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.

Thesis Restructured, Abstract

Urban villages is an integral part of the city as they provide one of the only affordable housing options for migrants in the city. However, in Southern cities like Guangzhou, municipalities use heritage as a method to consolidate power over the use of urban village land with the agenda of creating an image of modernity in the cultured protection of the past.

Using Authorised Heritage Discourse as a theoretical basis, this thesis analyses the use of heritage as a technique of power, especially through the definition of heritage in a foreign concept of ‘materiality’ and the separation between expertise and communities in the urban village. In this context, this dominant heritage discourse creates a legitimisation of a disregard for communities’ needs and paths the way for their displacement in urban village redevelopments.

This thesis argues that the dominant heritage discourse needs to be resisted because it refutes communities’ rights to the city, especially that of the migrants’. To change the system, what is needed is a demonstration of the value of communities.

The thesis points to the emergence of a subaltern heritage discourse focusing on intangible cultural practices has the potential to form resistance to the dominant heritage discourse. This is a system where value exists in the transmission of traditions, skills and processes. The centre of this discourse lies with ‘inheritors’ who are members of specific communities and hold the keys to particular cultural knowledge. In other words, they enable an overlap between ‘community’ and ‘expertise’.

The thesis argues for the urgency for an alternative regeneration method that uses heritage, in the form of cultural transmission of knowledge, as a technique to empower communities and hence enables their sustainable and continuous right to the city.

Castello di Sermoneta

Castello di Sermoneta has a plethora of fascinating construction details and small spaces waiting to be explored. 

The entrance to the castle is a series of gates, drawbridges and winding steps – designed to weaken the enemy’s attack. There are also a couple of ‘roof lights’ which are holes right on top of gates, so defenders could pour down hot oil and stones onto their unwelcomed guests in battle. 

What I liked the most about the castle is perhaps its deep windows, sometimes going up to 3 metres deep. 

What is peculiar about these windows is that even though it is a castle, a number of these alcove spaces are meant as quiet reading spaces for its residents (Pope’s relatives). So although it is an impenetrable castle from the outside, with its rough stones and guarded gates, on the inside, it gives an impression of peace and tranquility. 

Another space that I found different is the horse stables. Covered with straws on the roof to withhold heat in the underground room, the stable can hold twenty horses. It is probably the definition of a medieval stable. I could almost see the knights preparing for battle, sense the horses getting uneasy, smell the blood and sweat and feel the incoming doom. The eeriness of the arched stable is increased tenfold with the rough texture of the straw roof – giving it an almost grotto-like atmosphere.

The internal courtyard is a story in itself. There are at least five different types of facades looking onto the courtyard, each working with the individual building’s history, function and aesthetics. 

ICCROM Built Heritage Forum at Tongji: Third Day Site Visit

On the last day, we visited two buildings in Shanghai, one slaughter house built in 1920s and Shanghai Centre finished in 2015. The former was an Arts and Crafts building purpose built as a slaughter house. Made in concrete and with the architect unknown, the design was different from any building found in Shanghai.


ICCROM Built Heritage Forum at Tongji: First Day Morning Session Notes

The common themes during the morning speeches:

  • Heritage is not about admiring heritage itself but the value for development
  • Man = heritage/heritage = man
  • Heritage is not static
  • Heritage needs to be more process-driven and contribute to urbanisation
  • Destruction of heritage in China is too fast = protection is not fast enough
  • Culture as driver
  • Combine theory and practice
  • Heritage as an asset/resource

Alain Marinos from Chaillot in Paris

  • Case studies of heritage places utilized by the new generation and ‘third spaces’ in France
  • La Halle Pajol in Paris, his son works in there as one of the start-ups
  • Parc de la Vilette by Tsumi
  • The project is started by the community
    • It is from the ground up and government performs a supporting role to enable its visualisation
    • The government has since then been able to use this as a case study to support other kinds of community activities
    • What is essential is the community and their initiative

陈薇教授 from Northeast University

  • 金陵大报恩寺与塔的前世今生
  • Jin Ling Da En Temple and Tower
  • The tower had a heritage that existed in words, not in physical form
    • That is representative of Chinese heritage which was transmitted differently than Western heritage
  • The tower exists as ruins in some parts and completely absent in others
  • Different sections merit different strategies of conservation
    • Based on their historical importance
    • Issue of authenticity is key
    • How do you connect pieces?
    • How do you reconstruct history?
    • Framework is the most important to connect the pieces
      • From that people would be able to perceive and imagine with and within the framework – they can become active participants
    • That framework knowledge is understood through surveying and evaluating


  • 景德镇工业遗产
  • Regeneration of ceramic industrial heritage in Jingde Town
  • Intangible heritage and transmission/dissemination
  • Three key pointers
    • Conservation through social and economic development
    • Public space and urban infrastructure
    • Continuity of craftsmanship
  • Use industry as a driver of urban development (also providing employment)