‘You need the human story’: Alison Killing, first architect to win the Pulitzer Prize

British architect Alison Killing’s investigation mapping suspected internment camps in the Far East earned her a big win and big learnings in synergy.

by Soumya MukerjiPublished on : Jul 30, 2021

Alison Killing is admittedly not a writer. But she may have contributed significantly to writing history with an important investigation that exposed alleged Muslim minority detainment structures in the Far Orient.

Killing is part of a team that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize this year in the International Reporting category, being the first person from the discipline to be honoured with the award in an area outside of criticism. The prize has been honouring excellence in journalism, books, drama and music since 1917.

Her firm, Killing Architects, uses architecture and urban planning skills along with tools such as geolocation, aerial photography, photogrammetry and open source analysis to investigate urgent social issues such as surveillance in cities, migration, and minority detainment. In addition, she enjoys developing new investigative and storytelling techniques, and training others to use these.

“I work mostly with data, although writing is a key part of communicating a story to an audience. I still find that I like to communicate visually and the work that I do probably lends itself best to that – maps, diagrams, graphics, photography, which is still all very architectural,” says the University of Cambridge alumna.

But this, she insists, is only part of a much larger human story.

Edited excerpts from an interview about the thought and process that led to a powerful probe into the state of humanity today.

Dabancheng/Central Park as viewed via satellite by the investigation team | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
Dabancheng/Central Park as viewed via satellite by the Xinjiang investigation team Image: Courtesy of BuzzFeed News and Google Earth

Soumya Mukerji (SM): What does it mean for you to be the first architect to be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize?

Alison Killing (AK): It’s a huge honour, obviously and it was a big surprise when we won. I think it adds a lot of credibility to our work, showing for example that spatial analysis, open-source techniques and data journalism techniques have valuable things to contribute to journalism. I hope that it also brings more attention to our stories and to what is happening in Xinjiang (China).

SM: What defines the architecture of a good story?

AK: What we have worked really hard to do with our series in Xinjiang is to show both the scale of the issue and the human side of what’s happening. I think you often need both to understand what’s happening. In Xinjiang, restrictions on access had meant that there were only limited discussions of the scale of the detention campaign – a lot of work was based on leaked data and extrapolations of that and a few camps had been found, but not the full network. So we really wanted to show the full extent of what was happening, where all the camps were, what they were like, how many people were likely being detained. But then you need the human story as well, to show what it means to be trying to live through this campaign of oppression and what the consequences are for individuals.

SM: A lot of popular design discourse is driven by what looks good, feels great and functions remarkably. Why is the investigative aspect a rarer phenomenon to witness?

AK: I think it’s harder for people to specialise in this area of practice because it’s not yet that well established and so the opportunities aren’t so easy to find. My work had been moving from building towards storytelling, documentary and investigative projects for a few years before I came to work on the Xinjiang project. I had looked at the reconstruction in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and some of the reasons for the challenges there, curated and produced an exhibition called Death in Venice about changing approaches to death and architecture, created an online documentary called Migration Trail, which followed two fictional migrants travelling to Europe in real time over 10 days, using mapped data visualisation and social media.

The exhibition, Death in Venice, highlighted changing approaches to death and architecture | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
Death in Venice: an exhibition curated and produced by Killings about changing approaches to death and architecture Image: Ania Molenda

This was all before I got the chance to work with a newsroom on a journalistic project, so I would spent a lot of time developing my skills in this area and producing my own projects before those sorts of collaborations were possible. Not all of the skills that allow me to do what I do are typically architectural, although I would say that the core is. On the other hand, many journalists don’t know what spatial analysis could add to an investigation and the networks aren’t there to allow these two groups of people to start working together – they often just don’t know each other.

  • Migration Trail followed two fictional migrants travelling to Europe in real time over 10 days | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
    Migration Trail followed two fictional migrants travelling to Europe in real-time over 10 days Image: Courtesy of Killing Architects
  • Another glimpse from Migration Trail | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
    Another glimpse from Migration Trail Image: Courtesy of Killing Architects
  • Mapped data visualisation and social media were used for the documentary | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
    Mapped data visualisation and social media were used for the documentary Image: Courtesy of Killing Architects

SM: Where did you get the first lead on the award-winning assignment and how did the teamwork follow? How long was the story in the works?

