McMaoMansions: California Dreamin’ in China

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An article of faith for architects and designers schooled since the birth of the Modern is that they should aspire for originality; and a source of great frustration and financial…

trademarked its store design). Not so in China, where piracy is rife in a culture that has a very different view of duplication. This is not just the case for movies but also for buildings. Not only are historic landmarks of the West being reproduced wholesale but even contemporary designs by the most original of architects are being ripped-off while under constructionBianca Bosker is a senior tech editor at The Huffington Post who has studied the current Chinese mania for copying Western monuments in her new book Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. She found that a popular sourcebook was California and its suburban lifestyle, as described in this essay written for DnA.

There’s only one place in the world you can find Beverly Hills within an hour’s drive from the Chrysler Building: Chongqing, China.

In the southwest Chinese metropolis of 28.8 million, a replica of the Chrysler Building, called “New York, New York Tower,” stands not far from the Beverly Hills luxury villa development, home to “facsimiles of the gold stars of Hollywood Boulevard set into the paving stones.”

These copycats belong to one of China’s most popular and perplexing architectural trends: the construction of monumental themed landscapes that replicate, in stunning detail, the cities and iconic historical sites of the West.
Though Venice and Versailles have inspired their fair share of suburban housing developments, California, with its legendary Hollywood glamour, theatrical wealth, luxurious rituals, and envy-inspiring celebrities, has provided an irresistible template for newly minted upper- and middle-class Chinese seeking to define what the “good life” looks like and how to stage it. Chongqing boasts not only its own Beverly Hills – which lures homebuyers with the promise of “the glamorous lifestyle of the U.S. West Coast” – but is also home to Palm Springs International villa development, which faithfully sustains the illusion of California-living with taupe and orange stucco homes, terra cotta-tiled roofs, palm trees, and impeccably groomed lawns.
For home buyers craving the aura of California’s bucolic hedonism, there is Napa Valley in Beijing, which makes up for what it lacks in vines with wood, stone and stucco villas that appear airlifted from the wine country north of San Francisco. China’s capital now also has its own Orange County, thanks to homes and architects imported from the original prototype: Chinese developers hired the Newport Beach firm Bassenian Lagoni Architects to replicate its signature Mediterranean-style California McMansions and brought a California interior designer on board to appoint the model homes. As an alternative to outsourcing design talent, Chinese developers send their own architects on crash courses to London or LAX to study up, firsthand, the communities they wish to emulate.
China Vanke, one of China’s largest real estate development companies, copied the look, feel, style, opulence and even name of San Diego’s upscale Rancho Santa Fe community. Shanghai’s Rancho Santa Fe has block after block of Spanish Mission style “villas,” complete with basketball hoops in the driveway. Inside the gated (and carefully guarded) community, there are few hints you are in China. Hulking high-rises give way to single family homes; the air smells fresher, lighter here, thanks, perhaps, to the fact that diesel fumes are “sanitized” by the vast plantings of trees and shrubbery. Uncharacteristically, for this frenetic Chinese city, the neighborhoods are serene: the residents are tucked into their homes and the winding streets are light on traffic.
As I argue in my book, the Chinese residents of these immersion neighborhoods are not immune to the spatial dissonance produced by stucco- and tile-studded simulacrascapes that bring SoCal and other Western lifestyles within the orbit of China’s largest cities. “The hardware may be all Western,” explained one Chinese resident with whom I spoke, “but the software is all Chinese.”
The appeal of these gated communities is not only their Western style, which has become the coveted marker of socio-economic success and a durable symbol of luxury, but also the segregation they provide. Caught between the government’s “to get rich is glorious” maxim and the official insistence — in spite of rapidly and dramatically widening income disparities—that the PRC has no socio-economic classes, the “haves” who buy into these communities have a tenuous relation with the “have-nots.” In addition to wanting to flaunt their status with California mega-mansions, residents of these communities have developed a marked anxiety that makes them seek refuge within security-guarded, securely gated, constantly patrolled properties. At Rancho Santa Fe, visitors are scrutinized by a small army of security personnel and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, which beam footage back to a guard’s booth equipped with a dozen screens.
The sheer audacity and scope of China’s “duplitecture” movement might blind us to the fact that it is, in fact, not original in embracing copycat construction at a dynamic, transitional phase of its development.  Americans, too, have gone through fierce bouts of “nostalgia” building, and, as countless subdivisions and malls make clear, have not yet gotten over their fascination with raiding the building styles of bygone times and distant places.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, importation of European models—the Beaux Arts, Tudor style, Georgian, and Italianate styles—was a dominant strategy in American architecture. Napa Valley itself owes much of its aesthetic and ornamental flair to the wine-growing European ancestors. However, the depth and extensiveness of American-based replication of European models do not hold a hammer and nail to the trans-cultural, trans-temporal architectural replications that China is embracing on a massive scale.
Unprecedented in the scale, scope, speed, and the scrupulousness of its architectural copies, China’s imitative architecture raises questions about intellectual property within the context of both residential and iconic, historical architecture. Should it be permissible to copy California’s most celebrated architectural monuments and contributions? What if China’s developers were to embark on a systematic program to replicate The Hearst Castle, Richard Neutra’s iconic modernist houses, the Gamble House, and the Walt Disney Performing Arts Center?
Sound far-fetched? Not at all, given China’s recent foray into what some might consider a kind of architectural espionage. After meticulous beneath-the-radar data gathering, measuring, and sourcing, developers in China’s southern city of Huizhou in Guangdong province, have duplicated Austria’s Hallstatt village, a picture postcard-perfect UNESCO World Heritage site. The Chinese knock-off project, a stunningly detailed replication of one of Europe’s most celebrated sites, was the culmination of work undertaken by Chinese architects and draftsman who were dispatched to this quaint European outpost to “take the measurements” of Hallstatt Village so it could be recreated in China. Given the penchant for replicating the revered, monumental, and iconic contributions of Western architecture down to their most devilish details, China’s movers and shakers in the faking it big movement will soon be answering questions that are new to the world of architecture, and, to the courts.
For generations, Americans have made the pilgrimage to California in pursuit of their dreams. Today, in their search of a better life that has all the architectural bells and whistles that Americans hold dear, the Chinese are also flocking to California—to their meticulously crafted counterfeit version, yes, but one that has equal allure and cachet. Indeed, China’s architectural replication signals an even greater movement in lifestyle duplication: the wholesale replication of the American dream.