Duplitectural Marvels: Exploring China's Replica Western Cities

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Why's there a Paris in Hangzhou? Or a Holland in Shanghai? A new book examines China's copycat architectural movement.

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Epcot, Universal City, and Historical Williamsburg are quaint tableaux vivant celebrating romantic fantasy, but they seem even more quaint next to China's massive replications of the world's most iconic buildings and picturesque cities. What began with Shanghai's "One City, Nine Towns" plan—a massive, government-led project to build 10 satellite cities each in the architectural style of a different European country—has become a national pastime. The forthcoming book ORIGINAL COPIES: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China by Bianca Bosker takes a close look at Chinese "Duplitecture," examining both the seeming contradictions of the country's copycat communities and the potential for future innovation that they hold.

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Bosker's began reporting on these wonders of the modern China when she realized Shanghai wasn't some isolated experiment in imitation, but part of a nationwide movement churning out replicas of the West's greatest architectural hits. "As I began to explore this phenomenon," she says in an email, "I was struck by the disconnect between architecture critics' contemptuous view of these themed developments—which they dismissed as kitschy, inauthentic knock-offs—and the burgeoning demand for them among Chinese homeowners, many of whom had put their life's savings toward buying a house in a faux-Sweden or copycat Orange County. Many Chinese don't just 'put up' with these copycats—they're proud of them."

To understand why, how, and to what end China was appropriating historical Western architecture, Bosker traveled to these themed developments and met with the house-proud people living in them, as well as the architects, officials, developers, designers, real-estate agents, and groundskeepers.

The suburbs are teeming with courthouses and government offices inspired by the White House or U.S. Capitol—two of China's most-frequently copied buildings. Some have been financed by private developers. But the Chinese Communist Party has bankrolled their fair share.

"The state has historically had a fickle relationship with the country's rich and their displays of wealth, and just recently banned advertisements for luxury gifts in an austerity push," Bosker says. "Isolated, distinctive, and lavish, these expansive copycat communities could easily come under attack by officials or China's poor, many of whom have been left behind in China's economic 'miracle.' Perhaps because of these tensions, the 'haves,' in turn, have segregated themselves from the 'have-nots' behind layers of security cameras, guards and gates." (Though, of course, the same could be said of many of America's richest communities.) Bosker_Original Copies_5.jpg

Entering these themed cities, Bosker explains, visitors have the feeling of leaving China altogether. In Shanghai's Thames Town, she found the straight streets and hulking high-rises typical of most Chinese developments replaced by meandering paths, cobblestone roads, and squat, low-density brick buildings.

"Honking horns and rumbling trucks gave way to birds chirping and an eerie quiet that's rare in a crowded country of 1.3 billion," Bosker says. 'The careful landscaping—manicured lawns, lots of trees, potted flowers—ensure even the air smelled different. The security staff wore the red uniforms of Buckingham Palace guards; streets had names like 'Chelsea Lane'; and the Chinese eateries were outnumbered by western pubs, wine shops, and cafes. And just like in the West, there was at least one car in every drive."

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The marketers of these communities peddle a lifestyle associated with "courtly living" in the "land of aristocracy." This seemingly presents a contradiction, Bosker points out: "China has emerged from several decades of strict communist rule that sought to eliminate socio-economic classes altogether, only to embrace styles and symbols from periods in European history when class distinctions at their most institutionalized."

Property developers ensure their buildings are true to the original by importing the architecture, building materials, and architects from abroad. Or at least they try, Bosker says: "In Shanghai's San Carlos development, for example, a real estate agent assured me the French Baroque style of the buildings had been designed by a French actually working in France (I later met the designer: He was Chinese, but had traveled to France on several occasions)."

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Of course, China is not the only country that recreates foreign environments. What is Washington, D.C. if not mimicry of Paris? Yet when China recreates Paris, it isn't paying homage to France, says Bosker: "Rather, it's a monument to China, which has become so rich and so mighty it can figuratively 'own' its own City of Lights—or Manhattan, or Venice, or White House." Even in pre-modern China, the country's leaders saw copycatting as a way to assert their status to both their subjects and rivals. Bosker explains in the book that in the third century B.C., the First Emperor celebrated his conquest of six rival kingdoms by rebuilding their palaces within his capital city.

In the time since then, "China has cultivated a more permissive and nuanced attitude toward copying," Bosker says. "Though China also prizes originality, replication is not only permitted, but also valued as a marker of skill and ability."

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And while this replication may bring to mind certain Las Vegas resorts, communities like Hangzhou's "Oriental Paris" and Shanghai's Holland Village aren't tourist destinations—they're peoples' homes, intended as fully-functional residential communities. Still, they have something in common with America's commerce-driven fake towns. "China's architectural plagiarists seem to have borrowed from the theme-park playbook in order to ensure these copycat enclaves are convincing," Bosker says. "For instance, many developments are closed spaces—access into and out of the fantasy-land is carefully controlled—and strict rules are in place to ensure homebuyers won't make any chances to their homes that could temper the western style."

Through mimicry comes mastery: Architecture atrophied under Mao, and now, China's plagiarists believe they can advance more quickly by imitation than they can by direct innovation. After all, the building and design of brand-new communities takes skill and vision, no matter the source material. "Though Chinese architects may be replicating now, all this copying could quickly give way to creativity," Bosker says. "As a resident of Shanghai's Thames Town noted. 'The hardware may be English, but the software is all Chinese.'"

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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