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.”

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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