Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
There are serious cultural reference points to be found in China's obsession with 'duplitecture.'
The latest and most famous case of Chinese architectural mimicry doesn't look much like its predecessors. On December 28, German news weekly Der Spiegel reported that the Wangjing Soho, Zaha Hadid's soaring new office and retail development under construction in Beijing, is being replicated, wall for wall and window for window, in Chongqing, a city in central China.
To most outside observers, this bold and quickly commissioned counterfeit represents a familiar form of piracy. In fashion, technology, and architecture, great ideas trickle down, often against the wishes of their progenitors. But in China, architectural copies don't usually ape the latest designs.
In the vast space between Beijing and Chongqing lies a whole world of Chinese architectural simulacra that quietly aspire to a different ideal. In suburbs around China's booming cities, developers build replicas of towns like Halstatt, Austria and Dorchester, England. Individual homes and offices, too, are designed to look like Versailles or the Chrysler Building. The most popular facsimile in China is the White House. The fastest-urbanizing country in history isn't scanning design magazines for inspiration; it's watching movies.
At Beijing's Palais de Fortune, two hundred chateaus sit behind gold-tipped fences. At Chengdu's British Town, pitched roofs and cast-iron street lamps dot the streets. At Shanghai's Thames Town, a Gothic cathedral has become a tourist attraction in itself. Other developments have names like "Top Aristocrat," (Beijing), "the Garden of Monet" (Shanghai), and "Galaxy Dante," (Shenzhen).
Architects and critics within and beyond China have treated these derivative designs with scorn, as shameless kitsch or simply trash. Others cite China's larger knock-off culture, from handbags to housing, as evidence of the innovation gap between China and the United States. For a larger audience on the Internet, they are merely a punchline, another example of China's endlessly entertaining wackiness.
In short, the majority of Chinese architectural imitation, oozing with historical romanticism, is not taken seriously.
But perhaps it ought to be.
In Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, the first detailed book on the subject, Bianca Bosker argues that the significance of these constructions has been unfairly discounted. Bosker, a senior technology editor at the Huffington Post, has been visiting copycat Chinese villages for some six years, and in her view, these distorted impressions of the West offer a glance at the hopes, dreams and contradictions of China's middle class.
"Clearly there's an acknowledgement that there's something great about Paris," says Bosker. "But it's also: 'We can do it ourselves.'"
Armed with firsthand observation, field research, interviews, and a solid historical background, Bosker's book is an attempt to change the way we think about Chinese duplitecture. "We're seeing the Chinese dream in action," she says. "It has to do with this ability to take control of your life. There's now this plethora of options to choose from." That is something new in China, as is the role that private enterprise is taking in molding built environments that will respond to people's fantasies.
While the experts scoff, the people who build and inhabit these places are quite proud of them. As the saying goes, "The way to live best is to eat Chinese food, drive an American car, and live in a British house. That's the ideal life." The Chinese middle class is living in Orange County, Beijing, the same way you listen to reggae music or lounge in Danish furniture.
In practice, though, the depth and scale of this phenomenon has few parallels. No one knows how many facsimile communities there are in China, but the number is increasing every day. "Every time I go looking for more," Bosker says, "I find more."
How many are there?
"At least hundreds."
Architects and developers take the job of replication very seriously. The $50 million Chateau Zhang Laffitte, in Beijing, uses the same Chantilly stone as the original. In Venice Water Town in Hangzhou (pictured above), Bosker writes,
"As in the original Venice, the townhouses are painted in warm shades or orange, red and white. The windows feature balustrades and ogee arches and are set into loggias framed in stone. The structures blend Gothic, Veneo-Byzantine and Oriental motifs and overlook a network of canals on which 'gondoliers' navigate gondolas under stone bridges. The property's Crown jewel is a replica of Saint Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace in the town square, complete with Saint Mark's Campanile; a pair of columns topped with gilded statues of the lion of Saint Mark and Saint Teodoro of Amasea, the patrons of Venice; and ornate patterned tiles on the facade of the 'Doge Palace.'"
World-famous monuments form only part of the illusion. Tianducheng, a miniature Paris near Hangzhou, has an Eiffel Tower over 300 feet high, and a replica of a fountain from the Luxemburg Gardens in a main square called "Champs Elysées." But it also has "a driver in a top hat and tails [who] drives a horse and buggy to a yellow church at the top of a hill, where a Chinese 'priest' in black robes and white clerical collar stages Western wedding ceremonies at an altar hung with a cross."
It's not just the Western wedding ceremonies (though these are all the rage) that come with the architecture. There are pubs, wine stores and bistros. "In Thames Town," -- a British replica village -- "Western eateries outnumber Chinese ones at least three to one," Bosker says. At Tianducheng, there's a "French Culture Week," featuring Peugeots, red wine and an introduction to French cinéma!
Why would some Chinese prefer Beverly Hills to Venice or Dorchester to San Carlos? Bosker says it varies. "Some buyers had very, very strong opinions. They say, 'The British style is the best, I would never live in a Spanish home.'" But, she admits, "They're sort of interchangeable as long as they're Western European."
But, as Original Copies shows, Europe doesn't always land smoothly in the Chinese suburbs. The constrained scale of European cities -- twisted little streets and tiny apartments -- has not captivated the Chinese, which makes most "duplitecture" look like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Builders replicate what they like and leave behind what they don't.
Bosker relays another fascinating anecdote from San Carlos, a "Baroque" development near Shanghai, where the developer tried to banish laundry from the windows:
"'Everyone was upset,' a property manager recalls, and the management compromised by allowing the use of removable metal rails for hanging the washing, though it prohibited the more traditional bamboo supports"
Bad feng shui has forced architects to move doors, create symmetry, and otherwise change designs -- or else face a lack of interested buyers. In other estates, Chinese families incorporate courtyards or tearooms into homes that are otherwise intended to emulate American suburbia.
It's a fine line between imitation and appropriation. Bosker quotes Howard French, former New York Times Shanghai Bureau Chief, who saw it like this: "There is a very important symbolic value to this architectural movement. It is a statement of having arrived, of being rich and successful. It says 'We can pick and choose whatever we want, including owning a piece of the West. In fact, we're so rich we can own the West without even having to go there.'" Not exactly the sincerest form of flattery, then.
The Chinese tradition of duplication as power and control goes back to the Qing dynasty and earlier, and permeates modern Chinese culture. Bosker cites the concept of shanzai, which refers to the Chinese ability to counterfeit name-brand goods like iPhones with great skill. "The ability to render a good copy has historically been taken by the Chinese as a marker of technological and cultural superiority," she writes.
And the ingenuity these architectural facsimiles require is beyond question. A copy of Hallstatt, the Austrian mountain town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been constructed in Guangdong based entirely on a surreptitious photography expedition undertaken by a Chinese developer in 2011. Last June, Alexander Scheutz, the mayor of Hallstatt, Austria, was invited on a ceremonial visit to what he calls "Hallstatt 2," where he and an Austrian brass band were the guests of honor.
Scheutz was pleased, in the end, but told The New York Times that there was no place like home: "It’s not another Hallstatt, to me," he said. "Hallstatt grew over hundreds of years, thousands of years. Seven thousand years ago the Celts and the Illyrians lived here. There’s so much history here that you cannot copy it."
But they did. It took less than two years.
The Zaha Hadid knock-off in Chongqing, by the way, is set to be completed sooner than the original. The developer's new advertising slogan says it all: "Never meant to copy, only want to surpass."
Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China ($30), by Bianca Bosker, is out January 31 from the University of Hawaii Press.
All images courtesy of Bianca Bosker/University of Hawaii Press.