Entire Western style towns have been popping up around China in droves over the past couple of decades. Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, explains where it all came from and what it means.
Western and classical Chinese architecture has become extremely common throughout China over the past couple of decades. There are now literally hundreds of towns that look like France, California, England, Austria, and film sets of the Ming Dynasty. China now has dozens of White Houses and almost as many Eiffel Towers, not to mention all the Château de Maisons-Laffittes, Arc de Triomphes, and miniature replicas of the Sydney Opera House. This type of architectural appropriation has pretty much become a new Chinese style, as it is now a normal part of the urban landscape throughout the country.
If you spend any amount of time traveling through the suburbs of China’s cities it’s impossible to avoid this duplitecture, but what does it all mean? While I’ve visited many of these places over the past couple of years and have written extensively on the topic, I still had many questions. So I consulted with Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, a book which investigates China’s duplitecture movement in depth.
Could you give me an outline of the emergence of the Western architecture movement in China? In its current rendition, when and where did it begin and how?
China’s duplitecture movement took off in the 1990s when the Chinese government relaxed its rules on private property ownership, allowing real estate developers to build, market and sell homes. As the number of residential developments grew, so too did the prevalence of China’s Western-style copycat architecture: in a crowded market, developers looked for ways to brand their communities and set them apart in the eyes of an increasingly discriminating set of homebuyers. Since the Baroque, Mediterranean or Beverly Hills-themed neighborhoods could sell for more money – and more quickly – than their more generic counterparts, more and more of them appeared. The European and American architecture evokes an entire lifestyle that real estate agents can pitch with the homes. The homeowners aren’t just buying shelter when they buy into these theme-towns. They’re also buying the appearance of success.
China’s current copycat architecture is merely the latest manifestation of its long history of landscape replication. As I argue in my book, China actually has a tradition of architectural mimicry that goes back over two thousand years. In the third century B.C., for example, emperor Qin Shi Huang celebrated his defeat of rival kingdoms by building replicas of their palaces in his own capital city. Other rulers showed off their authority by building elaborate gardens that were pre-modern versions of today’s theme parks. That past is key for understanding the present.
How widespread has this practice become? Roughly how many Western themed villages do you estimate there are in China now?
As I’m sure you know from your own time in China, it’s all but impossible to travel China’s suburbs without stumbling into a Versailles or Tuscany. Shanghai boasts so many Euro-style developments, one can now complete the European “Grand Tour” without ever leaving Shanghai and in the course of a single day.
Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact prevalence of China’s duplitecture given that these copies ranges in size from single homes to enormous gated communities. It’s safe to say there are hundreds of these themed developments that have sprung up. A designer for Vanke, China’s largest private real estate developer, estimated that two-thirds of the company’s properties are built in a Western style.
What do you think these architectural symbols of the West mean for the Chinese?
Forget “fake it ‘till you make it.” China’s theme towns stem from a “fake it once you make it” mentality.
The duplitecture can serve the same purpose as a Chanel logo on a designer purse: they’re status symbols that are meant to convey an air of worldliness and accomplishment for the people living within. In China, the Western “brand” still enjoys certain connotations of luxury, sophistication, wealth, power and prestige, and the homebuyers who move into the fake Frances or Californias believe their themed neighborhood will show them to be successful and worldly. As a Shenzhen resident observed of her Western-themed housing complex, “ [l]iving here means we have a social identity at the upper level.”
The home has reemerged as an important expression of identity and the Western developments – which their marketers attempt to link to the global jet set or royalty of yore — are seen as an effective way of showcasing upward mobility for the residents within.
Why do you think so many places in China have decided to build anachronistic European style villages and reproductions of famous buildings/ landmarks? What is the influence? What is gained from utilizing this style?
China’s duplitecture champions have been extremely deliberate about which landmarks they choose to replicate. Only those structures with an instantly-recognizable tourist-destination identity, as well as associations with wealth and influence, are deemed worth recreating. Poland-villes or Sarajevo-towns are nowhere to be found among China’s theme-towns – while the White House, a symbol of power if there ever was one, is the most copied building in the country. The recreated Venices and Amsterdams are far from a form of West worship by the Chinese, but rather a form of architectural propaganda intended to showcase the nation’s ability to “own” Western cultural and technical expression. (It’s worth noting that many duplitecture developments have been spearheaded by the Chinese government).
