Duplicating Versailles, the Chrysler Building or the White House is seen as a mark of skill and superiority
In Beijing, the new Wangjing SOHO complex, a trio of curvy office buildings designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, is slowly rising in the smog-filled skyline. Meanwhile, 1,000 miles south, a set of two buildings is going up—and the design looks just like Ms. Hadid’s, say the backers of the Beijing complex.
The other development company has denied copying the design and coined a slogan about its project. “Never meant to copy,” reads a pitch posted on the firm’s official microblog. “Only want to surpass.”
That motto could be the mantra for China’s massive movement in architectural mimicry. To show they are making it big, the Chinese have turned to faking it big.
In recent years, some of the nation’s real-estate developers and even government officials have been churning out detailed counterfeits of the West’s greatest architectural hits, from Unesco World Heritage sites to Le Corbusier gems to Manhattan skyscrapers.
Paris, Orange County, Interlaken, Amsterdam—all have their doubles in China. In Hangzhou, gondolas glide through the man-made canals of Venice Water Town, which boasts its own Piazza San Marco and Doge’s Palace.
Last year, developers in Huizhou unveiled a brick-for-brick replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt, complete with its cobblestone streets, historic church and even sidewalk cafes. Hallstatt residents were surprised to learn that Chinese planners had studied the village’s buildings on location in Austria, according to news reports.
The award for the most copied building goes to the White House, says Yung Ho Chang, a Chinese architect and the former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architecture department. The building serves as the model for everything from seafood restaurants to single-family homes to government offices in Guangzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, Wenling and Nanjing.
This “duplitecture” is not meant to flatter the West, nor is it a form of “self-colonization.” The copies are built as monuments to China’s technological prowess, affluence and power. The Chinese have seized on the icons of Western architecture as potent symbols for their own ascension to—and aspiration for—global supremacy.
It is an impulse with deep roots in Chinese architectural tradition, dating back thousands of years. In pre-modern China, emperors demonstrated their dominance by re-creating rival territories within their own: Sprawling imperial parks, which featured flora and fauna assembled from remote lands, buttressed rulers’ authority by showing their ability to both create and possess an elaborate facsimile of the known universe.
China’s emperors also used copycat buildings to convey their mastery—actual or anticipated—over their adversaries. In the third century B.C., the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, commemorated his conquest of six rival kingdoms by ordering that exact replicas of their palaces be built in his capital. Today, the ersatz Eiffel Towers and Chrysler Buildings symbolize China’s power to control the world by transplanting Europe and the U.S. into its domain.
Traditional Chinese attitudes toward replication also help to explain the trend. While Americans view imitation with disdain, the Chinese have traditionally taken a more permissive and nuanced view of it. Copying can be valued as a mark of skill and superiority. The director of China’s National Copyright Administration has even praised copies as a sign of “cultural creativity.”
China’s expanding economy, along with the financial woes of the European Union and the U.S., could usher in a new era in which the Forbidden City replaces the White House as the coveted status symbol. Buildings modeled after traditional Chinese architecture are already appearing in some parts of the country, next to Versailles look-alikes.
Chinese people “realize now, ‘We have money. We have a lot of money. We’re even richer than our Western rivals,'” said Zhou Rong, a professor of architecture at Beijing’s Tsinghua University—and this has led to new interest in Chinese styles. Rather than grousing about being copied, the West might instead worry about the day China stops looking to us for models.
—Ms. Bosker is the author of “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China,” from which this is adapted. A version of this article appeared February 9, 2013, on page C2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: In Chinese Buildings, a Copycat Craze.