Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition—in which producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
The best knockoffs in the world are in China. There are plenty of fake designer handbags and Rolexes, but China’s knockoffs go way beyond fashion. There are knockoff Apple stores that look so much like the real thing that some employees believe they are working in real Apple stores. And then there are entire knockoff cities. There are Venices with complete canals and replicas of the Doge’s Palace. A Paris with an Eiffel Tower and an Arc de Triomphe. In the suburbs of any Chinese city, there are endless examples of “duplitecture.”
Shanghai alone has 10 neighborhoods all built in the architectural styles of different European countries. Traffic permitting, it’s possible to travel from “Germany” to “Italy” to “England” in the course of a few hours.
These are not theme parks or novelties like one might see in Las Vegas. Duplitecture developments are functioning communities where Chinese families are raising their children and living their lives.
These communities also differ from American Chinatowns or Germantowns, which were established by immigrants. These are Chinese communities, in American- or European-styled buildings, designed primarily by Chinese architects.
These replica buildings resemble the originals to varying degrees. The buildings might be larger or smaller than the real things. They might be made of different materials or even painted another color. As such, duplitecture can become a warped caricature of the original.
Developers take a lot of liberties with duplitecture construction, sometimes adjusting the replicas to work in accordance with the principles of feng shui.
Nevertheless, a lot of these duplitecture communities have rules to actively discourage any behavior that they think might disrupt the “European feel” of the development.
To further create the impression of a Paris, there might be a French bakery or a Bastille Day celebration.
As odd and uncanny as these buildings and communities can be, duplitecture is pretty impressive. These buildings go up quickly, on a massive scale, and they show no signs of stopping. New developments are popping up around China all the time, even though duplitecture isn’t exactly a new trend.
In premodern China, imperial rulers used copycat buildings to show off their authority, making replicas of landmarks in cities they had conquered, or importing flora and fauna to recreate foreign landscapes within their own domain.
In keeping with that tradition, one of the most copied buildings in China is the very seat of Western power itself: the White House. Serving as hotels, restaurants, courthouses, and homes, White Houses are all over China, morphed and varied in different permutations. Still, they all have those signature columns and square porticoes.
Though some might argue that the Chinese have taken duplitecture to a whole new level, architects have been copying each other forever, and the U.S. is no exception. The architect who built the White House based his design on the Leinster House in Dublin, which is now the seat of the Irish parliament. The Leinster House, in turn, contains strong elements of Greek and Roman architecture.
Some of the greatest hits of American architecture are copies of the greatest hits of ancient Roman architecture, which are now all being copied by the Chinese. China has proven quite successful at turning imitation into innovation in other sectors. China’s iPhone knockoffs had some features that you couldn’t find on Apple’s phone, like a removable battery and multiple SIM cards, all for a lower price. It’s easy to scoff at a fake Venice, but copying, as a practice, is totally underrated. Mindful iteration is often how good things become great things.
99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.