We’ve been fascinated with the concept of duplitecture—the practice of cloning entire buildings—ever since we discovered that Chinese developers were knocking off European architectural icons and, in some cases, even entire towns in the Chinese countryside. Duplitecture expert Bianca Bosker recently published a new book on the subject; Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in China. We recently had the chance to pick the author’s brain about how and why this trend has spread so prolifically across China in particular. From Chinese clones of the Eiffel Tower to the White House, the country has produced nearly exact duplicates of numerous famous structures from around the world—but why? Check out our interview with Bosker as she answers that question and others about what these copycat buildings signify in terms of China’s culture, and how they are perceived by the rest of the globe.
INHABITAT: Can you just tell us a little bit about what’s going on in China? Where is this building-cloning trend coming from?
Bianca Bosker: The book Original Copies is about this massive movement in duplitecture in China, which refers to the copying of Western towns and cities. If you go to China, you’ll find that there are enormous residential developments, some of which have been built to house hundreds of thousands of people, and they copy Versailles, or Venice, or Amsterdam, or Orange County. The architects and the planners behind these communities have gone to stunning lengths to ensure that the copies are very accurate and very literal.
In some cases, they’ll even import materials from abroad to build them, or they’ll hire architects from France to build the French development. Sometimes they’ll even send people on location to, say, California to scout out what the copies in China should, in turn, look like. But this is something that’s happening throughout the country; it’s happening again on a massive scale, and in some cases it’s actually being funded by the government.
INHABITAT: What got you started writing this book?
Bianca Bosker: My interest in the topic started when I came across the One City Nine Towns Project in Shanghai, where government officials decided to recreate ten European cities all around the city’s suburbs. I wanted to understand why this was happening; I started reading up on it, and found that there had been a lot written about the fact that China was copying this European town or that European town, but there wasn’t a whole lot to explain why.
What makes a country that has an incredible architectural history all its own decide that it’s going to borrow from abroad? And not only that, but from the past? The very important thing about this is that we’re not talking about China copying the latest and greatest in architecture: it’s about copying very old historical templates. I just had to figure out what it was about—what was happening in contemporary China. What was it about Chinese culture? What were their attitudes toward copying that gave rise to this trend?
INHABITAT: How is it impacting the people who are living in these spaces?
Bianca Bosker: It’s not only the architecture that’s being replicated. There are elements of Western culture that are going along with the copycat. So, just as an example, Thames Town, which is this ye old England look-alike in Shanghai, has more English eateries than Chinese places, so there are pubs, and wine shops, and–
INHABITAT: Fish and chips shops?
Bianca Bosker:There was a fish and chips shop, but I don’t think it ever opened—they had just copied the outside of it. In Tianducheng, which is a replica of Paris in Hangzhou, there’s this French Culture Week, where Chinese residents or people from the town can come and learn everything from how to actually chew on caviar to the difference between a bistro and brasserie. So there is this effort to both live like the west and live in a place that looks like the west. They’re really fascinating landscapes. I mean, I think you walk into them, and it really feels like you’re leaving China entirely. They’re quieter, and much less dense, with beautiful gardens and manicured lawns. Of course it’s all very unsustainable, but very beautiful, and the air even smells fresher, I think, than what you might find in other parts of urban China.
INHABITAT: What type of people are moving into places like Thames Town, for example?
Bianca Bosker: A lot of people look at these communities, and think, “Oh, it’s like Las Vegas.” It’s not at all like Las Vegas. These are residential communities: people are living here, raising children, cooking dinner.
INHABITAT: So there’s no tourist element to them?
Bianca Bosker: There is a little bit of a tourist element, but not exclusively, and I think that’s the important difference there. That’s a long way of saying that, yes, the people who buying these houses and living here are Chinese. These copycat communities are being built to appeal to homeowners at a range of different incomes, so you’ve got some that are cheaper, and you’ve got some that are these huge, huge mansions with multiple kitchens and swimming pools. The people are Chinese, but the buyers may be the obscenely wealthy, or just a couple that’s just buying their first home.