Architecture and Copyright in China

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Architecture and Copyright in China

In recent years, there have been several stories in the media concerning large-scale Chinese architectural imitations, and copyright in China in general. A replica of the picturesque Alpine village of Hallstatt in Austria (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was unveiled in Huizhou, Guangdong Province in 2012. The Chinese developers, Minmetals Land Ltd., even got the real mayor of Hallstatt to fly in from Austria for the official opening. The initial outrage of some residents of the original Halstatt has since faded as increasing numbers of Chinese visitors have boosted local tourism.

A copy of a Swiss town in China

A Swiss town copied in China

A copy of London architect Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO office and retail complex in Beijing, the Meiquan 22nd Century building, is being built in Chongqing and is even expected to be completed before the original. Its developers, Chongqing Meiquan, claimed that the design was inspired by the cobblestones on the banks of the Yangtze River where Chongqing was built. However, SOHO Chairman Pan Shiyi stated that Wangjing SOHO was designed to resemble a koi carp, which the Chinese believe symbolises wealth, luck, health and happiness, and insisted on filing a lawsuit. It is likely that the Chongqing firm got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project. Zaha Hadid has taken a more philosophical stance on the replication of her designs, stating that it would be “quite exciting” if future generations of these cloned buildings display innovative mutations.

Although a legal framework for copyright protection exists in China (The Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China (1990) and its Implementing Rules (2002)), it is has been difficult to implement it in practice, partly due to the overwhelming economic power of large construction companies. Architects in China are relatively powerless with regard to the reproduction of their work.

A reproduction of an architectural work can take place in three forms:

1. Copying the construction designs;

2. Modifying an already existing building design;

3. Replicating a building at a different site.

Numbers 1 and 3 are considered infringements if the replication of a building is based on the illicit use of another building design. It has proved to be difficult to judge the difference between the theft of a third party’s artistic creation and a creation which has been inspired by someone else’s work.

Perhaps the most ambitious replication project in China is the 3.86 million square metre replica of Manhattan currently being built in the former fishing village of Yujiapu in Tianjin. With an estimated construction cost of RMB 200 billion, this future financial centre will provide some 9.5 million square metres of office space. A major contributing factor to the Manhattan flavour is its construction and planning company. The Rockefeller Group is directly involved in the investment and construction of Yujiapu’s infrastructure.

So what is the cause of China’s fondness for replicating Western architecture? Does it reflect a Chinese obsession with all things Western, and a desire to emulate the West? Or are there other factors in play? Some have suggested that these massive projects are intended to showcase China’s rise as a global power. An interesting parallel exists with China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin. Whenever the Qin conquered one of their rivals, they built replicas of their palaces near their capital city. By appropriating these Western symbols of power, China not only places itself on a symbolic par with historical Western superpowers, but also suggests that it has mastered and transcended their levels of achievement.