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.
INHABITAT: So it’s all strata of society?
Bianca Bosker: Absolutely. Sometimes they’ve gone abroad and they know what it’s like there, so they come back to China and they want sort of that sort of lifestyle. You’ll also find people who haven’t traveled abroad extensively, but they’re very drawn to Western architecture. It is an important caveat to note that many of these development have remained as empty ghost towns: they’ve been built, but no-one has come. It’s a very bizarre feeling, especially when you go from downtown Shanghai, where you can barely sort of fight your way through on the sidewalk, to these places that are massive and totally empty.
In some cases it has to do with the location: some of them are in areas of the suburbs that don’t have public transportation, so they’re hard to get to. In other cases, they are actually completely sold out, but no one has moved in.
INHABITAT: Why do you think that is?
Bianca Bosker: Speculation. In some cases, when the Shanghai government decided they would build these ten cities, each styled after a European country, they actually tapped architects from each of those European countries to build them; British architects for the British one, and so on and so forth. What those European architects likely didn’t take into account was how Chinese people live, and what they want from their homes.
As an example, when you go to various high-rise communities in China, you’ll find that they’re on parallel rows. There are all these streets, one after another, and they feel very rigid, but that’s because many people want their homes to face a certain direction. On the other hand, British towns have gentle, curving streets that we might associate with a medieval town in Europe, but then you get a lot of the homes that, according to the principles of Feng Shui, are facing entirely the wrong direction. As such, they’re really unlucky to live in, so then people don’t want to buy them. There’s one Scandinavian theme town, for example, in which the doors were built completely wrong, so they didn’t have the right symmetry. They were, once again, facing the wrong direction.
The community, because they wanted to maintain the European style, was adamant that no construction or alterations could be done. As a result, very few of the homes got sold, and even fewer were moved into until they were lifted that covenant, and then let people start making changes to the homes. When I was there, almost every home had big windows cut out of the sides, and they were changing the orientation of the doors to make them more in accordance with Chinese traditions.
INHABITAT: That is so interesting. What is inspiring this? Is this something within Chinese consumer culture where they really want replicas of Orange County?
Bianca Bosker: Yeah, I think the really important thing to keep in mind is that,when China replicates, say, Paris, it’s not to pay homage to France. It’s really a monument to China’s own success. What you’re seeing is both on a personal and a national level: these copycat buildings are really testaments to China’s technological prowess; its affluence, its power, and achievement.
INHABITAT: Do you think there’s a connection between architectural mimicry and Louis Vuitton handbags?
Bianca Bosker: I think the underlying principle is the idea of mimicry as a way of mastering something. This is a country that is going through one of the most rapid urbanizations in history. There’s an exploding demand for housing and real estate, and at the same time, China—for all its very rich architectural tradition—had a bit of an architectural winter under Mao. The cities were not prioritized the way that the countryside was, and real architectural experimentation and form was not encouraged. As a result, at the same time that there are real pressures to build, to expand, to grow cities, architects are still trying to catch up very quickly to do that, and one way is to copy to create. It’s likely that the next step might be to really innovate.
INHABITAT: Out of all of these replicated monuments, communities, and towns, which one is your favorite?
Bianca Bosker: I think that one of the experiences that resonated most with me was going to see a man in Shenzhen who had built a copy of the White House to live in, and he was so proud of it. I remember touring it with him, and at some point he sort of stopped and just took a deep breath. He just looked at it, and he said, “Isn’t this so beautiful?”
I was just so struck because when a lot of people hear about this, they make fun of it. They find it really distasteful. I would just encourage them, if they ever have the chance, to go to Shenzhen, and talk to someone who lives in a copy of the White House and just see how much pride he takes in his home and how much it means to him, and why that style resonated.
INHABITAT: Do Chinese architects and consumers understand the Western view of this?
Bianca Bosker: There are definitely architects and architectural critics in China who really are not wild about this trend. They do see it as fake and inauthentic. What’s really fascinating to me, and what got me interested in this topic, was that disconnect between how dismissive people in the West are towards these buildings and the fact that people in China would spend millions of dollars to build them, or that they’d spend their life savings to live in a place that looks like a fake Venice or a fake Napa Valley. It’s important to understand how differently people in China look at copying. In China, a copy has a much greater status; it can be a sign of mastery of skill. It’s a way of showing a real ability to do something well.
INHABITAT: Basically, like they own it?
Bianca Bosker: Exactly. It’s a figurative ability to really move Paris into their own domain and also to show that they can recreate the very best or most iconic architectural hits of Western culture.