Made in China

A 108-metre-high Eiffel tower, "Venice Water Town and "Thames Town"? It's the Middle Kingdom's new craze for architectural replicas

Thames Town has cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, a turreted castle and a fish and chip shop. But as its unconvincing name hints, Thames Town is not an archetypal English market town. Rather, it is a work of architectural mimicry on the outskirts of Shanghai. In the last decade, the city has built eight other districts copying Western architecture; Italy, Spain, Canada, Holland, Norway and Germany were given the same treatment as England. 

Bianca Bosker has written the first study of this unlikely cultural trend (Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, University of Hawaii Press, £25). As Bosker explains, European-themed communities are dotted across China’s growing suburban landscape. Visit Hangzhou and you will find a 108-metre-high Eiffel Tower on Champs-Elysées Square and Venice Water Town, complete with its own St Mark’s Square. 

This phenomenon is a far cry from the polished skyscrapers that have risen with China’s wealth. It is the quainter side to China’s economic re-emergence, one bankrolled by the Middle Kingdom’s burgeoning middle class who, on one estimate, will account for 40 per cent of China’s population by 2020. To this newly affluent group, Western-themed towns are not Disneyland novelties but a step towards a new way of life. “It’s not like Las Vegas,” says Bosker. “These are not theme parks. These are homes. These are communities.”

Bosker and the architects she talks to insist that there is more to this mimicry than mere plagiarism. Some argue the towns are architectural tributes, each a mark of respect to Western cultures. Others point to the example of Qin Shi Huangdi who, having defeated six rival kingdoms to become the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC, commemorated his success by building replicas of each defeated king’s palace in his capital. If this is imitation as subjugation, Americans will be alarmed to learn that the most copied building in China is the White House.

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