What role architectural expertise can play in a forensic legal analysis?
Architecture as Evidence, the exhibition opened yesterday at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal, explores the role of architectural expertise in a forensic legal analysis of evidence presented at a trial concerning Auschwitz.
The exhibition, curated by Anne Bordeleau, Sascha Hastings, Donald McKay, and Robert Jan van Pelt, Waterloo University, presents plaster casts of blueprints letters, contractor bills, and photographs gathered during a forensic analysis of the architecture of Auschwitz.
The work is based on curator Jan van Pelt’s crucial testimony about Auschwitz in the infamous Irving trial. In 2000, notorious British Holocaust denier and revisionist historian David Irving sued American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher for libel in Britain’s Royal High Court of Justice.
The defence needed to do its own forensic investigation of the engineer’s work, of the evidence provided by the ruins of the crematoria, and of the substantial documentation that has survived in Polish and Russian archives.
As the curators explain, “As architects, we think, we draw, we build. We draft the lines that will
become walls and roofs for the activities that our clients foresee. Under the Nazi regime in the
1940s, this meant that a group of architects drew extermination chambers to kill thousands of
people in a single operation. These architects took on the responsibility of adapting parts of
pre-existing buildings into gas chambers.”
In this study, the curators aim to document the systematic process of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s architects.
The material on display together provide tangible evidence that Auschwitz was designed by its architects as an efficient system of mass murder. “This is evidence of the worst crime ever committed by an architect” explained yesterday the curator Robert Jan van Pelt.
The walls are stark white, and the groups of objects on display are seen as part of a falsely immaculate universe. The approach of the four curators is to examine “the idea of architecture as a blank slate on which is drawn a variety of activities, analyzing decisions that at first seem innocuous but have murderous consequences, such as converting farmhouses to extermination chambers.”
It also brings to light the potential for architecture to act as legal and forensic proof.
As explained by CCA Director Mirko Zardini, “This exhibition focuses on an objective greater than the Canadian Centre for Architecture: studying the political role and social responsibility of
architects in our modern world. Using archival documents recalling Nazi barbarism, the exhibition
gives us a chance to transform architectural elements into gathering places. By offering this type of
opportunity to the general public, the CCA is not only commemorating the past, but also revealing
an aspect of architects’ political consciences.”
Part of the exhibition, called The Evidence Room, is also presented in the central pavilion of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, from May 28 to November 27. To create The Evidence Room, Jan van Pelt, his team and students from the University of Waterloo are making life-sized replicas and casts of key pieces described in his testimony about Auschwitz, including a gas column, gas door, a section of wall with a gas-tight hatch and other items that definitively proved the site was a factory of death.
Architecture as Evidence
Octagonal Gallery, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
from 16 June to 11 September