China's knock-off architecture

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First aired on Q (02/04/13)

It's no secret that China has a thriving counterfeit culture in consumer goods like electronics and sneakers. But China has also been copying, almost brick by brick, some of the West's most iconic architectural gems, including an entire Alpine village, Venice, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House. There's even a plan in the works to duplicate the whole of Manhattan.

Bianca Bosker takes an in-depth look at this practice in her book Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. In a recent interview, she talked to Q about what's behind this "duplitecture."

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"It really started in earnest in the 1990s after China's period of opening and reform," she told host Jian Ghomeshi. New economic policies led to rapid urbanization and catalyzed "a red-hot demand for property ownership." Bosker pointed out that China actually has a long history of architectural mimicry that goes back thousands of years.

Bosker's interest in the contemporary phenomenon started with a "mind-boggling plan" by Shanghai called One City, Nine Towns, which involved building 10 satellite cities, each in the architectural style of a different European country.

Bosker was surprised that China, which has a rich and distinctive architectural tradition of its own, would embrace Western models so wholeheartedly. "More than that, I was really struck by this disconnect between the very contemptuous, dismissive attitude you find towards these [replicas] in the West, and the fact that here were people in China, Chinese people, willing to spend their life savings to live in a place that looked like London or Paris," she said.

In the course of her research for the book, Bosker visited more than two dozen replica towns. Some of the copycats are stand-alone buildings, but many "are enormous developments meant to hold sometimes hundreds of thousands of people," she said. She cited Venice Water Town, in Hangzhou, which has a replica of St. Mark's Square, gondoliers, canals, and townhouses modelled on those in Italy, right down to the colours.

"The western brand does enjoy this sort of cachet," Bosker said. "There is a sense that living in a place that replicates Venice or Versailles shows a certain sophistication and wealth."

She went on to say that "duplitecture" is also China's way of making a statement. "To show that it's making it big, China has turned to faking it big. By recreating Paris, China isn't paying homage to France, it's celebrating China's own successes," Bosker explained. "These landscapes, on a symbolic level, are showing China's ability to figuratively own these rivals...they're so mighty, so powerful, that they can recreate the greatest hits of the west on their own soil."

Bosker also pointed out that in the West, we prize originality and see copying as taboo. But it's viewed differently in China. "In China, a copy can be a way of showing skill, technical mastery," she said, adding that in some cases they use "imitation as a path to innovation." The Chinese version of Twitter, for instance, "has some pretty neat features that you can't find here."





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