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China's version of Hallstatt, Austria. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Why Is China Stealing Cities, Towns, and Buildings?

• May 16, 2013 • 1:16 PM

China's version of Hallstatt, Austria. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

We don’t really know, but if anybody does, it’s Phil Thompson.

Hallstatt, Austria, is in China. So is the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, Christ the Redeemer, and a soon-to-be-completed Manhattan. There are others, too, and it’s all part of this weird (at least to us Westerners, or this one Westerner who is writing this) proliferation of what are being called “copy towns.” They’re villages and buildings and cities in China that are being constructed as replicas of non-Chinese places from around the world—and people are living in them. Hallstatt, China, has an artificial lake, and they imported doves to make it more Hallstatt-like.

Much of the awareness of this comes from artists Sebastian Acker and Phil Thompson, who traveled to China and pretty thoroughly documented the “copy towns.” Now they’re hoping to travel to all of the areas that have been copied in hopes of doing some parallel research to give themselves—and all of us—a better idea of what the heck is going on here. They’re holding an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the trip and their research. I spoke to Thompson yesterday via email to try to get a sense of what these replica-cities are all about.

A lot of Chinese people look up to the West as an ideal, so the construction of these towns could be seen as a way of accelerating their progress; a quick way of achieving through emulation.

Where did you first come across the Chinese copy towns?
We first came across the towns in an article on Spiegel Online. It was about the replica of Hallstatt being built in the Guangdong Province. We had both been doing individual research into contemporary reproductions in design and art and so we both found the article fascinating. Once we did a bit more research we discovered that there were lots of these types of towns all over China, covering architectural styles from all over the world.

So, I don’t understand these things. Everything is more connected today, and everything we do is copying something else in some way, but these towns and buildings are so weird! Are they just a straight money grab? Or is there some deeper, I don’t know, more cultural desire at play?
It’s true that most things are a copy in one way or another. But these towns are unique, not only in their scale, but by the fact that they are residential. America has Disney World and Las Vegas, but in these places the illusion is only a temporary one. The residents of the copy towns live out their lives in these illusions.

There are many different reasons as to why these towns exist. No one reason seems to be fully responsible, rather it is culmination of many different circumstances. One of the main reasons is China’s developing middle and upper classes; a significant portion of people have become very wealthy, very quickly, and these people want a way to showcase their wealth. They are allowed to do so in modern China, but under the Mao regime public shows of wealth would not have been possible. However, given China’s recent history, it does not have a societal model for prosperity. Under Mao, class divisions were squashed and declarations of wealth were not usually allowed, and so they have turned to the West for ways in which to display their new-found fortunes. This adoption of Western styles may be an attempt to pick up an already established ready-made social attitude.

Another reason for the towns could be the huge building bubble that is taking place in China. Vast numbers of new buildings are being built, many of which have never been filled. In order to attract residents to their developments, the construction companies may be creating copy towns so that they stand out amongst the myriad buildings opening every day. Ironically, it is their copied nature that makes them unique in the market.

But generally China has a long history of copying, especially within architecture and the arts. For centuries the emperors would replicate lands that they had conquered within their own palace gardens. These constructs would often include fauna and plants from the conquered regions. This ability to replicate and maintain the distant land demonstrated the emperor’s control over the original region.

Then there is also China’s desire to replicate the West and become a first-world country. A lot of Chinese people look up to the West as an ideal, so the construction of these towns could be seen as a way of accelerating their progress; a quick way of achieving through emulation.

What are the implications of this, then? They’re basically erasing something Chinese—and replacing it with something that’s not. Can that be a positive thing?
The dichotomy between being Chinese or not Chinese doesn’t really work here; these towns are a product of Chinese culture and history. They may be copies, but the fact that China is comfortable to create these places says a lot about their philosophical differences to the West.

As to whether they are a positive thing or not—it is hard to say. Most of the towns we visited were half empty. It will be interesting to see if the trend lasts for much longer.

What about the towns being recreated? No one owns a copyright or a design of a town, right, since they’re these ever-growing organic things? But are there intellectual property rights at play here? It sort of seems like the architects are stealing.
That’s a hotly debated topic. All the towns we visited are replicas of buildings that are far too old to still be protected under Western intellectual property law. There are some features that they cannot copy though, such as the lighting system on the Eiffel Tower—that is still protected under IP. Although in China there are currently no specific provisions on IP rights related to architecture, meaning that each case is treated very differently. The Wangjing SOHO building designed by Zaha Hadid is currently being copied whilst the original is under construction. Depending on how the case develops, it could set a precedent for future copies.

You guys went to Ai Weiwei’s house. What were his thoughts on all of this?
We asked him about his feelings toward the architecture near his home, which consists of many architectural pastiches of his own style. He stated that at first he was flattered that somebody would choose to copy one of his buildings, but that it always ended in anger because they never copied the building correctly. They would just copy the style of the facade and not the feeling or concept of the building. He said that quite often the insides of the buildings were completely different and didn’t make sense with the exterior (windows and doors being in odd positions), this, he said, was due to the fact that people who make the copies had never experienced the interior and so had to create that independently. This recent trend of copied architecture, in his opinion, was due to the increased use of computer design in the architectural process. He stated that now architects speak the language of computers and “use three buttons—copy, paste, and delete.”

OK, so, a final, impossible-to-answer question: Is this a bad thing, good thing, or are you still trying to figure all that out?
There are so many contributing factors that it is impossible to really answer that question. Plus, as we are both from Europe we obviously come to these towns with our own taught views on reproductions. We have to try and think outside of what we culturally view as right/wrong, good/bad. In many ways the problems that Westerners have with these towns is just as strange as the towns themselves. Especially given Western architectural histories; copying is hardly something new to the field. When we visit the original towns we want to engage with the residents to understand what it is that really makes people feel so strongly about the copies.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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