Lizhiwan Creek, Guangzhou

Around Pantang Village

Research Process and field notes#

Around Pantang Village

by Alessandro Carboni – 25.11.2013


The City of Guangzhou was born on the water. It is located along the complex network of rivers and canals which forms the Pearl River Delta. For several centuries, most of economic activity of the city were related to water. Rivers and channels that crossed the city were used to living, transportation, irrigation and fishing. The rivers were inhabited, literally occupied by small boats and barges that sailed and transporting materials all around the city. The ongoing urban transformation, social and political, related to the new industrial economic model of the entire region, marked the end of the network of urban canals. The rivers were covered and some villages were cut down to make way for new housing and industries. Recently, after the Asian Game, City Government decided to restore the network of channels in Liwan District. Most of the houses, through a new urban development plan, which over the past few decades had been built on the river bed, are likely to be demolished. The plan already under development, consists of four phases: the first two are already been completed and some of the channels already been restored and opened to the city. To complete the plan, some villages, such as Pantang, still partly inhabited, will soon be cut down.

As part of on going project Learning Curves, commissioned by South China University of technology for Watersheds exhibition – Urban Border , Hong Kong Bi -City / Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture 2013, the research focused on networks canals in Guangzhou. The project explored, using a reflective research methodology, the canals transformation process around the urban area of Liwan District. The canals as place of contact between two points, natural and artificial landscape, are the result of production effects of social, cultural, political and environmental transformation.

As it follow, I will examine the field notes I collected during the residence.  In the first section I begin by laying out the theoretical dimensions of the methodology, and looks at how it has relations with the general research background. In the second section, I describe the methodology design, synthesis and characterization of the case study Lizhwan canal.

For Learning Curves project, I decided that the best method to adopt for this investigation was to look at Reflective Practice methodology. It was introduced by Donald Schön in his book The Reflective Practitioner in 1983, but other researchers such as Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, William James and Carl Jung were developing theories of human learning and development. Central to the development of reflective theory is interest in the integration of theory and practice, the cyclic pattern of experience and the conscious application of that learning experience.  (Dewey 1933) Considering cyclic pattern interesting models to apply in urban exploration contest, I looked at Argyris and Schön’s idea of single loop and double loop learning in 1978. The theory was built around the recognition and amendment of a perceived fault or error. Single loop learning is when a practitioner or organisation, even after an error has occurred and a correction is made, continues to rely on current strategies, techniques or policies when a situation again comes to light. Double loop learning involves the modification of personal objectives, strategies or policies so that when a similar situation arises a new framing system is employed. Add to this, I explored Kolb’s works and in particular the loop’s model. Highly influenced by the research conducted by Dewey and Piaget in the 1970s, Kolb’s reflective model (Kolb: 1984) highlights the concept of experiential learning and is centered around the transformation of information into knowledge. This takes place after the situation has occurred and entails a practitioner reflecting on the experience, gaining a general understanding of the concepts encountered during the experience and then testing these general understandings on a new situation. In this way the knowledge that is gained from a situation is continuously applied and reapplied building on a practitioners prior experiences and knowledge . In order to achieve it, I adopted an hybrid version Kolb’s “experiential learning cycle” using  some structured debriefing to facilitate the field work reflection.

The methodology proposed was a Reflective Practice both subjective and objective able to collect data on site (fieldwork) from different geographical scales human and urban, and various intersections within natural and artificial landscape.

On the one hand, data were collected along the canals, through a subjective point of view, using various media such as field recordings, writing, drawing, photographs and video. On the other hand, objective data collection was carried out through interviews with university scholars, researchers from South China University of Technology and local Inhabitants from Pantang village. From the intersection within objective   and subjective data collection, ideas and points of view on the history of Lizhiwan Creek and its current status have emerged

The research methodology proposed apply to three different phases:




a) Location – finding positions

[Questions] where are I am? You are here and somewhere else: the problem of location.

– Particle. Find the geographic coordinates of your starting point: Guangzhou 23.1333° N, 113.2667°. From it, observe at observation of the map. Explore the geography of space, and connect element. Find relationships: distances, terrain, roads, etc.

b ) Process – drifting though the grid

[Questions] If you don’t know why do you ask? Exploring and repeating patterns

– Clouding.  Self-reflective practice – subjective data collection and field work with interdisciplinary approaches: photos, videos, writing, and other devices capable of increasing the awareness of space.

– Clustering – Reflective practice and PAR

Data collection fem external sources as researchers, experts and inhabitants: interviews, collaborative mapping, exploration and verification data. Data debriefing, (Gibbs’ model of reflection (1988). Apply “Kolb’s experiential learning cycle” as repeat the loop Clouding-Clustering or go to further.

– Lining. Data debriefing (follow Gibbs’ model of reflection:1988) – reflection and making concepts

Compare and build ideas, motivating them looking at the collected data. Create linear concepts. Apply “Kolb’s experiential learning cycle” as repeat the loop Clouding-Clustering or go to further.

– Curving. body in space intervention (fieldwork)

Reformulate concepts into action. Presence in space effect the environment. Create strategies of intervention in space considering context and their impact over time. Analyse the Lining on real. Apply “Kolb’s experiential learning cycle” as repeat the loop Clouding-Clustering or go to further.

c ) Format – rescaling and making

[Questions] And now what? 

