A Festival of Guilds

My two -year design research project proposes a new builders’ guild for rural migrants in a Chinese urban village. It lies at the intersection between heritage and issues of empowering rural migrants in rapid urbanisation in China and argues that heritage instead of being preserved as artefacts, should continuously empower the community and allow for their cultural expression.

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Urban village is a phenomenon that is found very frequently in Chinese cities. It is a situation where the rapid urbanisation has resulted in the complete engulfing of rural villages into the city. The city that I am investigating is Guangzhou which is within the Pearl River Delta Megacity together with Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Half of its 16 million population is made up of migrants and 70 % of them live in informal urban villages. These urban villages are dense conglomerations of ‘handshake’ apartment blocks which provide cheap accommodation for migrants seeking work in the city. These pockets of space are therefore migrant enclaves that hold a huge population.

Urban Villages and Temporality

Urban villages are also space of temporality. 53 of the 135 urban villages in Guangzhou have a regeneration planned for it. These plans are frequently plans to make them into high-rise apartment blocks. This process of planning, eviction, demolition and reconstruction might take decades to complete. In most regeneration schemes, migrants are not considered stakeholders and are instead displaced from one urban village to another. They live consistently within a forced temporality either in an urban village under demolition or an urban village to be demolished. The growing amount of discontent amongst migrants against the city has also surfaced as direct conflicts with the city police in recent years.

Urban Villages and Villagers

When we look at the other side of the picture, however, villagers have been very involved in the regeneration processes of urban villages through meetings, rehousing in the new development and retainment of their valued community buildings. This is something that is rather peculiar to urban villages in the south of China. In Beijing and Shanghai where urban villages are found in the periphery of the city whereas in Guangzhou it is right in the middle of it. This ability for villagers to be a sizeable power that is recognised by the municipal government is created through centuries of relationships between villagers and the historic city. This disparity of power between villagers and migrants in the same space of the urban village raises the question of whether there are elements that could be extracted from the relationship between villagers and the government and replicated for migrants in the city.

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This brings me to the institutional system of dragon boat guilds based on clans which allowed for the villagers’ self-sustainable hierarchical organisation to be recognised and continuously recognised by the municipal government. This is most visible in the dragon boat festival, during which alliances between villages manifest into visitations between these ‘brother’ or ‘cousin’ villages. This is a map showing the dragon boat visitation routes to Xiaozhou Village which is located on the urban periphery. The villages maintain their alliances with Xiaozhou through the visitation ritual during which the number of boats that they send to visit is an indication of how tight they want the relationship to be that particular year. The presence of alliances is reinforced in the details of the social rituals which use public space both for display and spectatorship. The dragon boat festival continues to take place in the city now as a cultural event that is integral to Guangzhou city although the event remains to be a negotiation of alliances that organises the society of rural villages and aid in their collective front against the historic city.

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Dragon boat festival in Xiaozhou Village does not only take place at its pier, the old entrance to the village but also extends into the village. Where shrines are also dragon boat guild buildings that hold feasts during the festival for brothers, cousins and invited guests. The hierarchical system of alliances continues in the village as alliances between branches and houses of the same clan. In Xiaozhou, it is a system of power that begins with the family Clan and filters down to the East/West branches and then subdivides into houses.

This system is not built in a day. Physical construction and repairing of shrines are activities used to bring together families or branches to create territorial markers against others. The building activities of shrines therefore both creates and is created by the institution of the clan system. This system has been recognised by the historical municipal government to co-exist alongside the city’s governing body to be self-governing and organising. This continues in the representative system of elections in villages held in the shrines.

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However, in Xiaozhou in 2008, a conservation plan was put in place as a regeneration strategy. This conservation zoning line severs the hierarchical network by drawing an artificial line to create a tourists’ protected zone. The plan preserves buildings as monuments and the protected zone as an open-air museum meant for tourist consumption. And separates the buildings from its immediate community – the migrants who comprise 70% of the population in Xiaozhou. The regeneration plan rejects migrants’ involvement and reinforces their temporariness in the urban village. At the same time, as villagers move into the city, these shrine buildings have become and will become increasingly abandoned.

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I hence argue that there is a possibility to reuse the shrines as they become abandoned as anchor points for the making of a new self-organising guild system of migrants in the urban village. This rebuilds the link between the historic buildings and the community through the secularisation of existing shrines into builders’ guilds. These guilds are based on traditional building crafts involving timber frame making, bricklaying, roof tiling, bamboo scaffolding for example. Many of these crafts originate from rural villages where migrants are from and have been part of their cultural identities in their original village but have become lost when they move into the city and are identified solely as migrants. This strategic proposal hence aims to use historic shrines to make a new institutional system based on migrant builders’ cultural expression through craftsmanship. The guilds come together to mark their collective alliance through ultimately the building of a new Builders’ Hall at the current entrance to the urban village.

The following pages investigates in detail one site on which a timber framers’ guild is proposed.

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At the building scale, I am proposing to repurpose the linearity of the building in its original use in creating a hierarchy of social relationships. This has been visible both during dragon boat feasts where the more important a guest is, the further he/she is sat inside a building and during everyday use where the outside is for the public, the first and second is for social use by members of the guild and the innermost is for ancestral worship.

The design uses the length of the building to indicate importance, where the outside is a public space, the first hall is the timber workshop, the second as a social space for apprentices and journeymen and the third as a meeting hall for the master and journeymen. The main axis of the building can then be reactivated as a linear series of connected halls


Historical building

The main halls are supported on either side by ancillary programmes including apprentice, journeymen and masters’ accommodation and kitchens. Historically, the sides are always connected to the main hall through the central axis, but bits of the building have been separated off into houses. The new building rearranges them to reconnect to the main axis to reinforce the linearity of the building.

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The project is also phased to allow for migrants to incrementally repurpose the building. This is a process that begins with the building of accommodation for masters and newly recruited apprentices. Then the conservation of existing buildings in phase 2. Then the expansion of accommodation quarters for new apprentices in phase 3 and the construction of an archive building in phase 4.

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The Archive

The archive is a new monumental face of the guild that expresses the timber craftsmanship that is more much contained within the historic building. The archive acts as a library holds the drawings and plans of buildings that the timber guild has used over time. But the building itself is also a didactic display of the knowledge of timber construction of the guild. Using the same grid, timber dimensions and construction technique of mortise and tenon joints, the archive creates an inverse timber construction that is displayed to the viewer below. The building is accessed through a central staircase that penetrates through the timber framework and provides cut section that…

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… demonstrates clearly the construction of the timber framework. The archive hence holds the knowledge of timber construction in terms of the dimensions of timber members required, the number and type of tools, through to the construction manuals of working benches, timber columns and connecting joints to create a particular building typology using timber frame, in this case, a raised timber hall.

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The hall also uses similar environmental strategies as the vernacular buildings through the use of courtyards to collect sunlight and enable ventilation as well as roof construction techniques that echoes the roofs of the historic buildings to allow rain to cascade down the tiled roof as a rain curtain.

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The timber guild at phase four hence becomes a display of craftsmanship that interacts with its immediate context as a visible expression of the timber builders.