Urban Design 127 - China: Replication, Replication, Replication - Alastair Donald re-evaluates the Chinese imitation of Western designs

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In recent years, gleaming urban structures such as OMA’s CCTV Tower and Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid have featured prominently in coverage of emerging metropolitan China. Yet away from the new CBDs, in the suburbs and satellite towns of China’s burgeoning cities, the construction boom of the last 20 years has given birth to a very different form of development. Its products – Thames Town, Fontainebleau Villas, Hallstatt, Venice Gardens, Rancho Santa Fe, Yujiapu, to name but a few – are instances of the ‘theme towns’ or ‘copycat cities’ phenomenon that has been sweeping across China.

Take the residential complex in Chengdu, seemingly the twin of Dorchester, England: not only does it replicate the layout of Dorchester’s streets and squares, and urban typologies such as terraced houses with pitched roofs, but even the materiality of the streetscapes seems familiar, right down to the black metal street lamps mimicking the gaslights of Ye Old England.

Head east to Shanghai: here the One City, Nine Towns initiative ensures that on a daytrip around the urban fringes, it is possible to stumble upon townscapes associated with Scandinavia, Spain, Canada, Holland, Italy, Germany and England. These are satellite towns, scale replicas of foreign cities housing up to 300,000 people. Thames Town even has a Queen of England’s foot guard patrol. Elsewhere, marvel at the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, take a gondola trip through Venice Water Town in Hangzhou, or visit a peninsula southeast of Beijing where the towers of Yujiapu signify an intended new financial centre, a near facsimile of Manhattan.

Original Copies

In Europe and America, most of what has been said and written about these copycat cities betrays puzzlement or even amusement at what are viewed as kitsch developments. Some are simply indignant: Mayor Scheutz of Hallstatt, Austria, a World Heritage listed village, even complained to the UN about the full-scale replica of his town in Boluo, southern China, complete with its Alpine-style wood houses and Roman-numeral clock tower.

However, given that copycat cities are widespread and often popular – for example, a few years back, surveys showed as much as 70 per cent of Beijing property development emphasised western architectural motifs – an enquiry into the urban design and social dynamics associated with theme towns seems long overdue. This makes Bianca Bosker’s Original Copies (2013) one of the more welcome additions to the growing literature on Chinese cities. Bosker spent – on and off – 6 years in China undertaking East Asian studies and pursuing additional interests in architecture and Chinese visual culture. Built around observations, field research and interviews, Original Copiesgoes beyond the often shallow and sometimes prejudicial reports of China’s urban emergence. So what are the forces underlying what Bosker terms ‘duplitecture’ and ‘simulacrascapes’ – architecture and urban design that stresses imitation rather than innovation?

The New Chinese Dream?

Original Copiessituates theme towns in the context of China’s transition to modernity, a condition of social and urban flux which has seen more than 300 million migrants absorbed into metropolitan areas in the space of just 30 years. Given that the state has for more than 60 years exercised command control over all aspects of economic and social life, it’s little surprise that maintaining stability is deemed a priority, and that pressing questions have come to the fore as to how to create and maintain a new society, and what shape it should take.

The most visible change in China occurs through urban building programmes, and ensures that space and housing for the growing urban population – China aims to build 36 million units in the four years to 2015 – have become central to discussions over the social and economic future of the new China. Consequently, theme towns are shaped by a diverse cast of private consumers, business interests, municipal governments and Communist Party functionaries and policy makers. All have, according to Bosker, contributed to the conception and materialisation of these new ‘simulacrascapes’ which embody not a singular story, but a confluence of pragmatic requirements and symbolic needs.

On one level, copycat cities can be understood as the construction of a story through space – although this is seldom a straightforward tale. Certainly the typologies, urban forms and detailing taken from carefully selected locations (mostly western Europe, often Mediterranean) and historic periods (Renaissance, Victorian) may appear kitsch. But as the territory of China’s emerging middle classes, these places can be understood as aspirational environments, intentionally emblematic of modern comforts and space standards, deliberately symbolising sophistication, lifestyle choices and identity, all intended to broadcast a break from the past.

When the housing of yesteryear is encapsulated by the 1970s government slogan ‘Functional, economical; delightful if conditions permit’ and the grim reality was the bleak apartment blocks produced by Maoist urban development, it’s little wonder that contemporary aspiration is embodied by the desire to reject past Chinese design. In this sense, western urban forms stand for transcending circumstances, while becoming worldly is a means to display one’s modernity. Neighbourhood names such as Galaxy Dante (Shenzhen) and Garden of Monet (Shanghai) may seem far-fetched, but for their occupiers, they bestow and confirm a status of newly civilised lifestyles.