Process data in formats and present them to the public in the form of paper, exhibition, conference etc. .

In the following lines, I would describe the research process during my residence in Guangzhou. The content of the field notes, just some as example,  would follow my activities on site (fieldwork and explorations) and meetings with researches, experts and local inhabitants.

Most of the field work activities and interviews took place around Liwan District, around Huangsha metro station, along along canals and Pantang village. In order to combine both subjective and objective data collection research, I divided  the activities in two main sections: walking, driftings, subjective modalities of data collections (Clouding) as audio, video, body perceptions, writing were placed in mooring time; Interviews, meeting objective data collections (Clustering) with researchers as LI Feng Peng and Jiang both architects and teachers of SCUT; Song Gang, architect, were conducted on evenings. Add to this, I had more meetings at Pantang Village, with Yantian Liang, young member of Liang family and two seniors master of Kung Fu. In the last day, I started to compare and build ideas (Lining) attempting to make

29 Oct 2013

Pearl River Delta and time flow.
My first appointment is with Prof. Francesca Frassoldati, a professor at South China University of Technology, Guangzhou; she has organized and curated my project here in Guangzhou, I headed to the University, not far from the hotel where I am. The University is located in a big campus in the eastern suburbs of the city and our appointment is in the library. With the help of Prof. Francesca, I can collect various publications, books and images of historical maps of the city. The maps show the city’s transformation over the years. They are a first tool to understand and identify the boundaries and space elements. The maps, about 20, allow me to understand the morphology of the city, the city’s relationship with water and the transformation of the canals over the years. From the observation of old maps, is clearly visible that in the west of the city, now the Liwan district, there were several canals. The complex network of water that runs through the city is similar to the indented map of rivers and islands which are known throughout the Pearl River Delta. With the flow of time, through maps, the morphology of the city changes. The boats who lived and were standing along the main river and canals, represented as a small points, disappear slowly. Why? There is a close relationship between the coverage of the canals and the disappearance of the floating city? The transformation of the whole regional area on a large scale has influenced the way of life of the inhabitants? How were redeveloped urban spaces? Where were relocated families who lived in boats? Which spaces occupied in urban geography? The transformation of the city was determined by emergence and by industrial employment in the area of Guangdong? How has this relationship affected the future of the canals in the city?

30 Oct 2013

From Huangsha Station towards Pantang Village, Liwan District
I’m out of the Huangsha station. I traveled in the subway for about an ‘hour. The city is enormous. After having traveled and explored the city among the historical maps of the city, it is amazing find themselves in the urban space, the details, the distances, the density of informations is compressed into every centimeter of the city. From out of the subway, I find myself in a square, a widening where they parked the bus. I through the space and run into a boulevard with many shops and activities that expand also in the sidewalk. The avenue is lined and roots show from the cement creating a complex weave. The wind can slowly move the leaves on the branches that from part to part crossing the road. Start taking pictures. Arrive at an intersection, there are roads to the right and left, trees protrude from the arches occupied by accumulation of paper and recycled materials. I go on towards an open, a small road that penetrates a small neighborehood. The road is narrow and the floor is made of granite blocks. The houses aren’t old, were built in cement and brick probably from the 60s. Many houses are uninhabited and the deafening noise of the city is temporarily suspended. I continue to walk for a few meters between locked doors, rubble and weeds protruding from the cement. I see another passage on the road. I walk through and I find myself in a large open space about 300 meters radius. The empty space on the sides is covered with the rubble of demolished houses. From this point I can see perfectly the contours and the structure of the houses that once were here in front of me. The space is partly occupied by a temporary parking. I walk of debris, materials, burried objects. Some houses, not yet torn down, seem to be well preserved old. I follow the avenue, between vegetation and columns of earth and materials, and arrival at an extra step. A plate structure protects a floor of polished granite that can be glimpsed behind the vegetation. I can overcome the structure and find myself in front of the canal. I can read the space from this point and the line of the houses that have been torn down to make way back to the canal. In this point, the canal stops, and also the demolitions stop. The progress of the channel creates a space, an urban void and a new line in the urban space. Where are the people?  I continue my walk along the plate structure and catch a glimpse of a new passage that leads me in the street again, near to a portico. In this area of the district, the low houses, shops, commercial activities, show the layers and the history of the city of Guangzhou. At the end of the portico, in the street, creating a difference, it seems a bridge. I go on and I position it in the centre of the bridge trying to look at the space and see if that form can be linked to canals. In fact, the particular arrangement of the houses, such as a continuous line, is perhaps due to the shape of the canal. Probably after being cover, the houses were built next to each other. Continuing my walk under the cloisters, observe how, at every road junction at the end of the cloister, the same urban form is repeated endlessly. After some hundreds of meters, I see another widening with some houses demolished. In this point, find the canal. The higher part confirms my intuition: the higher parties are the bridges of the canals that were under my feet. From this point I see the line of the canal which crosses the urban space. On the sides still houses demolished. The works continues and the debris are removed every day. Between the ruins, I see the objects, specimens, and other materials in the distance and the entire canal. I walk on a wooden walkway along the river and observe the scenery around. The river water is immobile, but can be seen under a life, maybe some fish that comes directly from the Pearl River.