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When the investigative research agency Forensic Architecture was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2018, there were murmurs about category errors, whether it was really art or that it was even architecture.
Now Alison Killing, an architect investigating the alleged labor camps set up by China to re-educate Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups, has a Pulitzer Prize. This is considered to be the first time an architect has won the Journalism Award, and it is an acknowledgment of her achievement. (She won the award with BuzzFeed reporter Megha Rajagopalan and programmer Christo Buschek.) It is also an important moment in recognizing the architects’ ability to build beyond activism, politics and human rights.
These new wave of investigative architects refer to themselves as ‘spatial practitioners’ and use their skills and their way of understanding the world as tools to uncover crimes against humanity and abuse of power by state actors. It is a remarkable departure from their traditional path, the transformation of what is actually a service industry into activism and advocacy for the powerless.
Killing, based in Rotterdam, trained and worked as a more conventional architect before focusing on the field of inquiry. She used her training and spatial understanding to analyze digital maps and satellite images of Xinjiang and to compare China’s Baidu maps (which deliberately wiped out certain areas) with international images of the same area to give an idea of the location of internment camps. . In search of newly built buildings, she analyzes an initial five million censored sites and lowers them to a 50,000 that still stand out, which she then went through to find the likely candidates for camps and connections, and ends up with 268 such sites throughout the region. The Chinese government denies all allegations.
Forensic architecture, founded in 2010 by Eyal Weizman, is a pioneer in this field, and its research has been used as evidence in courtrooms as well as displayed in art galleries and cultural institutions, where it raises concerns about the aestheticization of violence, but it also causes discussion, which was exactly the purpose. The techniques range from high-tech uses of digital media, such as mobile phone material, social media, Google Maps and 3D reconstructions to acoustic models and evidence.
The aim is to end the monopoly of the police and oppressive regimes on forensic techniques and return the digital gaze to it. From police shootings to the suppression of protests, it uses technology to empower civilians and dissidents, exposing injustices, institutional lies, war crimes and political interference.
The critical success and recognition of forensic architecture has also highlighted the dangers with this hybrid: political pronouncements cause controversy. Earlier this month, a lobby group complained about the wording of a statement in a Forensic Architecture exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester about alleged Israeli human rights violations by air toxicity, tear gas and white phosphorus. The statement referred to the Palestinians’ “fight against [the] violence, apartheid and colonization ”. When Whitworth removed the statement, Forensic Architecture demanded that the show be closed unless it was reinstated, along with a new sentence claiming that the gallery ” provides space that gives different perspectives ”.
There is one camp that suggests that the architecture’s tendency towards politics and activism is naive, and that the result will be architects positioning themselves as second-rate journalists. It is certainly true that many students, understandably seduced by the direct nature of this emerging field and its use as an instrument of social justice, are eliminating large, often incomprehensible projects that misunderstand the potential of this direction for change. But students waste standard time; this is how they learn through experimentation and mistakes.
There is also criticism that so much of this work is done remotely through VPNs and blackout layers, that it has little to do with the physical and physical essence of architecture or even with the need for journalism to present it. But in these cases it is often inevitable.
In the direction of social justice and journalism, architects feel their way to a different culture, beyond an architecture that is conducive to power structures and the exploitation of labor and extractive resources; to an apparently more moral, expansive area aimed at reversing the power relations of exploitation and oppression.
It also allows them to enjoy an obsession with data and the virtual construction of worlds that has been around for decades but rarely found an outlet outside of video games. This turn is often referred to as a critical practice, and in that sense you can see the attempt to reconcile the separation between practice and theory. This makes exercise critical, the best of both worlds.
For a journalist, or a critic who used to be an architect, it makes perfect sense and saves the three tainted areas of architectural practice (which may seem unsustainable), theory (which has disappeared in impenetrable jargon) and journalism (which is saved of his reputation of sleaze and distorted truths). Architecture as a building will continue, but Alison Killing’s surprising and well-deserved Pulitzer Prize is an important moment when the profession is divided and a small part of it becomes something completely different.