Why China’s Copy-Cats Are Good For Architecture

Wangjing SOHO: Northwest Aerial © Zaha Hadid Architects

When we see another Eiffel Tower, idyllic English village, or, most recently, a Zaha Hadid shopping mall, copied in China, our first reaction is to scoff. Heartily. To suggest that it is – once again – evidence of China’s knock-off culture, its disregard for uniqueness, its staggering lack of innovation. Even I, reporting on the Chinese copy of the Austrian town of Halstatt, fell into the rhetorical trap: “The Chinese are well-known for their penchant for knock-offs, be it brand-name handbags or high-tech gadgets, but this time, they’ve taken it to a whole other level.”

Moreover, as Guy Horton has noted, we are keen to describe designers in the West as “emulating,” “imitating,” and “borrowing”; those in the East are almost always “pirating.” However, when we allow ourselves, even unconsciously, to settle into the role of superior scoffer, we do not just do the Chinese, but ourselves, a disservice: first, we fail to recognize the fascinating complexity that lies behind China’s built experimentation with Western ideals; and, what’s more, we fail to look in the mirror at ourselves, and trouble our own unquestioned values and supposed superiority. In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to do both.

Hallstatt, Austria, the Unesco Heritage Site literally re-built, brick by brick, in China. Photo © Boris Stroujko via Inhabitat/Shutterstock

“The Happy and Harmonious Dream”

According to Thomas L. Friedman in his opinion piece for the New York Times, since China’s embrace of consumer culture in the 1980s, the Chinese people have been in a state of flux, consuming, along with products, the American ideals of individual wealth, identity, and uniqueness. But at the same time, they’ve been negotiating these concepts with their traditional values of collectivism, harmony, and balance.

This negotiation has resulted in a yearning for a defined, modern Chinese identity – a Chinese Dream, if you will, that, while referencing the American dream, better aligns itself with traditional Chinese values. Friedman reports that this Dream is referred by some as a “Harmonious and Happy Dream,” one which allows for the Chinese people to express their individuality (sorely needed after so many years of suppression) but also emphasizes the collective, not just individual, access to improved goods and services.

These contradictory desires reveal themselves in China’s new cities, many of which are moving away from the bland, chock-a-clock that traditionally characterized Chinese cities, and towards something … rather familiar. By choosing to live in a “copied” built environment, with the Italian or British or Austrian connotations of wealth or refinement or quaintness it may have, a Chinese person is not just aligning himself with a certain identity, but also to an entire group that ascribes to that identity. Individual choice, in collective form.

Wangjing SOHO: Northwest Aerial © Zaha Hadid Architects

“Never Meant to Copy, Only Want to Surpass”

When Ollie Wainwright reported on the copy of Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing Soho in Beijing, he mentioned that the slandered developers launched an advertising campaign, headed by this slogan: “Never meant to copy, only want to surpass.” The slogan is important to keep in mind.

Despite the pain-staking detail in which Chinese copies are reproduced, from using the same exact Chantilly stone for a French chateau or replicating the Winston Churchill statues in a British town, it’s important to note that there are certain adaptations, changes,and “improvements” made upon these clones. In Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, author Bianca Bosker notes that European cities’ typical, winding streets and tiny apartments, which don’t align with Chinese desires for order and space, are generally not incorporated into the Chinese versions.

Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China / Bianca Bosker. Image courtesy of University of Hawaii Press.

Moreover, developers, responding to the demand for the fantasy of Western built environments, are beginning to invest not just in copies, but in new interpretations of Western models (designed with the Chinese wants in mind). Michael Ellis, a partner at 5+design who has, beyond working on a retail expansion of The China World Trade Center (CWTC), developed residential projects in China, describes his firm’s strategy as “going vertical with the American Dream.”  As Ellis puts it: “density does not have to preclude individuality.”

Luxehills. Image courtesy of 5+ Design

Their project, called Luxehills (a name which reflects the homes and hills of California), is series of California-style high-rises that are “authentic” (using stones, stucco and tile) and provide plenty of public space  (including a lagoon, plaza, and many galleries). It’s a “copy” of an American model, which is in turn a “copy” of an Italian model, that perfectly encapsulates the negotiation of values happening in China now: a Western look, individualized units, density, and the collective access to amenities that serve the neighborhood as a whole.