By recreating Paris, China isn’t paying homage to France. It’s celebrating China’s progress, deep pockets and power. Just as the architecture of their enemies were transposed by China´s pre-modern, imperial rulers to show off their strength, these reproductions are meant to tell the world, and China’s own population, that China is so mighty it can figuratively rearrange the universe and “own” the landmarks the West holds most dear. This necessitates copying not only European styles of architecture, but specific cities and destinations, like Versailles, Manhattan or Hallstatt, an Austrian UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These reproductions of famous sites also enable a kind of domestic sightseeing: they allow China’s populace to “see the world” without ever leaving the People’s Republic.
How are these foreign themed towns linked to suburban redevelopment/ revitalization?
What’s fascinating about these places is that China hasn’t opted to copy the latest and greatest in architecture or technology, which it easily could have. Instead, it’s replicated not just anachronistic architecture, but also outdated design principles the rest of the world has long soured on. These gated communities, mostly located outside the city center, exacerbate China’s urban sprawl. And ecologically speaking, they’re a total disaster: water heavy, land intensive and deeply car dependent, they replicate some of most problematic urban design practices. In recreating Western architecture, China is also repeating many of the West’s mistakes.
How are these Western towns marketed?
Through their names, slogans, brochures, landscaping and agents’ sales pitches, these developments present themselves as embodiments of the very pinnacle of European and American culture. They promise potential residents not only all the comforts of the global elite, but entry into a higher social class. Many even go so far as to suggest homeowners will gain access to all the privileges and perks of old-world aristocrats. These towns often have names that reference the nobility, like “Top Aristocrat,” “Majesty Manor” and “Palais de Fortune,” and their marketing materials are full of allusions to the high-living ways of dukes and duchesses. Beverly Hills invites homebuyers to a “land of courtly enjoyment,” while Thames Town claims that stepping into the British-themed development means entering “the territory of the aristocracy, and a world of prestige.” The marketing positions these Western-style landscapes as the key component of a refined lifestyle, and a miniaturized version of the global arena, with the homeowner occupying the highest rank attainable. The real estate agents behind these theme-towns have, using the architecture of the West, crafted a lifestyle that resonates with homebuyers and has become the heart of the new Chinese dream.
The Western nature of the towns is relentlessly stressed at every turn. Sales agents will immediately point out to potential buyers that the architecture is in a European style, recreates the feel of a European town, and was designed by a European firm (even if it’s untrue). Some will offer authentic Western lifestyle amenities that are consistent with their foreign theme. Thames Town, among others, has pubs and coffee shops, in keeping with its English theme, while Tianducheng has hosted a “French Culture Festival” with training on French food, manners and art. Others try to enhance their authenticity by showcasing visits by foreign guests. The English-themed Stratford community even assures its residents they will rub shoulders with foreigners. “The people pushing the baby carriage in the park could be a British couple that lives next door,” the brochure promises.
What is the impact that they have on the local population (as in the people living nearby, not the ones relocated — i.e. places like Gaoqiao Dutch town, Anting, and Hallstatt that are in proximity of neighboring communities)? What have you found the locals’ reaction to be in regards to the new foreign themed developments going up near to where they live?
Though of course it depends on the location and the development, I found the neighbors living next to China’s new Frances and Italys largely displeased by what they saw as a waste of land and money. In the case of Shanghai’s Scandinavian-themed Luodian Town, for example, “locals” saw the European development as out of touch with their needs – its homes too expensive by far – and an unnecessary investment that had replaced a perfectly fine community. To build Luodian Town, its developers first had to evict existing residents from the land they planned to build on, yet the Nordic homes they built have remained mostly empty since its completion. In short, Luodian Town’s neighbors have watched a bustling neighborhood replaced by a ghost town. Others who’ve seen these expansive theme-towns erected complain that the lavish towns make poor use of good land. Vast villas sit on sprawling lawns that some of its neighbors would have put to use farming even mattress-sized corners of fruits and vegetables.
These developments also risk exacerbating social tensions in a country with one of the greatest wealth discrepancies in the world. Many of these theme towns are, by design, spectacles of conspicuous consumption, and those who live near them are quick to comment on the lavish lifestyles of the homeowners within. These developments showcase the vast differences between the “haves’ and the “have nots” in such a clear and drastic way that could make them catalysts of resentment and discontent.
Yet even those who criticize the copycat communities dream of being able to indulge in the same residential fantasy, and admire their Western style. A resident who lived near Luodian Town called it a “waste”. But, he added, if he could afford a home there, he would: “I like everything about this place,” he said. “There´s nothing I dislike.”
Where do you think this architectural movement will go? Do you think it is a temporary phenomenon that coincides with the ascending adolescent phase of the New China or do you think that this is something lasting? Or do you think it is already going out of style? How do you think this phase of architecture will be remembered?
