Eoghan Macguire, CNN
If you’re an architect with a blank slate, an ambitious developer behind you and a directive to design high-quality living space, what do you build?
If you’re operating in China, the answer could be to take a look at the classics from around the globe.
Replica towns that mimic some of the world’s most famous monuments and picturesque locations have sprung up all over the country in the last decade.
Bianca Bosker is a journalist and the author of the book “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, while Gary Hack is emeritus professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Hack has given several talks on the issue of copycat architecture in China at academic institutes around the world.
The building of replica structures or famous monuments at the heart of new housing developments was “something that started in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” said Bosker.
“That’s when we saw China’s middle class becoming more profitable but also property laws being reformed in China. We had a big boom in construction but a lot of the initial residential construction in China was very generic and featured lots of high-rise buildings.”
“Soon after that you saw homeowners gravitating towards architecture that would distinguish their own homes and communities.”
With home-buyers looking for unique designs that reflected their new-found wealth and status, standout projects became a necessity for developers.
According to Gary Hack, monuments like this replica of the Stonehenge at a housing project in the city of Hefei are an attempt to do just that.
“You have to understand that millions of new housing units are being built each year, and each is trying to attract buyers,” he said. “(These designs) are a requisite of the new commercial culture that seeks to brand developments as a marketing strategy.”
Many in the west think of the tacky palace hotels or pyramids of Las Vegas when they consider architectural mimicry.
In China, however, replicating the work of others is not viewed in the same manner.
“Copying is not as taboo in China as it is in the west” said Bosker. “In Europe and the United States there’s almost this paranoia around copying. If you are a copycat you are a thief. In China, if you’re a copycat you might be a talent.
“Replication doesn’t have the same stigma … and can be seen as a way of celebrating an achievement.”
Then there’s the historical context or inspiration for many European and American cities, Hack continues.
“There is a long tradition of borrowing forms and ideas from other cultures,” he said. “St Paul’s (Cathedral in London) isn’t exactly indigenous British architecture. Milton Keynes didn’t draw its influences from Cotswold villages – it is more like Orange County in California – and in the U.S., Philadelphia’s plan repurposed ideas for the rebuilding of London after the great fire.”
“When societies face the need for unprecedented types of building (as accommodating 250 million people over 20 years has forced on China) they often look to other countries for ideas.”
Bosker goes even further than Hack on the history of architectural mimicry and states that the concept is more than 2,000 years old in China alone.
“If you go back to the third century BC, we have these imperial rulers in pre-modern China recreating the architecture of the enemies they conquered,” she said.
“You look at the templates that China has opted to copy and its things like the White House or the Eiffel Tower. They are two symbols of western success, achievement and money.”
Bianca Bosker recalls from her own experience that many towns are “eerie in their emptiness.” But she is quick to add that this certainly isn’t a uniform trend across all developments.
“When you go to other less well known copycat towns, many of them really are bustling and you see families and kids and a car in every garage,” she said.
“On the other hand there is a lot of speculation in China’s real-estate market. There are a lot of people buying up a lot of property and holding on to it in the hope that the price will go up in the future.
“As a result you have developers who are just building acres and acres with tons of people to buy it but nobody to live in it.”
As time progresses, however, Hack says it is likely that China’s up and coming architects will begin to forge their own distinct style.
“I am sure that a distinctive quality of urban development will emerge, but it will be a new interpretation of history,” he said.
“Many of the new generation of professionals in China are seeking to mine architectural sources for influences. They are generally more subtle — (in terms of) materials, color, qualities of light, relationships to nature, and so on — much as the Japanese constructed a modernist tradition from the 1950s on.”
“(A lot of Chinese) planners and designers have been educated in the west or by westerners in China, so they make no distinctions between ideas; they are modernists wishing to work with the best available ideas.”
This story appeared first in CNN