Francois Prost’s new photo series looks at Tianducheng, a town built to look exactly like the City of Lights.
An Eiffel Tower rises above manicured lawns. Classical statues of marbled men look down from their stoops. A carriage stands at attention on a thoroughfare. Viewers of Francois Prost’s new photo series “Paris Syndrome” could be forgiven for mistaking Tianducheng, a city in eastern China, with France’s City of Lights. Tianducheng is an example of “duplitecture,” in which Chinese cities are built to look like the greatest hits of architecture from around the world.
Prost is a graphic designer and photographer based in Paris. He first discovered Tianducheng a few years back, when he read an article about Chinese urbanist projects that aimed to replicate Europe’s idealized touchstones: castles in southern France, vineyards, Venice, and Paris. Replication of these sites are common around the world, Prost notes, but there was something different about Tianducheng.
“This seemed more extreme and obsessive,” he said, “those places in China [are] much bigger, and were planned as real neighborhoods. In the attraction parks or in Las Vegas and Dubai, there is more distance with it, as the elements are rebuilt as an attraction.” While Tianducheng gained notoriety as a ghost town four years ago, its population rose to 30,000 in 2017 and is on the rise.
Prost is interested in how media influences the way people process art and architecture. He recalls visiting Venice when he was 23 and having a “strange feeling of not knowing if what I had in front of my eyes was real or not.” Prost attributes this to the many images he had seen of Venice in books, movies, and magazines: he could not quite place what stood before him when it had thus far been an illustrated idea.
“The same thing happened when I went to Rome, to India, and to New York,” he said. “Those places are full of history, references, and when you go there for real you’re suddenly confronting reality.”
Or, in China, a facsimile of reality.
As the saying goes, good artists borrow, great artists steal. “Even in Paris you can see a lot of Egyptian influence integrated into French art of the last [few] centuries,” Prost said. However, “in this case, maybe it’s more extreme—it’s not tiny elements that are integrated in the city, but a complete copy.”
Prost compares the stylized streetlamps, statues, and buildings of Tianducheng to a kind of architectural envelope—one without anything particularly Parisian inside. “People living in Tianducheng live there as they would anywhere else in China,” he said. Even the dining options resemble the rest of the country, with street canteens and restaurants serving typical Chinese dishes. “I was thinking maybe they would also have tried to recreate a French restaurant,” said Prost, but found that the only place selling brioche bread peddled what looked more like a Starbucks product than a traditional French brioche. “The brioche was very good though,” he admits.
As a Parisian, Prost finds Tianducheng fascinating. “The only thing that could bother me, maybe, is this excessive admiration for European culture and heritage that is very cliché and disconnected with actual Europe,” he said. But, as with many others who have analyzed the Chino-European architectural boom, Prost believes that the buildings—and, in turn, his photographs—say “a lot about how China and Asia see Europe, and what they admire about it. It’s definitely not for its contemporary side, but for its past and cultural heritage.”
Those who see Tianducheng and other cities like it as a quirky Eastern desire to merely imitate the West may be missing the point. As Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China told The Atlantic, “It’s a monument to China, which has become so rich and so mighty it can figuratively ‘own’ its own City of Lights—or Manhattan, or Venice, or the White House.”
Prost believes it’s too soon to tell what will come of China’s Parisian replica. “I think in the case of Tianducheng, it has its own identity,” he said. After all, no matter if your city is built on the blueprint of another,“what makes a place is the people living in it.”