Modern architecture has a complicated relationship with originality. For centuries, emulating your elders was not only a compliment but a fundamental part of your education. But with the cult of personality surrounding early greats like Loos and Corbusier, everything changed, and emphasis was placed on the “lone genius” who could push the profession forward with a stroke of his (let’s be real, before the ’70s it was usually a “his”) pen. “Due to myths of authorship, and the media’s desire to simplify and personalize the design process, buildings are often attributed to a single person,” writes Sam Jacobs, the founder of UK design office FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste). In reality, great architecture is almost always the product of a team, usually building on the success of their past work.
Jacob and his team are behind one of the more provocative installations at this year’s Venice Biennale. In a gallery of the Arsenale, the group has installed a copy of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda--a much-copied Renaissance masterpiece that is itself a take-off on other buildings of the time. Called the Museum of Copying, the 15-foot-high replica is based on a Google 3D Warehouse model of the Villa. The team used CNC milling to create a mould from the blocky model, producing two quarter replicas of the building in polyurethane spray-foam. One quarter is a mold showing the exterior facade, while the other is a cast, showing the negative space around the exterior. Inside, work from San Rocco and Ines Wiezman examine the phenomenon of copying.
Jacob turns to Spinal Tap! to explain the premise of the "museum." In one scene, David and Nigel explain the original name of the band. They were The Originals, but it turned out that name was taken, so they chose The New Originals. “Then The Originals changed their name back to The Regulars, and we thought, well, we could go back to The Originals, but what’s the point?” Nigel says. In other words: Everything is a copy, in everything but name.
Jacob proposes that copying is actually a creative driver of architecture, explaining that the Museum of Copying is a copy of much more than just Villa Rotunda. In fact, it draws on David Greene’s Spray Plastic House, Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo, and even Mario Botta’s milled wooden section of San Carlin--not to mention the creator of the Google SketchUp file that the team based their mold on. “Legally, I wonder who might be able to claim copyright of this work, or infringement of creative commons license in our appropriation of the file,” Jacob writes on his blog, comparing the Museum of Copying to 50 Shades of Grey, the BDSM novel some have called a “post-copyright” novel. “It couldn’t have come into the world without multiple authors.”
It’s an odd thing that copying has become so villainized within the profession, especially when it comes at such a high cost to the quality of the discourse. Perhaps Slate critic Witold Rybczynski said it best back in 2005: “It’s OK to find inspiration in a common sponge, as Steven Holl is said to have done for a recent building, or in the shards of a broken teapot, as Daniel Libeskind confessed, but seeking inspiration from one’s contemporaries, let alone from the past, is forbidden. Thus, instead of architectural conversations, we increasingly have self-absorbed mumblings or soapbox oratory. And lawsuits.” We suspect that Jacob’s Museum isn’t the only “copy” on view at the Biennale this month. But it certainly is the only fully annotated one.