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Notopia: the copycat city and the rise of duplitecture

sphinx china

Lost monuments are built again and the work of starchitects copied: is this the new course of architectural evolution or thoughtless appropriation?

The hyper-tech revolution has given rise to the first epoch in which monuments crushed by iconoclasts can rise again. Destroyed in war-split Syria, Palmyra’s 1,800 year-old Arch of Triumph was recreated by the Institute for Digital Archaeology: first assembled as a 3D model using advanced photogrammetry, then robot-carved out of Egyptian marble and erected at London’s Trafalgar Square. But in other parts of the world, this same revolution is being deployed by pirates to create unauthorised clones, enabling cultural appropriation across continents.

One nation is emerging as a super-force in this sphere. China’s bullet-speed rise as an economic superpower has benefited from its position as the global epicentre for pirated technologies and products, ranging from iPhones and Apple laptops to Adobe software. Chinese pirates have likewise entered the realm of architecture. One contingent created a 3D model of the Austrian hillside hamlet of Hallstatt, a World Heritage Site, from a montage of photos, then produced a double of the site in Guangdong province, southern China.

Eiffel tower in China

Eiffel tower in China

A replica Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, near a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province

In another case, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities sought UNESCO’s aid in a two-year battle to force China to demolish its near-exact replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza, built by a film production company in 2014. It won, resulting in the 19-metre-high sphinx being demolished in April, and the incident marking the first time China has executed an about-turn on such a high-profile copycat project.

Egypt’s Supreme Council has been calling for a new international ban on the copying of World Heritage Sites and cross-border replicas of cultural heritage. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s premier archaeologist and former head of the Supreme Council, says the country has a law regulating the creation of life-size copies of ancient sites and artefacts – the issue is whether Chinese builders will obey Egyptian rules.

‘Chinese pirates have likewise entered the realm of architecture’

However it is another case of duplitecture in China that has stolen the global limelight. As Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) began constructing the Wangjing Soho complex in Beijing – in the form of three curvilinear sail-shaped skyscrapers – a team of pirate builders started assembling a mirror image of the complex in Chongqing. The late Zaha Hadid said at the time the pirates were building so quickly that she was being forced into a race to complete the original project first. Although press reports on the copycat crime ricocheted around the world, not a single figure in the Chinese leadership ever stepped forward to criticise the operation, much less shut it down.

Fake Zaha

Fake Zaha

The Meiquan 22nd Century building in Chongqing, a copy of Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho

One ZHA architect said the pirates might have got hold of some digital design files, and were using the pilfered plans to construct their ghostly double. Around the time of the suspected theft, internet security outfits began issuing alerts that a team of Chinese hackers had created a sophisticated worm engineered to infect AutoCAD design software with a mutant program that secretly sent blueprints and drawings to dozens of email accounts inside China.

The European outfit ESET warned that the self-replicating worm had infected computers across three continents and that there were ‘tens of thousands of AutoCAD drawings leaked’. Calling the attacks ‘a serious example of suspected industrial espionage’, the group added: ‘Every new design created by a victim is sent automatically to the authors of this malware. Needless to say, this can cost the legitimate owner of the intellectual property a lot of money as the cybercriminals will have designs before they even go into production.’

‘This kind of worm is what you might expect for a targeted high-value attack,’ explains Peter Armstrong, a London-based internet security expert who is part of the UK’s Defence Cyber Protection Partnership. ‘Firms need to wake up to the threat. There is a clear underground (dark web) market for this type of information that will lead to targeted attacks on demand.’ Armstrong added that with the expanding use of the cloud, new channels are appearing for hackers in the service of ‘competitors, governments or organised criminals’.

‘The spectre of increasingly complex pirate operations is encouraging trade officials to call for new measures to rein in the worst copyright bandits’

The open copying of Wangjing Soho triggered a debate among legal scholars when designing under regimes that trail far behind intellectual property standards of the European Union and the United States. London-based lawyers Ian Lowe and Oscar Webb have argued in the press that architects should be vigilant in bringing civil suits against the offenders to prevent a laissez-faire tolerance of piracy from expanding.

Tom Duke, who heads up the intellectual property section at the British Embassy in Beijing, adds that another issue frequently reported is ‘domestic firms passing themselves off as famous international architecture companies’. In an advisory published online, the embassy warned that these corporate identity thieves sometimes create counterfeit ‘trade marks and marketing materials that are identical or similar to those of the international brand’.

ZHA has also been a target for imitators presenting themselves as satellite offices, says an EU official who declined to be named for this piece. These copycat companies take part in building design competitions across China with seeming impunity. ‘It happens all the time, but doesn’t get reported much.’

Copycat Ronchamp

Copycat Ronchamp

The copycat Ronchamp in Zhengzhou, China in 2004

The spectre of increasingly complex pirate operations is encouraging trade officials to call for new measures to rein in the worst copyright bandits. Would the EU file copyright infringement complaints against China? ‘That would be the nuclear option,’ said one EU trade official who monitors China’s violations of the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property provisions. ‘Before that, we would start consultations with the Chinese delegation at the WTO in Geneva,’ he added. But the ‘nuclear option’ remains open.

‘Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city’

The EU joined an action launched by the Office of the United States Trade Representative against China’s massive counterfeiting operations a decade ago. The WTO’s dispute resolution council issued a decision against China in the case but, since then, Beijing has made only cosmetic changes to its copyright laws and enforcement remains wildly sporadic. China remains on the US government’s Notorious Markets list as a leader in ‘commercial-scale IPR [intellectual property rights] counterfeiting and piracy’, according to a report issued by the US Trade Representative in April.

Rem Koolhaas, writing about China’s super-fast city-building drive more than a decade ago, commented on how copying and collage ‘is the essence of architectural and urban production’ in China. ‘Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city.’ Architects have long borrowed freely from each other, but the speed of copycat building is effecting a paradigm shift. Hadid, the most famous victim of duplitecture, once posited that if the mass cloning of her designs in China led to innovative mutations, this might alter the course of architectural evolution. ‘That could be quite exciting,’ she said.