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The art of copying: How China claimed the world's greatest architectural hits

Updated 12:14 PM ET, Mon June 16, 2014
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If you're an architect with a blank slate, an ambitious developer behind you and a directive to design high-quality living space, what do you build?

If you're operating in China, the answer could be to take a look at the classics from around the globe.

Replica towns that mimic some of the world's most famous monuments and picturesque locations have sprung up all over the country in the last decade.

In this image, a giant copy of the Eiffel Tower soars above the Tianducheng luxury real estate development in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. Other newly built towns include brick-for-brick copies of the White House, Venice's Piazza San Marco and London's famous Tower Bridge.

But where have these "duplitecture" trends come from, what's driving them to ever more complex feats and do Chinese people really want to live in copycat towns thousands of miles away from the originals? We asked two experts on the issue to explain all.

Bianca Bosker is a journalist and the author of the book "Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, while Gary Hack is emeritus professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Hack has given several talks on the issue of copycat architecture in China at academic institutes around the world.

Interviews and captions by Eoghan Macguire
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The building of replica structures or famous monuments at the heart of new housing developments was "something that started in the late 1990s and early 2000s," said Bosker.

"That's when we saw China's middle class becoming more profitable but also property laws being reformed in China. We had a big boom in construction but a lot of the initial residential construction in China was very generic and featured lots of high-rise buildings."

"Soon after that you saw homeowners gravitating towards architecture that would distinguish their own homes and communities."

This image shows the Tianducheng development before it was complete.
AFP/Getty Images/File
With home-buyers looking for unique designs that reflected their new-found wealth and status, standout projects became a necessity for developers.

According to Gary Hack, monuments like this replica of the Stonehenge at a housing project in the city of Hefei are an attempt to do just that.

"You have to understand that millions of new housing units are being built each year, and each is trying to attract buyers," he said. "(These designs) are a requisite of the new commercial culture that seeks to brand developments as a marketing strategy."

"You only look at their advertising to know that they are selling a distinct lifestyle."
AFP/Getty Images/File
Many in the west think of the tacky palace hotels or pyramids of Las Vegas when they consider architectural mimicry.

In China, however, replicating the work of others is not viewed in the same manner.

"Copying is not as taboo in China as it is in the west" said Bosker. "In Europe and the United States there's almost this paranoia around copying. If you are a copycat you are a thief. In China, if you're a copycat you might be a talent.

"Replication doesn't have the same stigma ... and can be seen as a way of celebrating an achievement."
AFP/Getty Images/File
Gary Hack agrees and notes that architectural homages aren't necessarily a new trend or something exclusive to China.

"I see the same strategies (pertaining to giving housing developments a distinct identity) in most rapidly developing cultures, particularly in Asia," he said.

In this image, developers work on creating a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Guangdong.
Courtesy Bianca Bosker/Original Copies
Then there's the historical context or inspiration for many European and American cities, Hack continues.

"There is a long tradition of borrowing forms and ideas from other cultures," he said. "St Paul's (Cathedral in London) isn't exactly indigenous British architecture. Milton Keynes didn't draw its influences from Cotswold villages - it is more like Orange County in California - and in the U.S., Philadelphia's plan repurposed ideas for the rebuilding of London after the great fire."

"When societies face the need for unprecedented types of building (as accommodating 250 million people over 20 years has forced on China) they often look to other countries for ideas."

This image shows the villas at Beijing's Palais de Fortune development, built with materials imported from France. Each home has been named after prized symbols of French culture, like "Louvre" and "Versailles."
Courtesy Bianca Bosker/Original Copies
A quiet canal in Venice or an elaborate copycat version of the Italian city in Hangzhou, eastern China? It can often be difficult to tell -- although this is definitely the latter for any readers who can't be sure.

Bosker goes even further than Hack on the history of architectural mimicry and states that the concept is more than 2,000 years old in China alone.

"If you go back to the third century BC, we have these imperial rulers in pre-modern China recreating the architecture of the enemies they conquered," she said.

"You look at the templates that China has opted to copy and its things like the White House or the Eiffel Tower. They are two symbols of western success, achievement and money."
Courtesy Bianca Bosker/Original Copies
Chinese youths play basketball in the replica version of Venice's Piazza San Marco in Huangzho, eastern China.

"I think in many ways they (the Chinese) are appropriating the culture and cultural achievements of the west," Bosker continued.

"They're doing this not only as a way of experimenting with a new lifestyle but also as a way of showing that they have made it."
Courtesy Bianca Bosker/Original Copies
One of the most ambitious copycat projects can be found just outside Shanghai.

The One City, Cine Towns metropolitan plan involved building one new center, nine new towns, 60 new neighborhoods and 600 village centers in the suburbs surrounding Shanghai.

In order to attract attention, some of the towns were given their own distinct identities, including an a German village, an old English town (the model of which is pictured) as well as Scandinavian and Dutch themed communities.

The Parisian and Venetian towns (featured in previous slides) are also part of this project.
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The strategy for the One City, Nine Towns project went beyond designing an identity, explained Hack. "It was also seen as a way of attracting foreign capital and institutions to the developments."

"The Italian government constructed a cultural center at Pujiang (one of the locations for the new towns) and I believe there is Italian investment in the town as well."

"But in all cases, the iconic places are only a small fraction of the larger development, and their role is in my view mainly marketing," he added.
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Thames Town even has its own red coat guards and features quaint additional facilities such as a British pub and tea shop.

But according to Gary Hack, the center of this little bit of England just outside Shanghai is often eerily quiet. This is because many of the houses above the shops and boutiques remain unsold as they don't cater for the styles traditionally preferred by Chinese home-buyers, he said.

"(But) the high-rise housing in gated communities nearby are selling very well and the individual villas behind walls seem to be largely occupied," Hack added. "Most Chinese home-buyers want the style of the iconic places but they also want the kind of space (and) organization acceptable in Chinese contemporary culture."

"That usually means gated communities, not houses with front doors on the street."
Courtesy Bianca Bosker/Original Copies
Two men row past houses built in a northern European style at the Luodian development in Huangzho, China.

Bianca Bosker recalls from her own experience that many towns are "eerie in their emptiness." But she is quick to add that this certainly isn't a uniform trend across all developments.

"When you go to other less well known copycat towns, many of them really are bustling and you see families and kids and a car in every garage," she said.

"On the other hand there is a lot of speculation in China's real-estate market. There are a lot of people buying up a lot of property and holding on to it in the hope that the price will go up in the future.

"As a result you have developers who are just building acres and acres with tons of people to buy it but nobody to live in it."
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It's not just real estate projects in China taking ideas from elsewhere in the world.

This grandiose hotel on the outskirts of Beijing is a replica of the Château de Maisons-Laffitte, a famous Parisian landmark. As time progresses, however, Hack says it is likely that China's up and coming architects will begin to forge their own distinct style.

"I am sure that a distinctive quality of urban development will emerge, but it will be a new interpretation of history," he said.

"Many of the new generation of professionals in China are seeking to mine architectural sources for influences. They are generally more subtle -- (in terms of) materials, color, qualities of light, relationships to nature, and so on -- much as the Japanese constructed a modernist tradition from the 1950s on."

"(A lot of Chinese) planners and designers have been educated in the west or by westerners in China, so they make no distinctions between ideas; they are modernists wishing to work with the best available ideas."
AFP/Getty Images/File