by Laetitia Drevet
On 14 June 2017, the sun rose in London above the flames and ashes. One year on, Grenfell Tower is still an open wound.
The public inquiry opened on 21 May, 2018 with tributes commemorating the 72 victims. Parents, sisters, brothers, and friends of the dead have given emotional statements about their loved ones. This inquiry is meant to examine the circumstances that led to the fire in order to prevent a similar catastrophe happening again.
Forensic Architecture shares this aim. This research centre, affiliated with Goldsmith University, uses its own digital resources to build a media archive and spatial database of the fire. Its investigation is separate to those of the public inquiry and the police.
The goal of their Grenfell project is a digital simulation of the tower, which would expose every corner of the building in a single 3D model. The model will allow members of the public to explore and better understand what happened that night.
“The shape of a tower block is very much like a database. So we decided to approach Grenfell Tower as a database of human lives and narratives. The digital model is a very effective way to tell all of their stories with accuracy,” says Bob Trafford, a researcher for Forensic Architecture.
The project has been launched after months of research and discussions with Grenfell support groups.
“At the very least, the creation of a 3D model will help archive the disaster in a manner that could be better utilised in the future. At most, it could provide evidence of the spread and growth of the fire in order to assist with a detailed forensic analysis of how materials and structural design led to the intensity of the fire and failure of systems to evacuate residents,” say the volunteers of Grenfell MediaWatch.
Forensic Architecture was created in 2010 in the hope that the increasing availability of digital recording equipment, satellite imaging and remote sensing technology could function as new ways to monitor international investigations.
Their work, often on behalf of NGOs, is based on architecture studies’ tools, such as spatial and material analysis, mapping and digital reconstruction. Their main resource is witnesses’ footage, collected through a dedicated platform.
“It is one of the first times in the UK that this kind of smartphone documentation has happened for this serious a human catastrophe,” says Trafford.
“Someone said to me recently, when I talked about this project, that it might not have taken two decades to get the truth at Hillsborough if everyone had a smartphone. I think it is very true.”
Over the past few years, smartphone footage has become a central resource in investigations, whether conducted by the police, the media or NGOs. User-generated content is able to give access to events that are too sudden for reporters to reach, or happen in places that would otherwise be under-reported.
“Citizen footage has come not only to be accepted but indeed expected,” says Melissa Wall, professor of journalism at the California State University.
“I was at a journalism conference recently where a television reporter said he would arrive on the scene of a disaster and yell out to bystanders, ‘Who has good video?’ and other witnesses would tell him and that’s what he would share with his producers.”
Though citizen journalism can bring unique information to inquiries, it also has its downsides. The spread of fake news via made-up images is one of them, and requires precise fact checking before any footage is used. According to Melissa Wall, the other major risk is the one-sided perspective of amateur footage:
“Amateur video can give the sense that we are seeing the truth of what really happened. But, of course, we are only seeing a moment in time. We usually don’t see what led up to the event,” she says.
It is in order to avoid exploiting this kind of misleading information that Forensic Architecture is looking to collect as much amateur footage as possible. The next step is to put them all together in the model’s timeline and location, so that way one video can corroborate another.
“We are going to use this digital space to situate these video pieces of evidence in relation with their own time and space. And to tell a story: between those videos is the truth,” says Trafford.
Not all the tools FA uses are cutting edge. They use Premiere Pro to play multiple pieces of video at the same time, at different speed with different start times – a way to see where the information matches up, according to Trafford:
“You could read the witnesses’ statement that the inquiry will publish, these thousands of pages. You would see the story of the fire threw two eyes. But you might not notice that two witnesses’ statement overlap, separated by 600 pages. You might not notice that they shared a staircase or a room at some point.”
Navigation in the 3D model is handled by the kind of software used to create video games involving first person exploration.
The Grenfell Project is open-ended and expected to continue for a year or more of mapping and interpreting footage, extracting data, and projecting the videos to the 3D model. The result will be a free public resource.
FA’s project is not a part of any official inquiry. Will it be at some point? That decision belongs to higher authorities, says Dominic Nutt, deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea council.
“The government along with the police need to take a view on the issue and decide whether a digital representation is sufficient and stands as robust evidence that can be tested in criminal and civil proceedings.”
Featured Image by Forensic Architecture