What Architecture Reveals About Secret Drone Strikes

An interactive site, presented as part of a UN special report on human rights, details 30 drone strikes in five different countries. Architecture played a key role in helping designers reconstruct these covert operations.

This week, United Nations Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson gave a presentation to the organization’s Human Rights Council on how drone strikes impact civilians. The report, which focuses mainly on U.S. drone strikes, calls for nations that use drones to conduct investigations and release public explanations in cases where unexpected civilian injuries and fatalities occur.


Emmerson has been working with Forensic Architecture, a project at Goldsmiths University in London that images and maps sites of violence, and SITU Research, a New York–based interdisciplinary architecture and design firm, to visually reconstruct these covert operations. Together, they’ve pieced together disparate evidence, including digital models of buildings damaged in attacks, to create an interactive site that catalogs 30 drone strikes, which reportedly resulted in civilian injuries or deaths, in five different countries.

“It makes the argument that this isn’t just a black box; it isn’t just a covert program about which we can know nothing,” Bradley Samuels, a partner at SITU, tells Co.Design. “A picture begins to emerge about specific strikes.”

The site maps where the strikes occurred–strikes by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and attacks by Israeli drones on Gaza. Clicking on each country reveals a summary of the situation there, including when strikes occurred and what countries were responsible. Clicking on individual strike sites calls up more details of each individual strike.

The researchers worked with Emmerson and his team to cross reference photographs, satellite imagery, interviews, survivor testimonies, press reports, cell phone videos, computer models, and more to analyze the impact of drone strikes on the ground and present them visually. They created five video case studies that digitally recreated attacks in Datta Khel, Mir Ali, and Miranshah (all in Pakistan); Jaar, Yemen; and Gaza city.

“The forensic architecture methods we have developed are meant to generate evidence where there is little information available. Studying buildings hit by drones reveals much of the consequences of a strike,” Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture’s principal investigator, said in a statement. That includes the social consequences as well as the toll on human life. When a part of a town is destroyed, like a market or a meeting place, it has a lasting effect on the community. “The work that we do is essential because states undertaking drone strikes, such as the U.S. and Israel, attempt to hide their actions and even deny them outright,” Weizman says. Access to these sites is often restricted, and camera and phone usage prohibited.

Courtesy of Forensic Architecture, 2013

“It’s an attempt to really use architecture intelligence and design intelligence to unpack violations of international law,” Weizman says of Forensic Architecture. Along with SITU Research, he and his team have developed a technique called video-to-space analysis to harvest spatial data from cell phone videos and photos, analyzing footage, sometimes from multiple sources, to model and recreate chaotic events to better understand what happened on the ground.

Analyzing how strikes have affected local architecture plays a vital role in painting an accurate picture of an otherwise hazy situation. “War has become increasingly urban. What we see targeted are buildings,” Weizman tells Co.Design. He says that during these drone strikes, many of the civilians who die, die inside buildings. “Architecture becomes a very important entry point into understanding that.” Using architectural modeling, they’re helping survivors piece together memories of the strikes. Often, after experiencing something traumatic, people have difficulty recalling the event, and locating them within a digital recreation of the space they were in when it happened helps jog their memory. And satellite imagery, video and photos from after the attacks showing structural damage can help locate and model where exactly missiles hit.

It’s likely that far more people will encounter the interactive, online visual experience with maps and images than would have read Emmerson’s exhaustive U.N. report in its written format. “The goal is to put this work in a context where it’s more accessible to a broader audience,” Samuels says, hopefully prompting people to call for more transparency from the government on this issue. “Perhaps there’s more accountability that results,” he says. “That would be ideal.”

See the interactive report here.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.