World's iconic cities distilled on the mainland

On the mainland, replicas of Western architecture can have the same value as the original, writes Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:39pm

Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China

by Bianca Bosker

University of Hawaii Press

Consume the Western media for any period of time and sooner or later you'll come upon a Funny China Story - reports on the consequences of the mainland's rapid and chaotic economic expansion that are part amused gape, part patronising reflex sneer. Some of these stories have been about its architecture, especially its predilection for developments that faithfully recreate, down to the smallest detail, famous buildings and even entire communities from the West.

Essentially, if it's Western and prestigious, there's one somewhere on the mainland. The Tianducheng development in Hangzhou, for example, is a dizzying mash-up of French architectural icons, where the Eiffel Tower sits cheek by jowl with the gardens of Versailles and the Arena of Nîmes. Replicas of the White House can be found from Tianjin to Shenzhen to Wuxi. Nine foreign-themed towns ring the outskirts of Shanghai, taking their inspiration from places including Italy, Canada and Sweden. Venice Water Town in Hangzhou has everything down to St Mark's Square. Chengdu boasts a 200,000-strong replica of the English town of Dorchester (population 18,000). Even the tiny Austrian village of Hallstatt, with 800 inhabitants, has been replicated in Huizhou.

This is not just the incorporation of foreign elements: frequently they are meticulous recreations, copying everything from entire buildings to street plans to the types of shops and amenities available. To the outsider, they can look bizarre, to say the least - laughable symptoms of a culture in flux, and the perfect fodder for poking fun at the nouveau riche.

The book reframes the debate. It points out that China has always assimilated foreign architecture

Fortunately, in Original Copies, Bianca Bosker offers a more thoughtful, sensitive analysis of what these communities, which she refers to as "simulacrascapes", say about contemporary China. Along the way, she makes penetrating points and has clearly conducted research worthy of an academic thesis - so much that one of the few problems with the book is that it sometimes reads like one.

The book reframes the debate. It places these simulacrascapes within the Chinese tradition of replicating captured territory within its own borders, and points out that China has always assimilated foreign architecture, from imperial gardens dating back to the Han dynasty, to Soviet-inspired concrete blocks under Mao Zedong.

It also highlights Chinese culture's more nuanced view of originality and copying than the West's, where there are different levels of copy, and where a representation of something can have the same value as an original.

Bosker argues that the new developments are manifestations not of cultural backwardness, but of a desire to replicate and thereby own these symbols of luxury and prestige. The book's title reflects her view that these communities are not fake and lacking in originality so much as the expression of something new, a cultural sea-change that highlights the rise of the new, consumerist nation.

In seeing something positive in these developments, Bosker is in the minority. Architects and critics, both in China and the West, tend to hate them for their ersatz flavour, their perceived lack of authenticity. A common accusation is that they are Western-themed rather than genuinely Western, Disney-fied representations of an idea of the West, not of the West itself, neither reflecting the culture of the places they are supposed to represent nor possessing any local character.

In fact, most of these communities are designed by local architects, who have a better feel for the version of the West local consumers prefer; Canadian architect Lisa Bate, for example, was hired to design Shanghai's Canadian Maple Town, but constantly argued with the developers about "whether they meant Canadian design or theming".

Bosker convincingly argues that China does this partly just because it can - because the ability to replicate wholesale a foreign community, especially one that represents the apex of refinement and sophistication, can be seen as clinching evidence of China's progress: to copy is to equal.

It is part of the broader flexing of its new economic and cultural muscles through architecture which has also led to the "starchitect"-designed skyscrapers that dominate the mainland's rapidly modernising cityscapes.

As well as conferring prestige, the foreign models have been chosen largely because under Mao all vestiges of traditional building styles were swept away. The rural was favoured over the urban to begin with, and the predominant urban tropes, which last to this day in high-density, low-cost housing, were themselves simulacra, albeit of a very recently developed style of architecture: Soviet-style hyper-brutalist concrete blocks.

China has plentiful colonial architecture, of course, but that was created by Europeans, largely for Europeans, whereas the new developments are created by Chinese companies for Chinese buyers. Bosker sees them on one level as a response to this history, showcasing China's ability to build foreign-style architecture for itself, rather than having it imposed from the outside, by colonialists.

Here Original Copies veers towards arguing that this is all a form of cultural cringe, based on a lack of confidence and a sense of cultural inferiority - which of course is the very assumption underpinning the point-and-laugh reaction to the simulacrascapes that the book is attempting to challenge.

It seems to imply that the Chinese really are trying to ape the West in a slightly gauche way, as a stop en route to arguing that the Western architectural model will be replaced once other icons of cultural refinement come along to replace it, especially Chinese ones.

In her attempts to give these communities a positive interpretation, Bosker equates the ability to live in one of these communities with a burgeoning demand for self-realisation among the Chinese, one that she optimistically hopes might extend to personal freedoms.

Here she forgets that shopping is not freedom, and that property rights alone are unlikely to make the Chinese magically make the leap from having consumer choices to demanding other things, such as democracy, that many in the West believe go hand in hand with them.

Original Copies is hampered by a dry, professorial style, filled with rhetorical questions, academo-words such as "epigonic" and "autochthonous", and statements like: "The simulacrascapes represent an enigmatic complex of meanings."

Fortunately, the quality of Bosker's scholarship and the fascinating questions it raises make it worth the occasionally turgid writing. The book sheds fascinating light on a vital subject.

As it points out, there are no symbols of the new China more potent than these quintessentially Chinese developments.

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