Transcript for Bianca Bosker on "Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China"

Jim Fleming: But first do you want to visit a condensed version of western architectures greatest hits? Well, you might just want to pack your bags and catch the next flight to China. You’ll be able to visit Thames Town in Shanghai and a larger than life replica of Venice in Hangzhou. Bianca Bosker is the author of  "Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China." She talks with Steve Paulson about these copycat constructions.

Bianca Bosker: I first of all discovered that this was going on in China and it wasn’t just happening in one city, this was happening throughout the country. So, developers, government officials, individuals were building these homes and residential communities that replicated foreign cities and landscapes. What really struck me was the disconnect between what a lot of critics and observers in the West had to say about them. They were very dismissive of them, very critical and the fact that you had people in China that were willing to spend their life savings to live in a place that looked like the White House or Venice.

Steve Paulson: You’re saying people actually built their own version of the White House?

Bianca Boska: Oh, absolutely. The White House is one of the most frequently copied buildings in China.

Steve Paulson: The White House though is huge, I mean the real White House. How big is the Chinese version?

Bianca Boska: Well, you can obviously play with the scale a little bit. And they certainly do that not only for the White House and the Capitol Building. What’s striking is people have an image in their mind of these places being miniature. And in fact what’s remarkable is that in some cases the copies are bigger than the original. Just as an example, in Hangzhou there is a copy of Venice and it just dwarfs the feeling the intimacy of being in the original in Italy. You’ll go there and the town houses look very similar. There are similar colors, they have the beautiful arches and all of that. They even have canals and gondoliers. But the townhouse are bigger, wider, taller and they don’t have exactly the same density. So in some cases, they do play with the scale.

Steve Paulson: And there are other examples of some of the most famous landmarks in the world, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. Isn’t there a Chinese version of that, too?

Bianca Boska: Again, several Chinese versions of the Eiffel Tower. One of the most famous was one that was also at Hangzhou. I think it was a two third scale replica of the original and it was on the Champs-Elysees Square in the middle of this huge development that really felt like Paris. You had these beautiful town houses with the black tile roofs and the fountains. But, what was interesting there is that they actually had thrown together all of these different landmarks from France into one place. So, you had on one hand the Eiffel tower, and the very Parisian apartments but then you also had the Arena of Nimes which is from a different part of France and gardens from Versailles. So there’s a little bit of remodeling that goes on just to be sure they’ve got all the greatest architectural hits of French architecture in one place.

Steve Paulson: So to take that one example of this little France in the city of Hangzhou, is it private developers who are doing this? Is this a government operation? Who actually is making these copies?

Bianca Bosker: It varies from place to place. In this case, I believe it was a private developer who had gotten some cooperation and help from local government officials and you find that a lot. One of the most incredible example of this "duplitecture" movement was in Shanghai and this was called the one city, nine towns plan. And here they decided to build ten satellite cities around Shanghai, each in the architectural style of a different European country and this was spearheaded and financed by local government officials. One official actually that turned out to be quite corrupt and was later ousted by the Communist party but, none the less, this was an effort by the state to actually build these massive replicas of England, Germany, Spain and so on and so forth. You find both kinds. You know I actually found in my trips I went to over two dozen of these replica communities. The ones that had been built by private developers like Vanca, tended to be more thriving and bustling then those that had been built by local officials or state owned enterprises. You know that sort of marriage between the private and public developers. I think part of that had to do with the fact that private developers spend a lot of time doing market research, studying the location, really making sure that the building that they were putting up would serve a market need. On the other hand, a lot of the government sponsored developments have remained these ghost towns completely uninhabited, huge sprawling developments that have maybe a handful of people living in them. Often times, they’re completely sold out but no one is there and that has to do with the fact that often times the officials didn’t take into account the infrastructure, how people are going to get there, the location and didn’t really put all the investment necessary to be sure there would be schools, and businesses and supermarkets and all of that. In this case, I do think as opposed to focusing on location, location, location you find the government developers instead thinking about imitation, imitation, imitation. In china copying can be and end in and of itself. There is something remarkable and prized about the ability to create a convincing literal copy of something else. A good copy can be seen as an indication of mastery or skill. It’s not a sign of a lack of innovation by any means.