I think China’s impulse to copy will prove lasting, though what it chooses to replicate may change. Already, these European and American developments are being supplemented by communities built in a traditional Chinese style. And “green” architecture has become a compelling brand in the marketplace, although many of these so-called “eco” communities offer little more than the same sprawling McMansions under a different name. This trend suggests that there will be a greater diversity of architectural styles in China, with the “ye-olde England” or “Versailles” look just a few of an expanding number for homebuyers to choose from.
I think this phase of architecture will be remembered much as it’s seen now: unfairly. People decry China’s duplitecture as a tacky, trashy even “terrifying” kind of rip-off architecture, but I believe it’s much more than that. As extravagant and bizarre as many of these communities might be, they are also testaments to the new freedoms, choice and avenues for personal expression China’s citizens can lay claim to in the wake of political reforms. Even the ghost towns are valuable in their own right: they may be remembered not as evidence of China’s rise, as their supporters intended, but as proof of the limits of the state’s command and control approach. These empty landscapes are powerful markers of the ways the government’s top-down, “we-know-best” attitude is being vigorously challenged by the market economy.
Do you think these replicas are an over-compensation for a national inferiority-complex? Why? Why not?
China certainly feels it has something to prove, and the country’s duplitecture stems in large part from this impulse. It’s not that China has lost interest in its own culture. Indeed, the residents of these theme-towns avidly combine from Eastern and Western traditions in their daily lives, and China has a growing crop of developments build in a traditional Chinese theme. But the Western architecture that China so avidly copies is believed by its domestic champions to be an internationally understood marker of achievement. China is using these copies of the White House or Venice as a kind of architectural language it believes the world recognizes as a symbol of success. What’s ironic is that the West has mostly looked upon China’s duplitecture and laughed. Viewers abroad see the architecture as humorous, silly, unimaginative, not impressive–hardly the reaction for which its builders had hoped.
It should be noted, however, that there are also very practical motivations leading China’s architectural mimicry. For developers, imitating existing styles – rather than inventing new ones – is a much cheaper, faster way to build the homes that are in high demand.
What are these Western style developments trying to prove? What are they trying to say to the world?
China’s duplitecture has a clear message to the world: Whatever you’ve accomplished, we can do, too – only bigger and faster. China’s massive Western theme-towns, frequently championed by the government, are intended as monuments to China’s power and control. It can figuratively possess the best of the West, be it Dorchester or the White House. To show they’re making it big, China has turned to faking it big.
How are China’s Western copies original?
Other cultures have dabbled in architectural mimicry—just look at Ivy League architecture in the United States, for example. But China is copying Western architecture at a scale, pace and level of detail that is unmatched and unprecedented anywhere else. Instead of copying a building here and a building there, China has recreated a city here and a city there. Its duplitecture developments can house entire U.S. towns, and the scrupulousness with which the originals have been replicated is stunning. No detail is too small to overlook, and developers will often import materials from abroad, or send architects to scout out the original on location in order to ensure their copy is as faithful as possible.
Yet more than that, what sets apart these copies and makes them unique are the catalysts behind them. The architecture is foreign, yet the factors driving this massive movement in mimicry are uniquely Chinese. As my book details, these developments arose out of a marriage of tradition, politics, social upheaval and desire that is distinct to China. As one Thames Town resident observed of her British-style home, “The hardware may be all Western, but the software is all Chinese.”
Bianca Bosker is the Executive Tech Editor of the Huffington Post. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Fast Company, Conde Nast Traveler, and the Oregonian, among other publications. She is the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China and the co-author of a book on the cultural history of bowling entitled Bowled Over: A Roll Down Memory Lane. Visit her website at BiancaBosker.com.
Check out Bianca’s excellent study on China’s duplitecture movement here:
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
March 8, 2014, 7:22 pm
That is so freaking bizarre and horrifying. It’s so sad that they’re intentionally recreating what I would view as terrible mistakes of western urban planning! You would think that they’d want us to look to them as progressive and doing things better and more efficiently, but they’re looking at us and making our mistakes.
We’re such a strange race.
March 9, 2014, 5:38 am
Yes, they’re searching for a way to make their cities work, and are coming head on with the crux of the problem: in high-density cities not everybody can own a car. Many of the Western architecture towns were built as part of a suburbanization movement that was supposed to draw a good number of the country’s car driving middle and upper class residents out of the core city. It didn’t work. Instead, high-density developments are sprawling out and are encircling the new towns creating the worst of both worlds.
- March 9, 2014, 5:38 am
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