A few weeks ago, a bit of architecture news attracted an unusual amount of attention from the media. As renowned UK-based architect Zaha Hadid was seeing to the construction of her Wangjing Soho complex in Beijing — one of her 11 projects underway in China — an ostensive replica of the design was simultaneously being realized in Chongqing. The scheme had been “pirated” by competing developers, in the language of news breakers Der Spiegel, and the race was on to see which complex — the original or its imitator — would be completed first. Press statements and lawsuits followed shortly, and the stage was set for what many anticipated to be the first major court case over intellectual property rights in architecture.
As lawyers scrutinized Chinese copyright regulations, the story of Wangjing Soho and its illegitimate clone — dubbed the Meiquan 22nd Century Building — gained traction as an extraordinary, even unprecedented episode in contemporary culture. Part of its appeal, so it seems, is that it points to the theoretical normality of such an occurrence. China is notorious for its culture of counterfeiting, having forged everything from handbags to iconic buildings to entire UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On the other hand, through a more Western perspective, architecture is historically based on mimesis, evolving precisely through attempts to emulate external phenomena, be it nature, machinery, or even the work of others. However, this particular incident in Chongqing seems to have sparked an entirely new debate on the ethics of copying, one that confronts how advances in technology have changed contemporary architectural practice.
What seems to distinguish the Chongqing replica from both the derivative designs of Western architectural history and the ersatz buildings of China’s recent history is that it reproduces a design that is emphatically of the digital age. In this era, new means of appropriating concepts, images, and forms have complicated exactly what authorship means in all of the arts, including architecture. Hadid in particular, with the help of firm partner and theoretician Patrik Schumacher, has made a career out of utilizing computer software and scripts to generate architecture. One could say that Hadid’s works are designed precisely to be cloned, in a sense, but altered to fit different contexts — hence the stylistic uniformity of her projects.
Thus, it made sense that Hadid’s immediate response to the Chongqing facsimile was mildly enthusiastic, suggesting that the mutations that result from emulating her buildings “could be quite exciting,” as she told Der Spiegel. Her entire practice is based on the credo that new technologies have made accessible an infinite variety of similar but different architectural forms, all of which can be produced, reproduced, and modified effortlessly. The ease with which Hadid’s Wangjing Soho complex was recreated in Chongqing is arguably a testament to the foresight of Hadid’s parametricism. Nonetheless, despite having only two of the three pebble-shaped outcroppings of Hadid’s original Beijing design, the Chongqing clone seems decidedly unscrupulous, as evinced by the legal uproar that ensued.
“The outcry and media coverage generated by this accident highlight the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves today,” architectural historian Mario Carpo explained to ARTINFO over e-mail. Carpo’s most recent publication, “The Alphabet and the Algorithm,” explores the erratic relationship between technology and architecture, to which he partly attributes the conditions that precipitated this entire saga. To Carpo, it is “the rift between the new media and technologies we use and the old cultural frame of mind we have inherited and not yet updated” that inspired this disquieting case of architectural mimesis.
Like other commentators who have defended architecture’s relatively lax intellectual property regulations, Carpo believes that architecture has traditionally developed out of the transmission of ideas through imitation. This enduring notion, however, was disrupted when modern technologies for mass-producing identical objects — including print, photography, and assembly-line manufacturing — codified the mindset that “machines make identical copies; artists do not,” as Carpo put it.
The conclusion for him is logical. Carpo claims that these notions have begun to change again with the arrival of digital technologies. Machines today can produce not only identical copies but also endless variations of objects, a progressive concept that allegedly anchors the work of Hadid and Schumacher. In light of this, the use of contemporary digital programs to create nearly identical products — as the developers in Chongqing are doing with Hadid’s design — can be perceived as outmoded and shamefully misguided.
But there is more to it than that. Beyond appearing obsolete, the Chongqing replica effectively reveals how we have yet to embrace the value of our own digital-age accomplishments. In theory, parametricism — the style being counterfeited — seeks to do more with less: With powerful computing software, Hadid and others are actually designing variable and transmissible codes instead of immutable buildings; their work should theoretically achieve new levels of diversity in architecture and revolutionize the discipline by making properly context-sensitive buildings more attainable.
Yet even with our liberating digital tools, we continue to create architecture that prioritizes its flashy, iconic image over its ability to restructure the way buildings are designed and disseminated. Parametricism today is not so much a movement as it is a consumable brand — evidently deserving of copyright protection. Few can object that Hadid’s complex was replicated not for its theoretically reformist underpinnings but for its coveted cosmetic appearance as a status symbol, much like the imbricating initials of Louis Vuitton.
If the most fundamental aspirations of parametricism were to be fully realized, if architecture were to truly embrace the fluidity of design as espoused by our current technological culture, there would likely be no “Zaha Hadid,” the architect, persona, and brand. There would be no architectural style that could swell enough in popularity to warrant unwelcomed plagiarism. Instead, there would just be architects — both celebrated and nameless — whose varied imitations would emerge out of the will to transform shared resources into an optimal shared environment.