Why China's Copy-Cats Are Good For Architecture

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 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 housing 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.

“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.

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. Used under Creative Commons

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.

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.” Moreover, Architecture wasn't even covered under copyright law in the United States until 1990.

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. Courtesy of 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.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Why China's Copy-Cats Are Good For Architecture" 09 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/357293/why-china-s-copy-cats-are-good-for-architecture> ISSN 0719-8884

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