Duplitecture: copycat culture Within China’s built landscape
USC SoA Study Abroad | Place and Culture: Asian Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism | Professor: Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
In a compressed period of about two decades, China’s major cities have become an architectural and urban laboratory. Buildings twist and bend, façades light up like television screens, and highways stream up and down alongside skyscrapers. While the city centers aim to break world records and become the tallest, the greenest, and the fastest built structures, its suburbs and satellite towns seek to produce a different kind of urbanism. Traveling just a few miles outside cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu, one can find themselves transported to European villages and Mediterranean communities, many of them boasting replicas of Western architectural gems such as the Eiffel Tower or the Palace of Versailles. (Delana) Whether they can be considered “kitsch” or not, the development of these foreign models on Chinese soil nonetheless reflects the attitude of its inhabitants: the newly risen middle and upper classes, hungry to follow the consumerism of Western culture and demonstrate the nation’s transformation from a developing nation to developed and globalized.
“Oriental Paris” in Tianducheng, Hangzhou; photo by Bianca Bosker
Despite what critics have to say about the architectural mimicry of contemporary China, this tendency has dated back as early as the third century CE; mimicry has been seen as a form of mastery, accepted and encouraged instead of frowned upon. According to official Chinese histories, upon conquering the last six kingdoms that resisted the unification of China, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi replicated each of their palaces along the banks of the Wei River outside the capital city of Xianyang. (Higham 286) This was the same emperor who commissioned the terracotta army to be exact replicas of his army to watch him in his afterlife. At an even smaller scale, in the fifth century CE, the Chinese painter and art critic Hsieh Ho codified a set of rules for painting, which became known as the “Six Canons of Painting.” The last of these principles said “to convey and change by patterned representation,” translated into simpler terms as “to transmit by copying.” (National Palace Museum) Replication, according to these historical precedents, was seen as a way to train the hand and educate, and only upon mastery through copying can one become creative.
These Chinese concepts of originality and copy work translates very visibly into the architecture and urbanism, whether in exact 1:1 replica or in multiples. In the suburbs of cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu lie what Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, calls “themed micro-territories;” complete towns built as replicas of foreign cities have become the result of urban sprawl. (Bosker 22) In Hangzhou lies Tianducheng, a town built in 2007 as a reconstruction of Paris and appropriately dubbed “Oriental Paris.” The town was constructed not to be a replica of Paris, but rather as an assemblage of icons and Western-style structures that resemble those of Paris: the development includes a 350-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, placed amongst a Champs Elysée Square and “Fountain of the Chariot of Apollo.” This town is one of the many instances of a copy-paste model of Western cities, built not to challenge the architectural and construction skills of Chinese developers and workers, but rather to create a sense of being in these Western cities. The Guangsha Development Company describes its Tianducheng project as “extensively drawing on the construction experience of advanced countries, such as Europe and the United States, in order to use their knowledge as instruction and as a foundation [for growth].” Like the painter Hsieh Ho, developers do not shy away from seeking instruction from the successful models of the West, for all they want to do is move their country forward, even if it costs them media backlash from the West.
The development of themed micro-territories relies on the hope that the replication of Western models will bring about China’s transformation into a global leader. This transformation is a time-based process: according to Bosker, under Chinese property law, all land belongs to the government, although it may be “leased” by private individuals for a period of up to fifty years. Because of this time restriction, real estate companies are under heavy pressure to develop and build as fast as possible, instead of relying on a long-term plan developed over several years. Importing foreign models thus allows developers to save time in the design phase, as well as reduce expenditures on architects’ fees — it is a logical strategy for Chinese developers to build this way.
In an effort to decentralize Shanghai, urban planners and developers devised a strategic plan in 2001 to build nine towns, each taking a theme from different geographical regions. Of these developed the new towns of Gaoqiao (built to resemble Holland), Fengcheng (Spain), Pujiang (Italy), Anting (German), Songjiang (England), Luodian (North European), Fengjing (North America), and Zhoujiajiao (traditional Chinese style water town). This plan, known as “One City, Nine Towns,” was a way to create self-sustaining cities that did not have to rely on the metropolis of Shanghai, and instead create an attractive series of suburbs to get people out of the city center and start expanding and accommodate future migration. (Pederson) The “One City, Nine Towns” plan serves as an alternative to the cramped living conditions seen in Shanghai’s longtang communities. Gaoqiao, Shanghai’s Holland Village replicates the entire urban plan of Kattenbroek, a section of the city of Amersfoort. Both Holland Village and Kattenbroek are built within a circular perimeter divided into quadrants to separate commercial and residential areas and even have roughly the same density of buildings. (Ibid) As opposed to the rectilinear urban grid of contemporary Chinese developments, themed towns such as Holland Village are based on both the layout and density of traditional European templates, thus injecting a foreign character into these communities.
Aerial photographs of Kattenbroek (L) and Holland Village (R)
In these communities, millions of China’s nouveau riche “shop in markets selling Western foods, dine in Western restaurants, navigate streets bearing Western names, [and] congregate in parks and squares with monuments to heroes of Western culture.” (Bosker 2) From replicating formal aspects of Western towns to creating a quotidian life based on Western customs, these towns serve to concoct an image that satisfies both developer and inhabitant.
