and the most explosive and intractable conflict in the world. Forensic architecture is a highly specialized field in which architects offer up their expert opinions on everything from construction accidents to building leaks; usually there's some sort of litigation involved. Here, in a combat zone where violence is the rule, not the exception, the work takes on grave new import.

Using 3-D design software, the authors recreated the events of April 9, 2009. That day, Abu-Rahmeh and other demonstrators gathered to protest the nearby Israeli-West Bank barricade — Israel's controversial security bulwark (known, among Palestinians, as ?an apartheid wall").

Footage captured on three separate cameras shows contained chaos: Israeli soldiers stand around on one side of a series of fences, while protesters on the other side shout chants and wave flags, as sheep look on. Then, the soldiers volley tear-gas grenades, first slowly, then at a faster clip. Protesters cover their faces, the landscape now dotted in blinding white plumes. Suddenly, a canister barrels into the chest of a man in a neon-yellow Fiat jersey. He collapses to the ground. Later, it was ruled that Abu-Rahmeh died of massive internal bleeding. Here is the footage—Be warned: It's extremely disturbing:


The soldiers insisted that they didn't directly target protesters. As they tell it, the tear-gas grenade that killed Abu-Rahmeh ricocheted off a wire in the fence. Situ's report indicates otherwise. Using the video footage, high-resolution aerial photographs, and topographical maps, among other documents, the architects constructed a digital model of the landscape, including soldiers' positions. Then, they ran a series of "ballistic equations" through visualization software, essentially narrowing down the likely trajectory of the grenade. The tests showed that it had been launched at a low angle. That's a violation of open-fire regulations. The report makes it difficult to argue that Abu-Rahmeh's death was a complete accident.

Situ was founded by five Cooper Union grads, and it specializes in digital design and visualization. The studio has collaborated with the Centre for Research Architecture on other projects marrying spatial design and human-rights advocacy, including work for the prosecution of sociopathic Serbian police general Vlastimir Djordjevic in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It's fascinating new territory they're charting, and it suggests that, as technology develops, architects can play a deeper role in the built environment they helped create.

[Images via Situ Studio]

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