Archaeology of the Present: Organized Crime through the Study of Urban Built Environments: An Interview with Eyal Weizman

Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Archaeology of the Present: Organized Crime through the Study of Urban Built Environments: An Interview with Eyal Weizman


The urban landscape is a testament to the impact of transnational organized crime (TOC) in the everyday lives of citizens. Because of this, architects and urban planners have an interesting role to play in understanding the complexity of this issue. Acting as archaeologists of the present, they can trace the intricate relationship of crime and its different actors within a transnational network, as it touches ground and transforms cities across borders) Cities are the ultimate battleground of TOC. The controversial topic of occupation law is approached in a conversation on how urban environments are increasingly performing both as spaces of control and spaces of contestation and resistance, and are therefore shaped and transformed by this interplay. Eyal Weizman, director of the Centre for the Research of Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, developed a 'forensic' field of study within the realm of architecture, where, by examining the traces of history and its politics within the built environment, a larger understanding of a city and its society can be read.2 In the context of this issue, Weizman discusses with Guillermo Ruiz de Teresa, architect and Master in Design Studies candidate at Harvard University, how architecture can perform as an able narrator in interpreting and unveiling the way crime embeds itself within the built environment of our cities and thus becomes an active participant in shaping them.

Journal of International Affairs: As an architect, what would you say is the role the built environment plays in the realm of the political, specifically when talking about organized crime?

Eyal Weizman: For more than a decade I have been researching the intersection of architecture and conflict. It started with a legal analysis of the Israeli colonization of the West Bank--undertaken in the frame of international humanitarian and human rights law which is to a certain extent a well organized crime.

What was innovative about our approach was the attempt to apply the framework of human rights and international humanitarian law to architecture. Traditionally, the law is applied--in the architectural context--whenever a building fails. When there is a crack in a building or the infrastructure does not work, architects may become liable. My question is what happens when architecture more or less succeeds in achieving what it intended to do? And this includes its use, in a colonial context, as a violation of international law and human rights.

The very definition of the urban environment is a field of conflict. In a sense, the simple analysis of the most complex phenomena--for example war, military repression, militant resistance, or colonization--are seen as accelerations or radicalizations of latent conflicts that exist everywhere. Conflict saturates the urban environment. The understanding is that every bit of construction and destruction is a certain index for political and military forces, but also of economical and societal ones.

The term architecture should be understood as a "political plastic," where political forces are reconfiguring the organization of matter. We can do architecture backwards and read from architecture and understand those political forces. Architecture is a great framework with which to enter the world of politics, because every political act is registered in space. As a reader of space, an architect is inclined to look in great detail at particular urban and architectural formations, and can attempt to trace the political and military forms that led to it. This concept applies to construction and destruction as well. For example with construction, the wall, the colonies, and the roads in the West Bank are in themselves indications of the violation of international law, according to an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. On destruction, there is the case of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was destroyed by the Russian army. …

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