The foreign model strategy, logical for developers to replicate from an economic standpoint, also taps into the desires of its inhabitants, the rising middle and upper classes. Considering the flux state China is in in relation to the global economy, China’s nouveau riche has inevitably found comfort and hope in the urban and architectural models of the West. This desire to live in themed villages signals a shift in the residential typology of China, from the siheyuan courtyard house typology to a more Western suburban typology, and reflects the shifting living conditions for this particular demographic. In the villas of Kunshan’s English County, for example, exist the typical suburban home plan one would see in the United States. A large living room, two dining areas, room, multiple bathrooms, a garage, and lawn are elements that are being imported from abroad and into a suburb of Suzhou. While the siheyuan courtyard house occupies the periphery, the imported suburban house lies in the center of the plot. Instead of facing inward, the “modified” housing model faces outward to invite as well as to flaunt. Rather than having segregated interior spaces, the suburban model has a large living room to entertain guests. To look at success stories — at least in their eyes — like London, New York, and Los Angeles gives this demographic a goal to strive for. (Ibid 43) To live in replicas of these success stories gives them a sense of instantaneous satisfaction.
Siheyuan courtyard house (L), suburban house (R)
Original suburban home (L), modified (R)
Although many of China’s middle and upper classes have expressed a desire to immerse themselves in a completely Western environment, there are those who wish to modify these models, as well as those who do not conform to these models and rather seek to improve the traditional models that have existed in their country. One of the towns of Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” plan known as Scandinavia Stroll, in Luodian, had so many complaints about its strict adherence to the Western model that the nearly every home got remodeled “to adhere to fengshui standards.” (Ibid 53) The treatment of entryways in particular was seen as a complete disregard for fengshui, a strong Chinese philosophy that deals with the harmony of spaces. New entrances, including the columns and porticos, were added to the southern façade of the houses, and the existing and new entrances were redesigned to be more symmetrical and clear of any trees. This kind of modification is one of the many examples in which a strict Western model was not convincing enough to change the lifestyles of many Chinese homeowners. The houses in Scandinavia Stroll thus become a patchwork of different influences, Western and Chinese, as a compromise between the model of Western living and that of their own Chinese heritage.
This concept of hybridizing Western and Chinese models has been done before. In the historic lilong typology seen in Shanghai, neoclassical façades behave as a barrier for more Chinese structures, forming rows of houses that face each other to form long public spaces. These façades are characterized by the columns, arches, pediments, and cornices prevalent in Western architecture and were imported during the colonization of Shanghai. This typology thus becomes less of a true hybrid and more of a composition of two elements: the Western exterior and Chinese interior. The neoclassical façade has been able to front many local interiors; for example, a public market in Dinghaiqiao, Shanghai, uses the wall its entrance, performing as a portal into the local life of the town. Perhaps a true hybridization is what China may need to ignite its confidence in bringing together the Western models they have imported with the existing Chinese models.
Lilong in Shanghai (L), market in Dinghaiqiao (R)
In fact, there are already communities that have skipped this stage of hybridization and have completely dismissed the foreign models being developed as themed towns in favor of its local Chinese models. Although this new type of development does not compare to the amount of Western towns that already exist, it is nonetheless the beginning of a new confidence that has been instilled in a minority of consumers. Cathay View and Yijun Villas are two developments outside of Beijing modeled after the traditional siheyuan courtyard houses; Tsinhua House in Chengdu and Guangzhou and Tianlun Suiyuan in Suzhou are three developments based off of the canal-communities of Suzhou. At a more contemporary level is China Vanke’s Fifth Garden Community in Shenzhen, modeled after the traditional residential architecture of Anhui but updated with several contemporary elements. (Campanella 210) These kinds of developments give an air of nostalgia for its residents, whether it is through the replication or subtlety of a more traditional Chinese architecture, and instills a sense of confidence in the models that already exist in China.
Cathay View Villas; source: Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, 2014
Through a careful analysis of the different suburban models in China that have been in development for the past twenty years, we can see three different types of users: those who blindly follow the Western model, those who admire it but do not want to fully commit to the Western model, and those who wish to preserve or modernize the traditional Chinese model. Whether it is through the hyperreal themed communities of Thames Town and Oriental Paris, the modified villas of Scandinavia Stroll, or the contemporary interpretation of traditional Chinese architecture in the Fifth Garden Community, it can be said that the Chinese people have used the concept of replication to their advantage, for these developments reveal the current state of flux China is in. To be able to replicate Western buildings and cities, China has shown that it does not have to travel the world if you own most of it in its suburbs. The fact the country has been able to take ownership of Western cultural and technical expressions shows how much power China already holds merely by replicating. Looking forward, one can only hope that China finds confidence in this achievement of replicating Western models and look to the more recent contemporary Chinese models. Through this, China can cement its status as a confident global power that has the ability to grow its own kind of urbanism.
Bosker, Bianca. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Honolulu: U of Hawaiʻi, 2013. Print.
Campanella, Thomas J. The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2008. Print.
Delana. "Deserted Paris of the East: Chinese Replica Now Ghost City." Web Urbanist. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.
Higham, Charles. Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations. New York: Facts On File, 2004. Print.
National Palace Museum. "The Tradition of Re-Presenting Art." National Palace Museum, n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.
Pederson, Samo. "One City, Nine Ghost Towns." Pop-Up City. Pop-UpCity.net, 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.