Meet the ‘architectural detective agency’ investigating the Grenfell fire

Grenfell Tower on fire, in the early hours of 14 June 2017. Image: eyewitness Gurbuz Binici/Getty.

In common with most of the country, the staff at Forensic Architecture in south London made their way to work on the morning of 14 June 2017 while trying to process the dreadful news of a major fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. Unlike the rest of us, they did not push the reports to the back of their minds in order to get on with their day. They gathered around their desks on the third floor of the Richard Hoggart Building at Goldsmiths, University of London, and thrashed out ideas about how they could help.

Forensic Architecture was founded in 2010 by architect Eyal Weizman. The organisation has been described as an architectural detective agency. “We think that architects need to be public figures,” Weizman told the Guardian in an interview earlier this year. “They should take positions, whatever they do. We map the most extreme and violent forms.”

His team has previously investigated the killing of an unarmed Palestinian at a Nakba Day protest outside Ofer Prison in Beitunia, next to Ramallah; the murder of a Turkish-German student, Halit Yozgat, in an internet cafe in Kassel; and the kidnapping of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College in Guerrero, Mexico. The evidence from these and other investigations has been presented in exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, and the White Box, at Zeppelin University, in Friedrichshafen, Germany, among other galleries – which has led, somewhat bizarrely, to the organisation receiving a nomination for the Turner Prize. Weizman has tweeted that, while he welcomed this promotion of the organisation, he would resist an “impoverished and unimaginative” view of its work.


As the scale of the horror at Grenfell Tower unfolded last summer, Nicholas Masterton, an architect and researcher at Forensic Architecture, was tasked with collecting a welter of metadata, photographs, and smartphone video footage.

When he began to receive smartphone footage, Masterton set up a spreadsheet to analyse the material. He added a description of each clip, citing the source (Sky News, for example) and the date it was received. He recorded the start and end time according to the metadata; the accuracy of the metadata (“Often it is inaccurate”); the geographical location of where the footage was captured; the facades covered by the clip; and the duration, resolution and frame rate of the clip. He used a computer programme and digital animation software to model the tower as the fire raged.

Last month, I sat next to Masterton at his workstation as he took me through what he had gathered so far. The awful speed with which the fire took hold will never lose its visceral shock.

Also watching Masterton at work was Bob Trafford, who joined Forensic Architecture in 2017 after three years as a freelance investigative journalist. When I spoke with him by phone, some weeks later, he said that the number of clips of video footage submitted from smartphones has been modest – “in the dozens” – but that, in large part, the project will not be about video. The Forensic Architecture team will also trawl through the thousands of pages of documents released by the public enquiry.

The enquiry began on 21 May with testimony from friends and relatives of the 72 people killed in the fire.  Firefighters and commanders are expected to give evidence for around six weeks, starting on 21 June. In September, the bereaved, survivors, and local residents will present their accounts. The terms of reference on the enquiry's website lists 13 issues to be examined.
Bob Trafford says, “We’ll be data mining all the information from the enquiry to create a visual representation in three-dimensional space.”

This is a key point for Shah Aghlani who lost his mother and aunt in the fire. He told me he has met with Forensic Architecture to discuss the project and hopes it will help people understand the enormity of the fire.

 “A picture is worth a thousand words. Translating the information into a visual document will help people who don’t have the capability or resources to trawl through the evidence to see what happened. The country needs to know this. It’s about finding the failures of the services and addressing them.”
He was adamant that neither the public enquiry nor Forensic Architecture should pull their punches.

 “There should be no red lines. We should not try to make people into heroes. There are no heroes. All the people who died were failed.”

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.