Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, by Bianca Bosker, University of Hawaii Press, RRP$30/£25.50, 176 pages

Replicas of St Mark’s Campanile and the Doge’s Palace tower above an expansive square in Venice Water Town, Hangzhou
Replicas of St Mark’s Campanile and the Doge’s Palace tower above an expansive square in Venice Water Town, Hangzhou

Each time he conquered a new kingdom on his way to unifying China, Qin Shihuangdi would build a replica of its ruler’s palace along the banks of the river Wei outside his own capital of Xianyang. This was the emperor who commissioned the terracotta army as an exact copy of his own guard to watch over him in the afterlife. Even in the third century BC, it seems, China was big on simulacra.

In Original Copies, Bianca Bosker looks at the extraordinary contemporary phenomenon of Chinese towns built to look like somewhere else. There is one that resembles Venice, complete with canals and mini campanile, and one with a 100m-plus Eiffel Tower at its centre and boulevards lined with Haussmanian apartment blocks. There is a shrunken New York and another replicating the ludicrously picturesque Austrian village of Hallstatt. And there is Thames Town, an attempt to recreate a bit of Britain that was apparently inspired by a postcard the mayor’s office received featuring a photo of Dorchester. It is patrolled by ladies in uniforms inspired by the Queen’s Guard.

At first glance these developer-led gated housing schemes seem to sit somewhere between Las Vegas and Disney’s famous gated town of Celebration in Florida. But Bosker, an editor at the Huffington Post, attempts to put them into some kind of Chinese context. China’s attitude to copying, she argues, differs markedly from that of the west. Where the latter values originality, she writes, for the Chinese the art of reproduction is seen as equally demanding and, when done well, even superior. To copy is to take ownership, perhaps in the way mapping has been seen as a kind of colonialism. The Chinese have recently been famously successful at copying technology, though conspicuously less successful at creating it.

On the other hand, as Bosker points out, there is a flipside to this self-confidence that leads the emerging Chinese middle classes (for whom these towns are being built) to desire western brands and to assume that any Chinese-designed product will be inferior – hence the success of western fashion and luxury brands in China’s burgeoning malls. Thus, Bosker posits, these fake towns (for which she coins the grating term “simulacrascapes”) play to that sense that anything western is better.

There may be economic as well as cultural explanations for this. Exotic branding is often necessary in an environment where sales need to be achieved quickly and differentiation can provide a critical advantage. It is also an easy way to generate instant character for sites that are often dull and distant from the centres of the cities they serve. But Bosker has hit on a subject that is very hot in architecture at the moment. London-based architect Zaha Hadid is currently involved in a dispute with a Chinese developer who has blatantly copied her designs for Beijing’s Galaxy development on a site in Chongqing. The copy may be finished before the original.

Another London practice, FAT, created an installation at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale entitled “The Museum of Copying”. This constituted a big model of Palladio’s hugely influential 16th-century Villa Rotonda, intended to interrogate the extent to which almost all of architectural history is based on copying. Jefferson’s Monticello, London’s Chiswick House and dozens of others were versions of Palladio’s villa – which was itself a mash-up of the Pantheon and various Roman temple fronts. Are these buildings somehow less valid because their great architect copied bits from elsewhere?

To copy a building was once a kind of tribute as well as an expression of personal power and influence. The most copied building in China is, we learn, the White House (Versailles and Buckingham Palace are on the list, if trailing). It is pointedly not the Forbidden Palace, nor Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (which itself copies Stalin’s Socialist Classicism). Every time a building is copied it is copied somewhere new, so its meaning is either subtly or wildly altered through its new context. These Chinese simulacra may be symptoms of a building culture that has lost its confidence, but copying is what architecture has always done.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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