Architect Wins Pulitzer Prize for Uncovering Chinese Forced Labor Camps

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Robison Wells
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Alison Killing, the first architect to win the Pulitzer prize, used her knowledge of construction and engineering to identify sites of forced labor camps in China. Killing, from England and now living in Rotterdam, studied architecture and engineering at Oxford. She took part in a community design program called 24 Hour Urban Action. The program studied architecture’s link to death camps throughout world history. In 2018 she met Megha Rajagoop, a journalist who had visited one of the camps; Killing decided to use her expertise to find more.

Alison Killing used satellite imagery, both from Google Maps and a Chinese search engine called Baidu. Baidu censors imagery to hide strategic areas and sites that incriminate China for human rights violations. Killing claims that she found more than five million censored sites throughout China—everything from industrial parks to solar panel arrays to wind farms.

Using her understanding of both construction and urban design, she winnowed the sites down, using the needs required to house large groups of forced laborers as her filtering criteria.

“We knew the camps need certain things: workers to build them, roads to get people to them, water, electricity,” Killing told the Architectural Record. “Factoring in those things left us about 50,000 possible locations. I went through them systematically, about 10,000 a week, looking on Google Earth and other available satellite imagery for compounds that might be camps.”

Killing, working with Megha Rajagoop the reporter for BuzzFeed News, connected the sites to eyewitness accounts and media reports. Megha tracked down eyewitnesses to describe the areas; Killing scoured the satellite imagery for the locations. By the time they published their first article in August 2020, they had identified 268 sites. Since, they have found nearly 100 more.

Upon publication, the Chinese government called the reporting “a groundless lie.” Killing and Rajagopalan continue to work the story. When asked what architects can learn from this, Killing said “I think one of the things that this project has shown is the way somebody with skills like mine can contribute to a journalistic project and produce interesting investigative work that might not have happened otherwise.”

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