Never Meant to Copy, only to Surpass

Hannah Sloan Wood
10 min readOct 25, 2017


Illustration by Evgenia Barinova

Wangjing SOHO, a three tower complex in Beijing penned by Zaha Hadid, became a worldwide sensation when it was revealed that the scheme was being plagiarized by an illicit construction team in Chongqing, southern China. Despite the subsequent outcry from the professional design world, Hadid responded that if the ‘copy-cat’ designs displayed innovative mutations, “that would be exciting”. While many architectural icons are commissioned precisely for their artistic originality, the design response is often non-site specific, which raises interesting questions when such icons are reproduced around the globe. What does it mean for architectural originality and innovation, when a ‘copy-paste’ strategy is normalized?

The imposter project in question went by the name of ‘Meiquan 22nd Century’, and bore a striking resemblance to its counterpart in Wangjing. Rather than three curved, bubble-like towers it instead exhibited two, mirroring an earlier phase of Wangjing SOHO (which had been later been revised to distribute floor space over concerns over the building’s height). An architect working within the Hadid studio told Spiegel Online at the time “it is possible that the ‘Chongqing pirates’ got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project”. This statement lead to both outrage and concern in the profession over entire works of architecture being counterfeited, a creative field which to that point had been supposedly exempt from plagiarism. Meanwhile, Meiquan 22nd Century was racing its ‘mother’ to completion.

As Hadid and client proceeded to press charges against the developers of Meiquan 22nd Century, Chongqing Meiquan — simultaneously generating enormous volumes of publicity for both schemes — commentators pointed a finger at China, citing a ‘thriving counterfeit culture’ as a main cause for the absurdity. In a tongue-in-cheek move, Chongqing Meiquan released the advertising slogan for their project: ‘Never Meant to Copy, only to Surpass’.

Blame was subsequently placed on the Chinese government for not going far enough to secure intellectual property law, or the ignorance of developers in seeking out an ‘off-the-shelf’ architectural solution, which completely abandoned the intricacies of site-specific design. The speed of development had apparently lead to a nation churning out replicant buildings, even entire towns, without thought for the idiocracy of the cityscape being generated in the process. Journalist Bianca Bosker, in her book Original Copies, termed the increasingly prevalent movement ‘duplitecture’, repulsing architectural onlookers with images of ‘Venice Water Town Hangzhou’ (aka Piazza San Marco, a well known square close to the site of the Venice Biennale). In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Bosker suggested that “China, at least traditionally, has viewed copying with far greater nuance and tolerance than we have in the West”.

“At the time, many commentators pointed a finger at China, citing a ‘thriving counterfeit culture’ or perhaps too speedy a development process, which had lead to a nation churning out replicant buildings, even cities, with little consideration for site-specific design.”

Venice Water Town Hangzhou. © Thomas

The ease and speed at which information can be bounced around the globe today via the Internet has created an interesting new territory for architects’ intellectual property rights. In our open-source culture, construction elements, features or entire buildings can be imported, mirrored, augmented and replicated with the click of a mouse. In his book Mutations, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas suggests an upcoming generation of ‘Photoshop Designers’ are in the process of creating a new variant of urbanism — termed ‘the collage city’ — which is, for the most part, viewed remotely through a screen rather than experienced directly. The European Architectural History Network picked up on this phenomenon in their 2016 session ‘copy/paste’, or, the “shift from constructed reality to that of the image”, which they termed a “phenomenon in postmodernism”.

“The ease and speed at which information can be bounced around the globe today via the internet has created an interesting new territory for architects’ intellectual property rights.”

An interesting architectural aspect to the Wangjing case is the interchangeability of buildings designed to be iconic, in part stemming from celebrity architects placing foremost attention to the flamboyant form of their schemes over other design considerations, such as those relating to material or context. This becomes doubly disastrous when entire urban development plans are centered around such icons and the tourism they are expected to generate. This is architecture being used as a branding strategy — a shift exemplified by numerous architects’ recent commissions to rebrand entire cities, or even countries, such as BIG’s work to promote the Nordic region. It seems that to many urban planners having a Libeskind in their city is more important than a coherent urban development plan, like an art collector with a Diebenkorn. To copy the city’s icon is therefore like ripping out its cultural heart.

