China’s right to copy – it was a topic on the MY-CI mailinglist early August 2006. It started with a link to the sinocities-website and following text: With the speed that the city construction (in China) is developing now, sometimes there is just not enough time to design something new. See how some architects find creative solutions. What followed on the website was a list of 11 projects of internationally renowned architects (Le Corbusier, Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, Neutelings Riedijk, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Rogers, Johann Otto von Spreckselen, Suaerbruch Hutton and Herzog and de Meuron), featuring one of their projects and under them the Chinese copies, unclear if these design were made by Chinese offices, but the suggestion was implicit there. They were not really build copied (except for Le Corbusier church design for Ronchamp), but renderings featuring highly similar building in a different setting. If they would be ever build was not clear at all – maybe they were just test models, a fairly normal procedure in the architectural practice (look, this is how Paris would look if we would built the Twin Towers next to the Eiffel Tower).
After this post a small discussion started, trying to explain the causes of this; some pointed in the direction of the lack of “sufficient” education and “body” to monitor works submitted by artists/creative talents and ensure copyright protection adhered to; someone tried to connect a project on Global Cultural Cloning with this topic (having already a publisher for his book, gave some dubious importance to the call); but finally the discussion sank in the swamp land of the right to copy DVD’s, sharing files, ‘s own development as an exporter of content, MP3’s and business models for creative industry. In fact, since the first message, the discussion never touched the essence of China’s right to copy (architecture).
Without doubt in China one can question the right to copy, innovation, creativity and cloning. During the last decade China build a substantial amount of new architecture and within that boom, creativity, as we think to understand it, played a dubious role. The real creative work seems to come from the foreign architects; for them China is an amazing opportunity to build audacious architecture. Some call in this respect China a playground. But is it inherent in the Chinese culture to copy, or is it due to the fact that local architects don’t have enough time to be creative? The question could also this one: how much time does an architect need to have to be creative?
The issue of architectural copyright is not solely a question for China. In recent years, Western architecture got also its share of this debate. This could be seen in the notorious case of Gareth Pearce who brought Rem Koolhaas and Ove Arup to court stating that they had plagiarized and misappropriated concepts he had developed as a student for a town hall in the London Docklands. Mr. Pearce claimed that Mr. Koolhaas used his concepts and as we can read in the report of high court of justice in London, the accusation goes beyond plagiarism, for he (Rem Koolhaas) is accused of surreptitiously and dishonestly making or obtaining copies of the claimant’s plans and using these directly in the design of the Kunsthal by a process of cutting and pasting. evidence brought in By Mr. Pearce, and his expert, didn’t work, and the whole attempt was later described as a failure.
Another one was the case of Thomas Shine who sued David Childs and his Freedom Tower for former World Trade Center site in New York and stated it was copied from his work, work he did at the Yale School of Architecture. In this case the challenge for proving a copy was the following: In order to prove this allegation, Shine will need to show that the design elements in his plan are distinctive and creative, which the experts said would qualify his design for architectural copyright protection. Shine would also have to prove that Childs had access to his designs, but Childs has already admitted that he saw Shine’s works when he served on a panel of jurists invited to evaluate students’ work for a studio class at Yale in 1999.
The question is what does “substantially” similar mean? To resolve the issue, the court homes have a checklist, they focus on the unique and creative elements of the designs, disregarding commonplace stock elements, since only original elements receive protection under copyright law, the legal experts say. The legal standard for architectural copyright are in this cases normally based on the impressions of an ordinary observer rather than an architecture expert.
Architectural Education in China
Returning back to the supposed copied Western architecture in China, in the MY-CI discussion the topic of education was touched as an issue. Architecture education is a possible reason, as it has only since twenty years being thought off as an issue, starting with a discussion in the early 1980s between two possible direction; a debate between ‘modernism’ and ‘national form’ but is seems the differentiation of these two positions turns more on matters of external appearance than anything else. it comes to architectural education Stan Fung and Zhao Yang point in their text Towards a new Chinese architecture [Domus 864, November 2003], this title being a copy of Le Corbusier’s classic manifesto Towards a new architecture, to the following lack in criticality in China’s architectural education system:
The contrast between critical internationalism and corporate modernism, or between critical regionalism and popular regionalism, were widely neglected. In the course of the last 15 years, the work of KPF has attracted as much attention and admiration in China as that of Tadao Ando and Richard Meier. (…) One consequence of this is that the work of Rem Koolhaas and other leading Western figures is received in China without the commentary that mediates the work and its audience in the West. Their heroic status is amplified in a critical vacuum free of nagging doubt.
The issue of copying, maybe in this context better rephrased as learning from, Western architecture should not solely focus on the so-called good image architecture that Western architects deliver. The 11 cases are just good to illustrate what is happening, putting the creative architect in a corner he doesn’t want to be in. In China, not only the Chinese are responsible for the cut-and-paste, or just-in-time, strategy of delivering architecture. Opportunities give way to opportunists, like one can see in the case of Atelier Dutch (nomen est omen), that build Gaoqiao Dutch New Town in Shanghai, and Kuiper Compagnons (one of the big Dutch companies building in China) that build Gaoqiao Cultural Plaza, featuring a copy of the Palace on the Dam (Amsterdam), and Bert Roos and Teun Notenboom, and why not Chinese architects?, who realized in Shenyang a theme-park called Holland Village (featuring a mishmash of Amsterdam’s Central Station, the Peace Palace in the Hague and the bridge Kroonburg in Leiden, all in life size).
This crap and paste technique is the one that is worrying, an international corporate refusal to give the Chinese people the potential of the creativity, to give them a new image, a new identity and living environment. It is alarming that foreign architects (with their knowledge, content, design skills and other blablabla) are responsible for this.
In the suburbs of Shanghai someone has build Thames Town, featuring a Georgian square, a Victorian shopping street, a mock-Gothic church (which is not consecrated) and an authentic replica of a fish and chips shop located in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Dorset. When the English owner, Ms Caddy, of the shop was confronted with thisher reaction, according to the Telegraph, was the following: “Everything has been completely copied, without anyone consulting me or giving me an explanation.” [The Chinese have Shanghaied my pub, Telegraph, September 15, 2006].
Paul Rice, from the Shanghai offices of Atkins, the British firm of architects brought in to supervise the building of Thames Town, replied to her as following: “This is not really a question of copying or mimicking. What we are trying to do in Thames Town is set an architectural idiom in a modern context.” [The Chinese have Shanghaied my pub, Telegraph, September 15, 2006]. In the end, according to Telegraph, Ms Caddy decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, and suggested to the China Daily that the two towns could be twinned. She even called for a plaque to be put up, referring to the original buildings in Dorset.
2006. Bert de Muynck
Creative China, Cutting and Pasting? was a contribution to the “MyCreativity“-conference [Amsterdam, November 2006]. It was published in the “The Creativity“, a free accidental newspaper dedicated to the anonymous creative worker.
[update] Illegal Copying [MARK magazine 2010] – a small investigation into Beijing’s scene of illegal architectural bookseller and pirated publications.
[update] Shanghai Satellite Towns [published in Bauwelt 7.2012 ]