Steve Paulson: All of this raises the question of why are people doing this? Why are private developes creating whole communities. Why are people wanting to live in a copy of the White House? For instance, what’s the appeal?

Bianca Bosker: I think that China in an effort to show that it’s making it big, has turned to faking it big. When China copies Paris, it’s not meant as a homage to France. It’s meant as a celebration of China’s success. And that’s on both a personal and national level if you will. One of the big parts of my research was going and speaking to the people that were living in these communities to ask them what was so appealing about a fake California or a fake England. And you find that people are turning to these copies of Venice of Versailles as a way of showing their cultural sophistication. It’s a very immediate branded way of showing off what they’ve attained. I think a lot of the Chinese residents have chosen places that are instantly recognizable as high class, famous landmarks that were made for the rich and famous whether it was the President of the United States or the King of France.

Steve Paulson: it’s so complicated though. China’s relationship with the West. On the one hand, there’s this admiration for what the West has accomplished. And yet there’s also, historically, lot of resentment. I’m a fan, for instance, of Chinese martial arts movies and anything set historically a hundred years ago there is always sort one of the story lines, there are the nasty Western Imperialists and the local home grown hero has to kick him out. And so it would seem that you have both these things going on at the same time.

Bianca Bosker: China, obviously has a history of having Western architecture on its soil. But in those cases the Western style buildings were by and large built by the European powers in the concessions. Shanghai, for example, has the beautiful Bun area but that was built by the British by and large, not by the Chinese. So you’re seeing this strange rupture. China has such a rich architectural tradition all its own , why not borrow from that or innovate a new more modern style that’s all Chinese as opposed to pilfering from the seventeenth, eighteen century France, England or Italy. It is a bit bizarre especially given China’s very tenuous relationship with the West. But I think, again, it goes back to building something in the Western style it becomes something that China can do as opposed to something that’s done to China by an outside power. And that’s a very important difference. I think it’s not about China building an Eiffel Tower because the country and its leaders and citizens are so obsessed and so in love with France, but it’s much more about showing off we can do this too. It’s China being able to show we have the might, we have the money and we have the technical ability to build a replica of the Eiffel tower. And this is a monument to China, this not a monument to France.

Steve Paulson: You have a great quote from Howard French, the former China correspondent for "The New York Times" who says talking about this architectural imitation, he says, It’s a statement of having arrived at being rich and successful. It says, we can pick and choose whatever we want, owning a piece of the West. In fact, we’re so rich we can own the West without ever having to go there. Do you think he’s right?

Bianca Bosker: Oh yeah, I do think he’s right.

Steve Paulson: He’s saying that it’s almost a way of saying that, we’re going to best you. We can take the best that you have and we’re even going to do better than you’ve done. Bianca

Bosker: I think China has embraced copying both for symbolic and practical ends. And what I mean by that is, on a symbolic level, being able to recreate these foreign cities in China, shows China’s ability on a symbolic level to really rearrange the order of the universe and symbolically own it’s rivals. China literally owns many White Houses right now. And it’s no accident that the White House is one of the most copied buildings in China because it’s so fraught with symbolism. I mean China has picked the ultimate representation of the seat of power for the leader of the free world and has copied it over and over again and now owns it, literally.

Jim Fleming:  Bianca Bosker is the author of "Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China." She spoke with Steve Paulson

Comments for this interview

Original Copies (Lena Lencek, 04/08/2013 - 4:48pm)

Bianca Bosker's take on the "copy cat" architecture of post Mao China opens a space for a productive and generative understanding of the specific ethos of imitation in the context of a non-Western civilization. Persuasive and powerful argument!