In China, a Skyscraper-Sized Knock-Off

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A model of the Wangjing SOHO (top) building in Beijing, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and a model of the Meiquan 22nd Century building (bottom) in China's southwest Chongqing.
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We’re all familiar with China’s big business in bootlegged merchandise like wristwatches and handbags. There’s a knock-off being made in China right now that’s skyscraper-sized.

A huge office complex called Wangjing Soho is under construction in Beijing, consisting of three futuristic glass mountains designed by the superstar British architect Zaha Hadid. A thousand miles south, towers with an uncanny resemblance are rising in the city of Chongqing. Those developers didn’t hire Hadid; their project Meiquan 22nd Century appears to be a real-time pirated copy of Wangjing Soho. Adding insult to injury, the unauthorized version might be finished first.

Hadid’s project director speculated that someone stole the digital files of the project. But the architect’s reaction was surprisingly measured. When Der Spiegel first broke this story, Hadid expressed excitement at the innovative possibilities that come with cloned buildings.

“We’re used to things being copied, but not at this speed, and not at this scale,” the architecture critic Edward Lifson tells Kurt Andersen. Lifson helps run the USC Architecture School’s American Academy in China. “When I teach Chinese students, there is a very different attitude about, let’s say, ‘honoring a master.’ They don’t call it copying or imitating, it’s a part of their educational system, you ‘honor the master.’”

Lifson says that attitude creates less shame about copying ideas than Westerners would typically express. The Chinese government hasn’t been scrupulous about cracking down on piracy of intellectual property, like DVDs and fashion, and the building scenario isn’t a clear-cut case: the buildings will differ in many small ways, and the Beijing complex consists of three towers, where Chongqing has two. But China is sensitive to global opinion. “If there’s enough press that says, ‘This is wrong. This is not how we do it in the contemporary world. If you want to belong to international trade organizations, don’t act like that,’ the Chinese government could force the [Chongqing] developer to change the project.”

That traditional attitude of honoring or copying may also be changing under global pressure. Lifson points out that “the number of Chinese patents is going up and up exponentially every single year. So as a nation they are starting to worry more about copying and fakes — and protecting their own good ideas.”