Sound the alarms: Another instance of "architectural plagiarism" is quickly developing in China. As Zaha Hadid begins work on her 11th building in China this year—the Wangjing Soho shopping center—a group of Chongqing developers is hurrying to complete a shopping complex that parrots the proportions and facade of the Soho almost exactly. The controversy has resulted in a bizarre competition that pits the original author against the copycat architects in a race to see who can complete the structures first.
A close comparison of Soho and its impersonator, Meiquan 22nd Century, raises some questions about the allegations of an "exact replica." First of all, there’s a size difference: Zaha is building three towers, and Meiquan is building two. Secondly, the ground-floor plans are barely comparable. What seems to interest critics are the similarities between the buildings’ formal treatment of the envelope—the pebble-smooth volumes and striations of snaking white balconies.
Even Hadid’s team concedes that the Meiquan building is only a "rough" simulation of their original. The Chongqing developers comment that they "never meant to copy, only want to surpass." Hadid, awesomely, sees the plagiarism as a chance to see how other architects might treat the technical aspects of her buildings. She responded to the controversy by saying that if the copycat building could add any new technical innovation to her design, "that could be quite exciting."
The way buildings are conceived of and designed has changed drastically in the past two decades. Some (not all) architects are treating buildings more like objects, choosing to focus on developing a signature aesthetic that extends across their entire oeuvre rather than designing buildings that respond to a specific site and context. That’s made it far easier for copycats to simply control-C and -P an entire building. It’s the difference between Savile Row and Topshop: One is designed for a single body, the other is designed to scale up across thousands of bodies. Or as Liz Diller put it back in 2005, "The only way to avert the problem of plagiarism is to be a moving target. If your work is copied and that upsets you, it means you waited too long to move on."
"Plagiarizing" architecture has been a trend story for nearly a decade now, with most of the focus on China. And certainly, as some Chinese legal experts have pointed out, it occurs far more often there because of lax intellectual-property laws. But I wonder if we’re missing the forest for the trees when it comes to blaming cultural and legal differences for the increase in copycat architecture. After all, architectural copying has a long history, and allegations of plagiarism abound in Europe and the United States, too. In fact, Hadid’s office was accused of copying a design by New York-based SHoP architects just a few years ago. Could it be that China is simply building at a faster rate than any other country in the world right now, and therefore, we’re seeing the effects of a changing architectural culture in fast-forward?
It’s unclear whether or not Hadid and her team plan to initiate legal action against the Meiquan 22nd Century developers. For now, check out a report from Der Spiegel for more on the controversy.