Zaha Hadid vs. The Copycats

Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects

An unlicensed replica of the architects new Beijing complex is the latest example of Chinas learning—and prospering—by imitation.

Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO, the prizewinning architect’s largest project to date, should have been a one-of-a-kind landmark for China’s capital. The trio of curved, glass-covered office and retail buildings, which evoke the love child of a silver carp and a polished stone, were meant to be a grandiose testament to a cutting-edge city and the crown jewel of its developer, SOHO China.

But already, with Hadid’s complex just a few months from completion, her singular creation has been cloned: Workers in Chongqing are building a near-replica of Wangjing SOHO—only with two buildings, not three—as SOHO China races to finish the original.

The Chongqing project’s backers insist the design is their own. Yet their wave-like buildings are suspiciously similar to Hadid’s, and the marketing copy for both projects reads as though penned by the same hand. Wangjing SOHO’s creators say they hoped to evoke fish and mountains. The Chongqing developers proclaim their muses were “the mountains, the sea and Chongqing.”

“They literally copied what we spent a lot of effort and time to make,” says Satoshi Ohashi, the project director for Wangjing SOHO. “It’s outrageous.”

Outrageous—but not uncommon. China has become the world’s Xerox machine, spitting out copies of everything from Apple Stores to Château Lafite wines to entire European towns. Picture-perfect replicas of Venice, Amsterdam, Orange County and Manhattan now ring China’s cities, allowing visitors to complete a sort of Grand Tour without ever leaving China’s suburbs. No detail is too small to ignore: In my pilgrimage to these theme towns, I’ve toured pubs in a mock English village, admired Versailles fountains in a faux Paris, watched gondoliers in Hangzhou’s “Venice Water Town” and had tea at an ersatz White House.

This “duplitecture” movement, which has advanced at an unprecedented speed and scale, underscores China’s ambitions to become a global superpower and its willingness to use unfettered imitation to attain this dream.

Ohashi can’t pin down precisely how Hadid’s design may have been filched, a hint at how ingrained this copy culture has become. He speculates that someone might have leaked the renderings early in the pitch or drafting process, or the Chongqing firm might simply have used pictures published in the press.

“You can’t control things sometimes, and China is definitely a place where that can be very difficult, at least now,” says Ohashi.

In the end, the complex in Chongqing will be done within months of Hadid’s. Two Wangjing SOHO towers were just finished this January, with the third set for June. The Chongqing project, already half done, will be wrapped up before the year’s end.

Outsiders snicker at China’s “kitschy” chateaux, dismissing them as the work of uninspired plagiarists. But to the copycats, duplitecture offers proof of their nation’s dominance: China has become so rich, powerful and savvy that it can re-create, bigger and faster, the greatest cultural achievements of its rivals. The explosion of ersatz anythings comes not from a blind adoration of the West but from a desire to celebrate China’s accomplishments while laying a foundation for its future. More than just knocking off nice buildings, China seeks to appropriate the most iconic symbols of success.

China’s mimicry mavens exclusively copy the cities and starchitects linked to wealth and prestige. In addition to Hadid’s complex, Beijing’s famous Water Cube has a twin in Macao, and builders in Zhengzhou copied Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel (it was later destroyed). China’s copycats—and those who’ve financed their duplitecture—have used copies to cast themselves as what they dream of becoming: a country of mighty, influential tastemakers on the bleeding edge.

“[Copying] is a shorthand way of trying to become whatever it is you want to become,” says Sam Jacob, an architect and designer who created a Museum of Copying for the 2012 Architecture Biennale in Venice. “You can see that again and again in places that are seeking their new future.”

The United States faked its way to an identity, too. In the early 20th century, Princeton University copied the look of Oxford and Cambridge with an eye toward emulating their stature. Even Thomas Jefferson plagiarized: In an homage to republican ideals, Jefferson based the Virginia State Capitol on the Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple in France. And then there’s Vegas...

While America knocks knockoffs, China has never seen imitation as taboo. Traditional Chinese values cast gifted copycats as talents, not thieves, and hail faithful replication as a marker of skill. More recently, the director of China’s National Copyright Administration praised copies for showcasing the “cultural creativity of the common people.”

To China’s leaders, imitation appears to be a foolproof plan for a prosperous future. The government has adopted a “mimic-then-master” strategy, believing China will leapfrog its rivals if it first hones its skills by copying the West’s best.

The developers of an “Oriental Paris” in Hangzhou—complete with an Eiffel Tower—explained that they were “extensively drawing on the construction experience of advanced regions, such as Europe and the United States,” to “use their knowledge as instruction and as a foundation.” To design the next Hadid marvel, you must first copy a Hadid marvel, the thinking goes.

Maybe Wangjing SOHO is itself an instance of innovation springing forth from imitation. According to the developers in Chongqing, Hadid’s building isn’t the original she claims. At a press conference, the Chongqing firm highlighted eight projects around the world that looked more than a little like Hadid’s creation—and whose design either coincided with hers or predated it by years. Buildings like London’s City Hall (opened in 2002) or the Gwanggyo Power Center south of Seoul (designed in 2008) had the same construction style, which was simply the trend of the day, they argued.

The Chongqing developers coined a new slogan for their project, one that would no doubt resonate among China’s other copycats: “Never meant to copy,” it read. “Only want to surpass.”