Luxehills. Image courtesy of 5+ Design

The Architectural Rift

But let’s turn the mirror on ourselves for a moment. Really, the modified-copy shouldn’t feel foreign to us at all – it has been common practice in development all across the United States. We need look no further than Las Vegas (although we certainly could).

The Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. Image © Flickr User CC Christopher Chen

Of course, you could make the argument that there is an inherent difference between copying villages, especially ancient villages where the original architects have been lost to obscurity, or copying certain typologies, and copying Architecture (with a capital A), which is, according to our system of beliefs, the intellectual property of the Architect who designed it. Thus, while most of these odd-ball copies remain largely laughable in the West, the case of Hadid’s Galaxy Soho invoked ire, outcry, and considerable debate on the ethics of copying.

In an article for ArtInfo, author and architectural historian, Mario Carpo explained it this way: it is “‘the rift between the new media and technologies we use and the old cultural frame of mind we have inherited and not yet updated’ that inspired this disquieting case of architectural mimesis.” I would agree with Carpo: there is certainly a rift between our “old cultural frame of mind,” one which holds as sanctified the purity of the architectural form and the ownership of the architect, and our modern day reality (in which computer technology make copying and manufacturing a design simpler every day); however, I don’t think the rift can be explained entirely by technology. Much of it comes from the confrontation with another cultural frame of mind, in this case that of China, which does not hold the same values dear.

And while the idea of intellectual copyright for architecture is of course valid, it’s important to remember that this construct – of one’s ownership of an idea (that then becomes functional form) – is a relatively recent one. In fact, architecture wasn’t even covered under law in the United States until 1990. As Guy Horton wrote in his article “Architecture and Crime”: “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.”

In 2004, Thomas Shine sued David Childs, of SOM, for copyright infringement of his design (the Olympic Tower, left) in Childs’ original renderings for the Freedom Tower in New York City (right). Shine won the case. The plans for the Freedom Tower were subsequently changed. Image via Slate.com

Moreover, the line between copy and original, even in the eyes of the law, is awfully nebulous. As Michael Graves has noted, copyright protection is not for the pragmatic/technical characteristics of a building but only for the ”poetic language” of architecture. But when form follows function, whose to say where pragmatism ends and poetry begins? And with “copying”, from the masters who came before you or a colleague with whom you’ve shared ideas, being a foundational part of architectural design – does it really matter?

So the next time we scoff at China’s “copies,” with no thought to their context nor history, I suggest taking a long, hard look at ourselves. We may recognize that what China is doing now is not so different from what we ourselves have done in the past (and what, with the improvement of digital technology, will only happen more in the future). Rather than sitting comfortably on our high-horses, we should begin to see the Chinese adaptation of architecture (and, for that matter, Architecture) as an opportunity to update our own beliefs and begin traversing the rift we have made for ourselves.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Why China’s Copy-Cats Are Good For Architecture" 09 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=357293>

23 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    I’ve read that a reproduction by the Eastern cultures is a sign of respect for a successful product… the more reproductions the greater the gesture of respect and the more successful the product!

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +43

    What’s the big deal? Buildings have been copied and have ‘inspired’ others for time immemorial. It’s all part of our civilization. The Romans copied the Greeks, the French copied the Egyptians, the English and the Americans copied the Greeks, the Romans and the French, the English copied the Chinese……It all goes around. So why bash China now? They’re just following the crowd. Architects in the western world are still copying from other cultures and yet they are called sophisticated and worldly.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    It’s rare that any architecture is completely original, with no outside influence. Great architecture usually encompasses the architect’s ability to infuse the artistic elements that made previous, similar buildings successful with the context of the project at hand.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down -15

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    buildings that are purely formalistic will be copied easily. Buildings have been copied throughout the ages, so it is not fair to go after the Chinese. This is a joke. The amount of so called western designers copying all these branded star architects is incredible. So what if they copy it? In the west we do not copy directly, but we call it our own by changing a little here and a little there. Get serious.

    The problem is that it starts to reduce the relevance of the profession in a very dangerous way. It only considers the ‘poetic’ notions as mentioned in the article; Architecture expressed as shapes and symbols only.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +18

    Getting inspired by someone’s work and adapting it, reinterpret it, etc. is one thing. And culture propagates like that. Doing architecture by opening the magazine and copy-paste facades or whole buildings is another.

