Earlier this year, online media was abuzz with the latest bit of strange news coming out of China, one involving cultural forgery on a scale yet seen. Or so it seemed. It was discovered that an in-progress building project in the Western Chinese city of Chongqing bore a considerable, if not exact, likeness to a high-profile shopping center in Beijing, which was still under construction. The latter was designed by none other than Zaha Hadid, who could arguably be called the world’s most famous architect. The identity of the so-called copycat architects was never revealed, though the developers behind the counterfeit denied culpability in duplicating Hadid’s patented curve-laden, wind-swept architecture.
The episode, which has yet to reach a definitive conclusion, sparked web chatter and numerous op-ed creeds for the days that followed, much of which revolved around China’s counterfeit culture and the role of intellectual property rights therein. Along with token mentions of contraband iPads and even entire Apple stores, there resurfaced images and news reports of theme parks, resorts, and neighborhoods that have popped up all over the country in the last several years.
There was a 108-meter tall replica of the Eiffel Tower crowning Tiandechung, a gated community of Mansard roof-clad immeubles just outside of Shanghai. Nearby, in a different development, rows of mock-Tudors lined winding streets that coursed through Thames Town. Then, in the most famous (i.e., “reblogged”) example, a wholesale clone of Hallstatt, a fairytale Austrian lakeside hamlet, was erected on the outskirts of Guangzhou, complete with the requisite lake. All these sites and more figure in a new photography and video project about China’s “copy towns.”
Conceived by London-based artists Sebastian Acker and Phil Thompson, the project combines the pair’s interests in digital copy culture, architectural reproductions, and, yes, that oh-so-elusive thing called authenticity. The work is split into two components: One half consists of documenting the originals and their Chinese reconstructions through new photographs, sculptures, and a book; the other, to tour those materials in all their affiliated locations. It’s an ambitious program, with all sorts of complications, namely, travel and budget obstacles. Now, Thompson and Acker have launched an Indiegogo campaign for help in realizing the work.
Luckily, they already have a head start. After reading an article about “Hallstatt 2” and other similar developments, the partners successively applied for a traveling grant to travel to China to hunt down the urban facsimiles. “We deliberately went to the copies before having seen the original places. In a way they became our personal originals,” Acker tells Co. Design. Their pictures and video of the trip capture the doppelganger cities in vivid detail—in the case of Hallstatt, everything from the town’s white church and steeple to the stone-wrought fountain in the central square had been accurately re-created, right down to the edelweiss.
Yet they found the places devoid of urban life, their streets mostly filled with maintenance workers or real estate agents. Chinese visitors would walk by in small clusters, snapping pictures of the curious English tourists surveying the Alpine ornament that graces the facades of buildings. But on the whole, the towns felt very much out of time. As Acker explains, “Most copy towns we visited were half empty, but this is something we have experienced in many of the recent building developments in China, whether copied or not. The Chinese government supports building projects on a massive scale, even if there isn’t enough demand or people can’t afford it yet.”
Those who can afford it? China’s emerging upper classes, toward whom places like Tianducheng are geared. Most of the copy towns, Acker says, are appealing to a new slate of Chinese that “looks to the West for models to showcase their newly found fortunes.” That sentiment echoes a similar argument—just one of many—put forth by author and tech writer Bianca Bosker that tries to understand capitalist China’s embrace of “duplitecture.” Halfway through her compelling book, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, Bosker opines that China’s increasingly wealthy, whether intentionally or not, may “have turned themselves into a tourist attraction for China’s 1.3 billion citizens.” This homegrown tourism industry, something that Mao even supported, encourages Chinese nationals to travel within the borders of their sprawling country. In addition to traditional Chinese tourist spots, Thames Town and others give visitors who aren’t able to travel to the West the chance to experience their most iconic sites.
But what does this mean for the future of architecture, in China and elsewhere? Well, that’s what Acker and Thompson are hoping to find out. One thing’s for sure: Copying is nothing new to the study and production of buildings and cities, and it’s only getting a lot easier. As Ai Weiwei put it to them when they showed up at his front door: “Now architecture speaks the language of computers—which have three buttons: copy, paste, delete.”