The Rise of Copycat Architecture in China

Many have mused on the phenomenon of China’s copycat buildings, as well as entire facsimile towns. There are numerous news reports and accounts from bemused tourists who have stumbled upon a slice of Austria in Guangdong, or the new Venice of the east, near Tianjin, for example.

Ruth Morris of the BBC travelled to Thames Town, near Shanghai, where she tried to find out why they are so popular among Chinese people, and what is behind the phenomenon:

 Zhang says she has come here on her day off because Chinese towns are so crowded and commercial, but here it’s green and pleasant. And as an office administrator, she can’t afford to travel to England.

“Usually if you want to see foreign buildings, you have to go abroad,” says Zhang. “But if we import them to China, people can save money while experiencing foreign-style architecture.” […] While many Westerners think of knock-off architecture as kitsch and bizarre, many in China find it truly lovely.

[…] The Chinese government often bankrolls major copycat projects. It’s a way of flexing its muscles, says Bosker

. “China is, in a very symbolic way, showing off its ability to rearrange the cosmos, to sort of own the greatest hits of the West.”

It’s no accident, says Bosker, that the White House – the ultimate symbol of US power – is one of the most copied buildings in China. [Source]

Jack Carlson at Foreign Policy has also written on the subject, considering other explanations of the copycat phenomenon, including a Chinese obsession with the West, or as a simple extension of the widespread disrespect for intellectual property, but he ultimately agrees with Bosker’s view, that it is something more sinister:

Within the context of China’s economic rise, the present-day importation of styles and architecture feels more like muscle-flexing than a symptom of sickness.

There are apt parallels in Chinese history for this recent round of replication. Then, as now, the projects were intended to showcase China’s own worldliness, wealth, and global supremacy.

[…] Like their quarter-millennium-old counterparts, these imitations are beacons — directed at both Chinese nationals and outsiders — of China’s worldly scientific and cultural knowledge. By appropriating the monumental trappings of power from distant places and times, the Chinese do not merely place their own country on a symbolic par with historical Western superpowers, but suggest that China has mastered and transcended their levels of achievement. [Source]

Carlson describes striking precedents from the past dating as far back as 221 BC, asserting that throughout history to the present day China, these copycats are “symbolic language to convey its burgeoning global primacy”.

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson reviews Bianca Bosker’s book, and discusses the economic reasons behind the phenomenon:

Indeed, Bosker’s most convincing explanation for the developments is economics: Chinese tend to identify their culture with decline—old buildings call to mind China’s poverty and backwardness, not its glory; whereas achieving Western standards of living has been held up as a primary goal of modernization. So for developers, copying foreign towns became one way to gain cachet and jack up the price, especially as the new rich in China were beginning to travel abroad more widely and gain familiarity with these styles.

One wonders if this is different from what has happened with the newly affluent in other parts of the world. Qatar boasts an artificial island with a series of housing developments meant to evoke European architecture. And one only has to think of the tacky architecture that abounds in the United States: J. Paul Getty’s replica of a Vesuvian Roman Villa, the Hearst Castle, or even Abbot Kinney’s “Venice of America” in Los Angeles.

A larger difficulty with trying to identify some essential Chinese attitudes at play in this kind of mimicry is that the people who live in such developments are hardly ordinary Chinese. (Bosker introduces us to one resident, a former ping pong star who has flashcards of famous automobiles that he’s training his son to recognize. She explains this by quoting from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “Baroque rhetoric, eclectic frenzy, and compulsive imitation prevail where wealth has no history.”) As a result, these developments offer little insight into the overall situation of urban planning in even the wealthiest cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, let alone in the scores of second- and third-tier cities, such as Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Xuzhou, Wuxi, Hefei, and Bengbu. Most of the developments in these places are architectural nightmares, built by technocrats who want to warehouse tens of millions of peasants who have been kicked off their land. [Source]

Oliver Wainwright at the Guardian’s Architecture and Design blog focused on the issue of intellectual property, claiming some recent clones have reignited heated debate on the issue, such as a Zaha Hadid project for Soho in Beijing:

 Hadid intends to take legal ­action, while a furious Pan Shiyi, the ­billionaire chairman of the Soho empire, has vowed to “bring the infringers to court”. But Chongqing Meiquan, the developer behind the ­building, claims innocence. [Source]

But there’s not much hope for these attempts to bring the copycats to justice, “In many copycat cases, though, the architects are either long gone or ­impossible to name”, writes Wainwright.

Bianca Bosker is credited with writing the first in depth book on the issue. She has also been interviewed in The Atlantic  and by CBC News.

Read about Hallstatt, the Austrian village in Guangdong via CDT.


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