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OSA Review: Alison Killing - Architecture's first Pulitzer Prize Winner

Written by Aliah Aziz


Pulitzer prize winner Alison Killing recently gave a talk on the application of investigative architecture to uncover the secret detention camps in Xinjiang, China. The lecture was both thought-provoking and inspiring.

Alison Killing graduated from Oxford Brookes University in 2007, having studied the Development and Emergency Practice specialisation during the first year of her Master’s degree. Following graduation, she worked as a practising architect for a few years before starting up her own firm in 2010. It was a tough time for the construction industry, due to the financial crisis, forcing her to focus more on humanitarian projects. Killing is also a journalist, however, she maintains the label ‘architect’ as it helps explain why she has such a unique skill set. Killing finds her current work embraces architecture not ‘as a propositional discipline but architecture as research’. Killing is the first architect to ever win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, for writing that helped to expose a modern humanitarian crisis.

The talk focused on Xinjiang, a region in China that only became a part of the country during the Qing dynasty around 250 years ago. Out of a population of 25 million around 10 million people are from ethnic minorities. Over the past 150 years, Xinjiang has constantly changed from being an independent to a semi-independent region, officially joining the People’s Republic of China in 1949 after communism won the civil war. Discrimination of non-Han people is evident in employment, access to university education and restrictions on the practice of certain religions. Xinjiang is a place of geopolitical importance as it is in a strategic location, has an abundance of resources, and is also China’s biggest exporter of cotton.

In 2016, the party secretary of Tibet became the head of the communist party in Xinjiang and made some significant changes. He began the programme of mass detention, which led to the increased uptake of surveillance and other measures of controlling the population such as introducing more checkpoints asking for IDs, getting people’s irises scanned and spot check of mobile phones and so on. As life became incredibly difficult for the community, people began disappearing into camps. Efforts to investigate the issue became harder due to the concerns of being picked up by police, information being censored and intimidation of sources. Journalists had to constantly deal with the worry of being detained by the authorities.

This was experienced by a colleague of Killing, Megha Rajagopalan, who was working in China as a journalist until her Visa wasn’t renewed in 2018 forcing her to leave the country. Before she left she managed to visit her first camp, thanks to an ex-detainee who showed it to her on Google Maps. Researchers then managed to find 17 more camps, largely through tender documents, job adverts hiring guards and so on. Killing then began working with Rajagopalan in uncovering more of the camps.

The journey of applying investigative architecture in this issue began when Killing found an article about censorship of Baidu’s TotalView, which is China’s alternative to Google Street View. On the platform, she discovered that many industrial areas are censored through digital manipulation which is very easy to notice. Killing then compared the camps that were already identified, and noticed that the satellite images were all replaced with generic map tiles. This repetitive method used by Baidu allowed Killing and the team to come up with a technique to identify other camps. They found 5 million masked tiles in Xinjiang, which also consisted of other industrial facilities such as solar farms and factories. By filtering areas that had other essential facilities needed to build a prison or a detention camp nearby, they were able to identify around 50k potential detention campsites. Some of them were new sites that were built quickly, while others were existing municipal facilities such as schools and hospitals which had been adapted to work as detention centres. Killing then identified key elements to look out for when searching for these camps such as off-site informal car parks, barbed wire fencing between buildings and new factory buildings. She also noted that their locations must be near towns to allow families to come and visit. Thanks to the advancement of technology, open-source information is readily available in high quality, allowing Killing to closely identify architectural details such as the height of fencing and types of structures that indicate the level of security of a place. By referring to China’s prison building regulations, it was easier for Killing to identify building types that could be a prison or detention centre than just by examining the satellite images alone. Despite the evidence gained in the investigation, the Chinese government has still not acknowledged these camps, only conceding that they have built training centres for re-education purposes.

The forensic analysis of architecture allowed Killing to expose 286 detention camps hidden within China, drawing media attention to this very pressing issue. Killing’s discovery is an example of how architectural skills can allow us to combat humanitarian issues. Despite the risk involved with the nature of such initiatives, Killing finds that such humanitarian crises are a bigger priority than traditional architectural projects as they are happening now, compared to some architecture works that you may not even live long enough to see finished. Killing’s work demonstrates how architectural education and the skill set architects have at their disposal can be applied to a variety of different situations in a constructive and in this case incredibly valuable way to produce real change. We hope this lecture inspired others, as it did ourselves to push the boundaries of what an architect can do.

Thank you to the Climate and Ecology Action Group and OxArch for organising this lecture.

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