From the recent information overload concerning Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing Soho being pirated in China, one might think that copying was a new phenomenon in architecture. Is this really that shocking or even worth mentioning?
It must be because, for the next few hundred words or so, I’m going to be mentioning it quite a bit. Copying can be a complicated issue. In Western culture, in particular, the status of the copy is fraught with contradictions. It is a problem that has existed since long before Walter Benjamin wrote about it in “The Work of Art in the Age of the Mechanical Reproduction”.
This “scandal” is a stand-in for the West’s on-going battle against gratuitous Chinese piracy, as if this is uniquely a problem with doing business in China. This singular act of copying has become an issue partly because it is Zaha being copied and in part because it is tropical to define China as the world’s piracy factory. While designers in the West “emulate”, “imitate”, and “borrow” our Chinese colleagues are pirates. Argh.
While we like to maintain the legal and moral high-ground, the protection of “original” works or the rights of copy are, having developed in the eighteenth century, relatively recent creations in Western civilization. We haven’t been at it all that long and it came into being largely in order to protect commercial interests. It had nothing to do with any sudden moral epiphany about the sanctity of the original.
But don’t take my word for it. In The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles, cultural historian, Hillel Schwartz tackles the problems posed by the “Real McCoy”, and its nasty reincarnations as likenesses, doubles, replicas, twins, as copies as one sort or another. These are the monsters that frighten our sense of authenticity.
Of course, what is underlying this culture of the copy, are the unspoken market factors, namely the desire for repeatability and transmutability from place to place in order to reduce risk. The market desires copies, especially copies that work. Andy Warhol understood this well. But this has been the logic of markets since they emerged with mass culture.
Wangjing Soho is merely one architectural manifestation of the same drive to have consumer chains, or “branding” proliferate from place to place, corner to corner. It’s the Starbucks or Banana Republic (or any chain for that matter) phenomenon writ large as urban context, or mega-place.
What, then, are the implications of having Wangjing Soho in Beijing and its sort of twin “Wangjing Soho” in Chongqing? For one, it implies that this sort of iconic architecture is indeed repeatable rather than being so, well, iconic in a unique sense or in terms of lending a unique identity to a place. What would it mean to have a “Wangjing Soho” in every city? All of them would then be unique.
Architecture and urban design are already based on the logic of repeatability. We repeat vernacular buildings (hence they are vernacular). We can repeat things like the High Line because they are desirable and successful. Things that work, travel. Often, things that don’t work so well travel, too. Just because we can repeat doesn’t mean we should. But, is it easy? Most certainly. Here, business trumps any desire to do something original, something risky.
Would it then be desirable to have so many of these blobby contexts-unto-themselves scattered about? In renderings they can be made to fit any context, but the reality on the ground can be much different. The larger and perhaps more important issue about the Wangjing Soho “scandal” is that it questions the place-specificity of such projects. It also questions the issue of singular or unique visions and the role of the starchitect in our current era of, not to repeat myself, the copy. What would happen if “Wangjing Soho” turned out to be more successful and better constructed than Wangjing Soho?
But, what then, to do about that nagging issue of authenticity? Mr. Schwartz suggests that any notion of the original is validated, extended, and reified by the multitude of copies. So this goes to the argument for copying is the highest form of flattery, doesn’t it? And what is our great fear of copies? It goes to the point of doubling whereby the self is othered and that other is then beyond our control, the Frankenstein. Ms. Hadid is powerless to do anything about her Frankenstein that is being speedily erected in Chongqing. Someday, people may just assume it was done by her.
The Chinese developers may even be right when they say they weren’t intentionally copying. It just happened, but, by the way, ours is better! If you think about it, it can happen quite easily with a few kids manipulating nurbs late at night at the office. It doesn’t even take having access to the “original” drawings or 3D models.
Perhaps Ms. Hadid’s design might have been in their subconscious in similar fashion to how UNStudio’s Kempkensberg may have been floating around prior to Wangjing Soho. Then, of course, there is Galaxy Soho, also in Beijing. Did those forms just pop out of thin air with Ms. Hadid? Or have they been around for a while in slightly different incarnations, part of the architectural ether, like all the chamfered skyscrapers of late? Who did the first chamfered skyscraper and why are we doing so many now? Because this is what people want? Because they work? There are so many because clients often say, I want what he has.
In the end, does it really matter? All versions, bad or otherwise, will lead to Rome. And once there, the truth, original or otherwise, will at last reside in the details and the execution. They will all become places of one sort or another. Hopefully they will all be positive additions to our otherwise bleak and banal urban environments. So, while from the bird’s eye viewpoint they appear strikingly similar, rest assured that upon closer inspection they will be quite different. Such is the nature of copies.