Today in the West, when the rejection of modernity goes hand in hand with promoting localism over internationalism, and leads the ethical middle classes to chastise conspicuous displays of wealth, and instead adopt eco-chic styles, western bemusement at theme towns is often an expression of hostility to the open display of new Chinese wealth.

Complexity and Contradictions in Copycat Cities

However, while theme towns no doubt fulfil some of the immediate aspirations of their inhabitants, the dynamic driving these developments can also be found in the impragmatic requirements of other players. For a state which attempts to realise its desire for stability through the drive for new housing, and for developers operating within a target driven culture focussed on units delivered, ‘duplitecture’ – or the replication of models of development tried and tested elsewhere – makes sense.

Faced with targets imposed from the centre as to where, what and how much to build, not only can replicating western models, typologies and styles save time and money in the design phase, but using overseas know-how can help overcome the lack of accumulated domestic experience. Meanwhile, Bosker points out, at a time when the rapid drive to build threatens the erasure of character, adopting a variety of different western styles, provides a useful branding process that helps distinguish otherwise interchangeable new developments and create a handy marketing tool to boot.

Ultimately, copycat cities epitomise the often contradictory dynamics of China’s emergence into the modern world, creating ambiguities that are an established part of the modernisation processes of all countries throughout history. For example, the importation of western urban designs appears to suggest a rejection of Chineseness. Yet these developments are in fact often heavily modified, a pick and mix approach which means that despite all the focus on copying, developments are in reality culturally adapted. Even Hallstatt is only a fairly vague copy, despite the designs having been developed after scans were used to generate a 3D computer model of the entire town. What is iconic or attractive from the European order is kept, while the rest is revamped, whether through re-scaling, transforming building heights, playing fast and loose with courtyard forms, or adapting layouts to the orientation required by Feng Shui.

Here is where we find one of the biggest contradictions of all: amidst the centrally created targets to build, when the selection of typologies to import is misjudged, and/or when (often western) designers fail to sensitively modify them to Chinese taste, these can become one of China’s infamous Ghost Cities – the fully built but largely unoccupied cities that result from a housing bubble which, according to some reports, accounts for 64 million empty units across China.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in German Anting Town, a satellite of Shanghai. Here the clichéd German town with half-timbered houses and arched gates initially planned by Chinese developers, was sacrificed after Frankfurt-based Albert Speer & Partner put forward a model district, representative of modern, environmentally-friendly Germany. The double-glazing, central heating, green spaces, ponds and canals – all of which German Anting provided – were not enough to attract a population. This is a Ghost City undermined by its east-west facing windows that confound expectations generated by Feng Shui, the lack of boundary walls when the expectation is that residential estates will be gated, and a lack of transport infrastructure.

Conclusion: All change

It is important not to draw the wrong conclusions from the contemporary experience of China. The existence of copycat cities and ghost cities are not reasons to reject the presence of western over local designers, nor western-influenced urban designs – although the emerging debate over past, present and future, suggests possibilities for the emergence of new urban models. Nor should we hope for an end to grand masterplanned projects or the rapid urbanisation process of which they are part. After all, it is this dynamic that has helped transform China in little more than 30 years from rural to urban, from an agrarian to a modern economy, giving the mass of Chinese people a city-based future while lifting 300 million+ people from poverty.

In fact the culture of copy, which sometimes includes dramatic misjudgements and often poor execution, needs to be recognised for what it is – indicative of the experimentation which inevitably accompanies progress, and part and parcel of China’s emergence into the modern world. In the West, where the future is now a fearful place, an outlook of precaution dominates, and the guarantees we demand mean we talk a lot about building and construct very little. The need to improve the urban design of new Chinese cities is vital, but when the future is genuinely up for grabs, creative tensions, ambiguities and contradictions are inevitably part of the furious drive to get there.

China is in a state of flux, and the comments of one insightful 19th century observer of modernity seem apposite: ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations.... are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify’. As Bosker puts it, copycat cities can be viewed as a stage of development in China, from imitative to generative, from apprentice to master of new paradigms, from retrograde to innovative in architectural design and urban planning. •

Alastair Donald is Associate Director, Future Cities Project and co-editor of Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs


↑Hangzhou, the greatest hits of Parisian architecture recreated in a sprawling residential development

Photo credit: Bianca Bosker

↑China’s carbon-copy of Venice: townhouses overlooking manmade canals on which ‘gondoliers’ navigate under stone bridges

↑↑ The crown jewels of Hangzhou’s Venice Water Town residential development

Photo credits: Bianca Bosker

↑Shanghai’s British-inspired Thames Town lure potential buyers with the promise ‘Dream of England. Live in Thames Town’.

↑↑ Shanghai’s Holland Village dotted with windmills, planters with plastic tulips and townhouses with dormer windows and tiled spires

Photo credits: Bianca Bosker