An Architect Wins a Pulitzer

John Hill
1. July 2021
An aerial of China's Dabancheng District and a camp reportedly housing tens of thousands of people. (Photo: Google Maps)

Alison Killing, an architect and geospatial analyst, is part of a team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize Winner in International Reporting for a series "that used satellite imagery and architectural expertise," the prize says, to identify Muslim internment camps in China.

Working with Megha Rajagopalan, an international correspondent for BuzzFeed News, and Christo Buschek, a programmer and digital security trainer, Alison Killing is potentially the first licensed architect to win a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The trio's reporting on the construction of facilities to detain Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities was published in four articles on BuzzFeed News between August and December 2020. 

The incredulousness of an architect winning a Pulitzer — not a Pritzker, mind you, or a journalist winning a Pulitzer for architectural criticism (at least a handful have done so) — is increased by the venue: BuzzFeed is still associated by many with the viral content it popularized after it was founded in 2006. This prize lends further credence to BuzzFeed News, which started in 2011 and has won other awards for its investigative reporting that clearly departs from its parent's interests.

The prize to Killing, Rajagopalan, and Buschek might have gone unnoticed were it not for Fred Bernstein's interview with Killing in Architectural Record, where he posits she may be the first architect to nab a Pulitzer. After graduating from Cambridge and Oxford Brookes, Killing worked for Buro Happold and "several architecture and urban design firms in London and Rotterdam," eventually segueing into telling stories about migration through technology and "seeing herself as a tech-based storyteller."

After meeting Rajagopalan at a conference in 2018, Killing started contributing to her investigation of the camps, examining blocked-out areas of satellite aerial views on Baidu, China's equivalent of Google Earth. Killing attributes her experience in architecture and urban planning as the means of being able to discover the locations of hundreds of camps from millions of blocked-out areas across the country as well as determining the specific uses of those facilities.

A screenshot of the first of the four BuzzFeed News articles, highlighting a couple paragraphs expressing the involvement of Killing and how architectural knowledge contributed to the investigation.

The team's ongoing work is aligned with others trained in architecture pursuing projects that fuse spatial reasoning, technology, and social justice. A trailblazer in this regard is Forensic Architecture, the research agency founded by Eyal Weizman that "undertake[s] advanced architectural and media research on behalf of international prosecutors, human rights organizations and political and environmental justice groups." Another example is SITU Studio, an architectural practice from Brooklyn that teamed up with Amnesty International to produce video analysis of how police used tear gas on protestors following George Floyd's murder last year.

Killing's recognition clearly reveals how the skills architects gain in education and practice can be applied to other areas, bringing projects like these articles to light. An architect's work, in other words, need not be limited to designing buildings.

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