Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
The best knock-offs in the world are in China. Sure, designer handbags and Rolexes, but also really large scale imitations. Like fake Apple stores that are so dead-on that employees of the store think they’re working in a real Apple store. But beyond just working in knock-offs, many residents of Chinese suburbs live their lives in replica cities. Venices with complete canals and replicas of the Doge’s palace. Parises with Eiffel Towers and Arc de Triomphes, Chrysler buildings, Sydney Opera Houses.
Bianca Bosker: Driving through the suburbs of any city in China, you will find a plethora of fake Versailles, British developments, and Californias all bumping up side by side. Just Shanghai itself has ten cities all built in the architectural style of different European countries. So it’s possible to travel from Germany to Italy to London in the course of a few hours, provided there’s not too much traffic.
Roman: Bianca Bosker is the author of the book, Original Copies, Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China and she coined a term for these buildings. Duplitecture.
Bianca: Duplitecture refers to this nationwide movement taking place in China, whereby people are copying entire cities and towns from Europe and the United States. Life-size or sometimes even bigger than life-size. These are not theme parks. Duplitecture developments are actually living, breathing communities where Chinese families are raising their children. Living out their lives in a place that looks like Orange County or Paris but is smack dab in the middle of the People’s Republic.
Roman: These buildings are not just novelties like The Pyramid or the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas.
Bianca: The biggest private property developer in China told me that two-thirds of their residential developments were being built in the European style.
Roman: Nor are they are like American Chinatowns or Germantowns which were established by immigrants. These are Chinese communities in American or European style buildings which are often designed by Chinese architects.
Bianca: Visiting China’s copy of Paris in the outskirts of Hangzhou, I found a place that, in some ways, was very emblematic of Paris. You had the Eiffel Tower, you had the Champs Elysées Square, but there was no new architecture.
Roman: Meaning, the Chinese weren’t interested in duplicating the newer buildings of Paris, just the old classic looking ones that are iconic of the city.
Bianca: At the same time, this is really the most brand new, sparkling Paris I’ve ever seen.
Roman: Even though these are intended to be copies, it’s pretty much impossible to plop a building on to a completely new environment without modifying it a little, or a lot. Oftentimes, the duplitecture is larger or smaller than the real thing, or different elements or features might be bloated bigger than others. Sometimes, duplitecture gets so twisted and warped until it’s a freakish caricature of the original.
Bianca: One of the interesting twists on this architectural movement has been the creation of mega high rises that are built in a baroque or neoclassical style. Picture Versailles stretched 20 floors into the air and you’ll have some idea of what’s going on.
Roman: Developers can take a lot of liberties with duplitecture construction, like making the replicas work in accordance with Feng Shui. But nevertheless, a lot of these duplitecture compounds have rules that actively discourage any type of modification that they think might subvert the simulacrum.
Bianca: They have very, very strict rules in place to ensure that Chinese elements or foreign elements don’t crop in and spoil the impression of a Paris. These rules have been set up to preserve the European feel of this development. For example, no hanging laundry outside, no changing the paint, no installing air conditioners, no keeping chickens in the backyard.
Roman: To further create the impression of Paris, there might be a French bakery or a Bastille Day celebration. There might be a pub in an Irish town, or a real canal network in a knock-off Venice. As odd and uncanny as these buildings and communities can be, duplitecture is pretty impressive. These buildings go up quickly on a massive scale and they show no signs of stopping. Bosker saw new developments popping up around China all the time, but duplitecture is not exactly a new trend.
Bianca: They have a lot of practice doing this. In pre-modern China, you had China’s imperial rulers using copycat buildings as a way of showing off their power and establishing their authority. On the 3rd Century BC, one of the rulers showed off his conquest of his rival kingdom by recreating their buildings within his own capital city.
Roman: You also had imperial hunting parks where rulers would import flora and fauna of all kinds to recreate known landscapes within their own domain.
Bianca: These imperial rulers would copy as a way of showing that they could literally move heaven and Earth. They now possess this foreign building or place. It was theirs.
Roman: And in keeping with that tradition, one of the most copied buildings in China is the very seat of western power itself.
Bianca: The White House is generally credited as being the most copied building in China. And it’s used for everything, from hotels to restaurants to courthouses to homes.
Roman: Just like the White House has a China collection, China has a White House collection. The different Chinese White Houses serve different purposes. So they have morphed into various permutations. But they all have those signature columns and square portico built in the true blue unique style wholly original to the US of A.
Bianca: I hate to break it to everyone, but that’s not an original building. The architect who built the White House based his design on this huge building in Dublin that is now the seat of the Parliament of Ireland.
Roman: The Leinster House in Dublin, which in turn has elements of classical Greek and Roman architecture. And it pretty much looks like the White House even though it’s kind of gray. It’s the Gray House.
Bianca: The founding fathers were really into duplitecture, as well. They were their own form of architectural plagiarists.
Roman: And this is so obvious if you’ve ever seen the buildings that Thomas Jefferson designed. They’re also covered in columns. He based the Virginia State Capitol on this ancient Roman temple and that design, in turn, has gone on to influence the design of many, many state capitols around the country.
Bianca: Some of the greatest hits of American architecture are copies of the greatest hits of ancient Roman architecture, which are now all being copied by the Chinese.
Roman Mars: So we did it too. And North America was ruled by Europeans so it makes sense that we would have more European style architecture lying around. But we still continue to build these European homages today.
Bianca: When Americans build McMansions or buildings that draw from European elements, we’re being inspired. When the Chinese do so, they’re ripping off. They’re copying. They’re con artists. And I think that’s unfair. We should all recognize that what we’re all doing is copying some pretty old buildings because we still find them attractive and we still think that they have symbolic significance to our everyday lives.
Roman: It’s easy to scoff at knock-offs of Venice, but these warped mimicries are the start of something new. I say this all the time. Stealing plus lack of talent equals creativity. What I mean there is that in the effort to copy something, your skills or lack of skills or your different experience, it mutates the original so that very often, you’ve come up with something that’s completely new and completely yours. Copying is totally underrated. And mindful iteration is how good things become great things.
Bianca: China’s actually proven quite successful at turning copies into innovation. If you’d look at the Shan Zhai movement in China, which is this name given for copies of the iPhone, of sneakers, of social networks, what you find is that oftentimes, the copies actually improved on the original in certain ways. China’s iPhone knock-off, which I believe is called the xiPhone, actually had some features that you couldn’t find on Apple’s phone. You had a removable battery, you had multiple sim cards. All of these things that Apple users actually really wanted and coveted. And here you could find it in this knock-off phone. I’m personally fascinated to see how China takes it’s imitation and turns it into innovation.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman with Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars.
Roman: We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the offices of Arcsine, a comprehensive architectural firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.