    I have experienced the “documentation” phase of a project when my chinese colleagues would rush to the magazines and albums and each would pick up a building to model. That is simply the death of any crativity at the hand of lazyness. There are others that truly reinterpret, adapt, and as someone said before reproduce out of respect and admiration. So one is bad and the other… not so bad, in my opinion.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down -7

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +5

      Probably got the low rating because you’re looking at it in an extreme way. Copying does not necessarily mean disrespect. As someone else mentioned, Chinese culture has historically seen copying as respectful. In fact, in the past you had to master an older, more respected artists’ style before you were considered a legitimate artist yourself.

      Taking an idea for personal gain? Bad. Using time-tested and loved ideas because of what they represent and their success? Ok.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    I would that they are copying because they think it will sell, not necessarily out of respect. How is this different then knock-off handbags being sold? I have no issue with mimicking or reinterpreting a methodology or style or typology, but the blatant 1:1 knockoffs are suspect. If I were to reproduce something a local (st)architect designed, that wouldn’t fly here for a number of reasons. (Some of it may leak.) And I believe Vegas is in another category altogether, perhaps more caricature of architecture than anything else. (Caricatecture)
    Also, from what I have read, while some of it may sell, much of it will remain unoccupied.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    I would like to bring another very important issue here. What if the same architect trying to sell two different clients the same concept with 95% similarity with a little changes made in few elements? Is he a sincere architect?Shouldn’t we call him SELF COPY CAT? and cheating the clients?

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    I totally agree with Dave’s point of view! I think it’s very naive to think that copy in China (and probably in many other places, whatever) is a simple process of evolution. It is very far from “getting inspiration from…”!
    Copy is not , taking inspiration, or even pastiche.
    Even more when like in the case of Hadid’s project the guy clearly states that “yes we take the same project to make it better”. (which i doubt “better” have the same meaning for him or for you. He thinks probably shiny materials enhancements, you think concept). This guy just probably stool the engineers plans!
    This happens in a lot of places! Not only in China. The difference is that there is no legal limits to this in China. You cannot feel safe for your work. You do the innovation job so people after you can pretend to be the grand master… This is not what inspiration is! Copy but bring your part of reflection and it will bring something new that is in the interest of everyone.
    But the most important part, you can ignore the fact, but not saying “it’s normal” or “it’s a different culture”!
    Is China known in History for it’s culture of successful concepts reproduction or for it’s innovations that changed the face of the world?
    I think also this is insulting for all the great contemporary Chinese designers that try to reinvent Chinese architecture and push their concepts hard in this context.
    Although I know that every projects are not meant to be innovative, there is always space for creativity anywhere! 5+ project is an example. Although it’s a “European” style project, it seems at least to try to tell a different story.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    the reason why this is always quite simple, because the clients ask architects to do is, architects follow clients, clients follow public’s demand.
    Reproduction and copy is commonly used, by both some of my schoolmates and foreign colleagues.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    the rudder, the paper, the compass, iron plow

    the technology to make silk, make china, make gunpowder

    when the west world adopted all above from China by all means nobody accused that was copy, we called it share the culture

    only after the capitalism and consumism, all about money

    • Thumb up Thumb down -6

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    The main question is not whether to copy existing buildings.
    This has been a fact, which is part of our professional life
    You are invited to visit my blog SOMEONE HAS BUILT IT BEFORE, there you can see hundreds of examples that reinforce this claim
    Our challenge today, as I would put it,
    is how to get inspired consciously from existing buildings.

  14. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    that “zaha copy” isn’t even that much of a copy. Just because it has similar curves and horizontal bands that show the floors doesnt mean it is an infringement of her design.

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I agree to others. If the Chinese had built all that as a miniature leisure park, copying all these buildings might hsve been adorable. Hoewever, as they are know, it is scary to watch that neither the buildings nor the monuments mean anything to anyone. It’s not the kind of houses they are used to or might even like, it doesn’t mean anything, there is no innovation and nobody can be proud of any of the buildings since their spirit (and that of their architects) is gone.And it makes me sad that the East doesn’t show enough pride in their own culture, history, famous people. Copying culture like that is scary, not admirable!

  16. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    And Las Vegas doesn’t seem to be a fair comparison here. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower over there is a glittering, funny fake. Nobody wants to hide that. But in these pics, everything is built like in real life!

  17. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    And it’s an insult to Chinese architects and artists who really inspire the world with new ideas and concepts

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