AK: Megha Rajagopalan, my co-author, worked in China for a number of years, first as a political correspondent for Reuters and then as China bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. She had already been working extensively on Xinjiang when we met and was the first journalist to visit one of the camps. When her visa wasn’t renewed and she couldn’t remain in China, she was still keen to keep working on Xinjiang and the camps. My skills in satellite imagery could be useful here – satellite imagery is a source of information that the government can’t control and it also helped us to deal with the sheer scale of the area we were trying to investigate. Megha and I had complementary skills that we could use to look at this issue effectively. We also asked Christo Buschek, a developer and security specialist with a background in human rights investigations to join us to complete the team.

SM: You reportedly cracked what are believed to be camps and prisons from about five million censored locations in Xinjiang via satellite imaging. Can you take me behind the kind of architectural analysis the probe involved in the absence of physical access?

AK: We narrowed down the five million locations by choosing to focus on areas around towns and cities and along major infrastructure – we realised that the camps must be close to these things in order to transport building materials to the construction sites and to have easy access to services such as electricity and internet. That reduced the number of censored locations that we needed to look at to about 50,000, which is still a large number, but a slightly more manageable one. I started looking through those locations systematically and was able to analyse about 10,000 in a week.

One of the alleged camps in the area as viewed in April 2020 | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
One of the alleged camps in the area as viewed in April 2020 Image: Courtesy of BuzzFeed News and Google Earth

We already knew what some of the camps looked like because they had been located by researcher Shawn Zhang, based on tender documents. That meant that it was easier to identify further similar camps. He had mostly located camps from the early phase of the programme, when schools and hospitals were being converted to detention facilities – they could often be recognised by the presence of barbed wire pens and passageways in the courtyards between the buildings. As more permanent facilities came up, it became easier to recognise these places as detention compounds – they would have incredibly thick perimeter walls with guard towers at regular intervals, for example. The locations could be corroborated further via documents, eyewitness testimony and media reports.*

SM: Journalists and architects can have a very different vocabulary. How did you find a common language with the team of non-architects who were with you on the project?

AK: This wasn’t too much of a challenge, or at least it wasn’t too different from the one that journalists often face where you need to explain what’s happening to an audience and need to make good judgements about what readers already know and what needs to be explained. Sometimes things that I thought were obvious about how a building worked, weren’t obvious to my colleagues, for example, what I meant when I said that a floor plan was ‘deep', or how I knew that an area a long way from a window would be dark.

Architecture and construction is an incredibly broad field, which requires a very wide range of knowledge and skills – in design, structural engineering, M&E, urban planning, construction, project management to name just a few. Obviously, those skills are focused on the built environment, but I find that a journalistic project requires a similarly broad focus and generalist approach.

SM: Was there a turning point when you decided to overlook any threat or consequence while following through this story?

AK: I should be clear that Megha, Christo and I have run very little risk in the reporting of this story, something which is not true of the former detainees who bravely chose to share their stories with us. The Uyghur and Kazakh people who spoke with us often faced threats to their families back home in Xinjiang if they spoke out, for example. There are also construction workers in Xinjiang who leaked videos from inside the camps as they were being built and I am in awe of their courage.

Another finding reported in the Gaochang district | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
Another finding reported in the Gaochang district Image: Courtesy of BuzzFeed News and Baidu maps

SM: Technology, as we see here, is an asset to important storytelling. What is the fine line one must tread to make sure that it is used to support one’s voice, and not create noise?

AK: I think it’s a matter of being very clear on why you are using a given technique and on what it’s adding to your work. Having too many ideas and needing to choose which ones to focus on is an issue that designers work through all the time, whether the project is a building or how to tell a story effectively.

SM: What are you STIRring next on the radar?

AK: We are still working hard on Xinjiang and there’s plenty to do. I also have a project in early development about surveillance in public space.

Death in Venice is an exhibition curated and produced by Killings about changing approaches to death and architecture | Interview with British architect Allison Killing | STIRworld
Another view of the Death in Venice exhibit Image: Ania Molenda

*Note: Chinese authorities denied the allegations made by the investigation.

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