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.”

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.