July 19, 2013 6:50 pm

Nouveau riche copycats from ancient Greece to modern China

When nations become newly wealthy the first thing they do is imitate the cultures they aspire to

The nouveau riche have a reputation for imitative bad taste. You know the sort of thing: cement lions on gate piers, an emaciated portico trying to conjure imperial swagger. For some, gilded toilets are bog standard (you can buy them near Grosvenor Square in London, if you’re asking).

This is understandable on a personal level because entire cultures do the same. When nations become newly wealthy the first thing they do is imitate through architecture, as best they can, the holy grail of international cultural aspirations. It is standard art history: the Egyptians inspired the early Greeks; the Greeks were imitated by Rome; and then Rome never entirely went away (hence the porticos).

When medieval Venice made its trading fortune, it looked to the Levant, defended by fortresses whose troops fired from “Saracenic” battlements. The Venetian imitations are like orthodontal shark’s teeth, set on the thin walls of palazzi whose big windows could simply be climbed through by any invader with a boat and a ladder. The legacy is charming style over substance, which Horace Walpole found a priority inspiration for his foppish house at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, after 1747.

Bristol did much the same in the early 14th century when it traded with Moorish Spain. The church of St Mary Redcliffe was built by aspiring merchants, with a porch of intersecting hexagonal geometry – a strikingly Islamic design that might have seemed to some inappropriate for a venue of Christian marriage. But perhaps it was an ecumenical gesture in an age of religious wars: trading is a two-way relationship, and money has often bought understanding when religion couldn’t.

Peter the Great wasn’t nouveau riche, though war made him more rich than he knew. St Petersburg was founded after 1703 as an ordered city, an extension of the European Enlightenment. So keen was he to imitate Franco-Italian baroque style, he enlisted the help of an Italian-Swiss architect and a French designer: Domenico Trezzini and Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond. Turin might be the closest match for its custard-and-cream avenues; nothing in Russia compares.

After the industrialised, post-civil war US made its money, and overtook British economic might, the rising towers of Manhattan used gothic details from the banking cities of medieval Europe. One hundred years ago, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building – a neo-medieval inspiration – was the tallest in the world. Only in 1930 did the Chrysler Building overtake it with a stainless steel vote of confidence in the city’s own spirit of industrial modernity.

. . .

But originality wasn’t here to stay. In the later 20th century, nothing promised nouveau richesse like the casinos of Las Vegas – Paris, Bellagio, New York-New York, Luxor – which pretend to be anywhere on earth except Las Vegas. (It is telling that the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign is the only thing original enough to be distinctive.)

Globalism has garnered a new wealth of nouveau-riche opportunities. China’s confidence is embodied by Thames Town, part of Songjiang New City, near Shanghai, planned from 2001 to accommodate 10,000 university staff. It is one of an array of themed townscapes, including Dutch, Spanish and Canadian styles. Its designers, Atkins, are authentically English, and that is the only veracity. If they’d wanted to create a realistic Thames Town they’d have built 50 giant glass office blocks that vaguely resemble vegetables or household appliances.

It ultimately represents the quandary of provincial architecture, which has lost the traditions of its historic buildings crafted from local materials that are now unavailable or unaffordable. Admittedly, Thames Town has some clever essays in later-Victorian red brick and half-timbered styling (an achievement deflated by a vast array of air-conditioning units). Though some of the houses are ill-detailed parodies, others are outright copies – the fish and chip shop is copied from one in Lyme Regis, southern England.

Since its completion in 2006, Thames Town has inevitably found its market among the nouveau riche seeking a second home, lifting prices beyond the reach of most. And so it lies almost empty, with most of the shops boarded up. It lacks substance, yet has some sincerity. Its greatest devotees are wedding photographers wanting a backdrop to flatter the bride and groom. And as we know, imitation is its sincerest form.

Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

Agony uncle Sir David Tang is on holiday

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