Walk down the street one Sunday afternoon and you might see traditional classic British architecture with cobbled streets, Victorian Terraces and corner shops.
This is not London, mind you. Rather, it’s around 20 kilometres west of Central Shanghai.
‘Themes Town’ as it is known, is one of the more famous parts of the One City, Nine Towns project built last decade in western Shanghai which also features a German Village, an old English Town, Scandinavian and Dutch themed communities as well as Parisian and Venetian towns – each of which have been given their own themed identities.
But it is not the only example within China of what is sometimes dubbed ‘copycat architecture.’ A housing project in the city of Hefei features a replica of Britain’s Stonehenge. In 2012, what was dubbed the world’s first cloned village opened in Guangdong, with every detail being copied of the original UNESCO protected Hallstatt village in Austria. Meanwhile, in Beijing, all materials used to build the Palais de Fortune development were imported from France and each home has been named after prized symbols of French culture, such as ‘Louvre’ and ‘Versailles.’
So what’s behind all this? Are Chinese architects turning their country into a theme park? Are they so lacking in their own creativity and inspiration that they have to follow others?
While some may think so, others offer a different interpretation. Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, which was published in 2013 and is thought to be the first thorough account of such ‘copycat’ architecture, provides a different perspective.
For one thing, Bosker notes, cultural differences must be understood and taken into account. Indeed, replication does not have the same stigma in Chinese culture compared with elsewhere, and can even be seen as a way of celebrating achievement.
“Copying is not as taboo in China as it is in the west,” Bosker told CNN in 2013. “In Europe and the United States, there is almost this paranoia around copying. If you are a copycat, you are a thief. In China, if you are a copycat, you might be a talent.”
It is also important to note, as Laura Bliss of The Atlantic writes, that not everything ‘copied’ has necessarily been done so completely. An American-style dream home built in China, for example, might have a Western-style exterior but also contain traditional Chinese tearooms or courtyards.
Furthermore, there may be practical purposes to such replicas. University of Pennsylvania professor of city and regional planning Gary Hack, for example, suggests unique replicas like the Stonehenge facsimile in Hefei might be a marketing strategy to set the project apart from others by providing a symbol of wealth. The One City, Nine Towns project, meanwhile, went beyond the issue of identity and was considered part of a strategy to attract foreign capital and institutions.
Moreover, Hack points out that copycat architecture is not new or limited to China. St Paul’s Cathedral, he notes, ‘is not exactly British architecture,’ while in America, Philadelphia “repurposed ideas for the rebuilding of London after the great fire.”
“When societies face the need for unprecedented types of building, they often look to other countries for ideas,” he told CNN.
The replication of Western ideas in Chinese architecture does not appear set to slow down anytime soon.
Whether or not this should be encouraged will continue to be the subject of debate.