Wanjing SOHO and it’s daughter project, Meiquan 22nd Century. Sketch by © Zaha Hadid Architects.

While these iconic projects are revered, the majority of day-to-day architecture work generally concerns variants of existing designs, whether it is rearranging individual apartment plans into blocks, detailing, or formulating product schedules — tasks which often involve the multiplication of known elements again and again. It is very rare, if not unfeasible given time and cost constraints, to ‘reinvent the wheel’. The latest generation of CAD software, such as Autodesk Revit (in which the architect designs in 3D by importing existing building element models) reinforces an increasingly pervasive digital environment of reproduction. In light of the Wangjing SOHO case, the Guardian suggested Hadid’s project was a replica of another of her projects anyway, the Galaxy SOHO, two curved towers located more centrally in Beijing, which was completed by the office the previous year. Perhaps, then, the issue is not the concept of duplication, but instead of design ownership, or, a precarious idea of architectural authenticity.

Two years after Wangjing SOHO hit the headlines, I interviewed a Kazakh architect, Dilya, in her Almaty office, now the Kazgor Project Academy. The original subject of the discussion was a building that caught our eye while travelling with a friend on the Silk Road — a residential tower of cast-in-situ concrete, which stood apart from many other structures in the Almaty due to its curved balconies. Only it had a twin, a mirror image on the next street corner, and, as it turned out later, many more replicas ‘copy-pasted’ along one of the main thoroughfares in the city. Our conversation became a discussion on originality and replication in design and the architectural commissioning process in the former USSR, while the concept of plagiarism was left unmentioned.

Tower block and cousin, designed by Kazgor in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 1979–81. © Kazgor

In Russian, she explained that within the former USSR, as might be expected, it was mandatory for architects to work for the state in teams organized around the typology of the projects they specialized in, such as housing, public buildings or landscape design. These interdisciplinary working groups were comprised of around 100 practitioners, men and women — engineers, architects, contractors and specialists. The working groups were commissioned by the state to develop what were termed ‘standardized projects’. The department in which Dilya worked throughout the 1980’s was named ‘Kazgor’, and constituted five of these groups — around 500 professionals overall.

When a project arrived from the central government in Moscow, it would be categorized and passed down to the relevant working group. When a project came to Dilya, she would work with a smaller team of around four architects to deliver the plans. A key requirement was that the projects become ‘buildings for replication’: a strategy in line with a central policy to push back against economic stagnation in the Gorbachev era. When larger, more prolific commissions came in, each working group would then be granted permission to host internal competitions. The team with the winning design was then gifted the project commission.

The blueprints of buildings designed and built by Kazgor and other similar departments were viewed as a national resource. A paper copy of each project was sent to be stored in the central archive in Moscow, the name of which can be roughly translated as the ‘Central Archive of Standardized Projects’ (perhaps Государственный институт стандартизованных проектов, although it can be expected this has most likely been abbreviated and/or the name amended multiple times reflecting political shifts since 1979). The state then possessed the power to replicate the projects anywhere in the geographical territory of the former USSR, from Azerbaijan to Siberia, without requiring the consent of the architect team from which the designs originated. The plans of the curved residential building were also sent to the Central Archive, but whether the housing block had been replicated elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Dilya could not say for sure. She seemed proud of the thought that the building may have been duplicated in other locations, a strikingly different reaction to that of the architects involved in Wangjing SOHO.

“The State then possessed the power to replicate the projects anywhere in the geographical territory of the former USSR, from Azerbaijan to Siberia, without requiring the consent of the architect team from which the designs originated.”

Vertical wall panel connection showing hairpins and tie-bars, an example of seismic resistant features developed in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a technique which was replicated in the former USSR. © Source

The southeastern region of Kazakhstan where Almaty is located is classified as an area of high seismic hazard (of an intensity 9 and higher per MSK scale). One of the largest earthquakes to shake the city occurred in 1911, which left very few of the large buildings in the city standing. The disaster spurred a local drive to develop innovative design solutions with the ability to withstand seismic activity, reflected in some of the strictest planning standards being enforced in Almaty from as early as 1930. The Kazgor team was known for their innovations in earthquake-resistant construction, technologies that, through the Central Archive system, most likely were commissioned in other seismically active areas in the former USSR, aiding the spread of construction innovation long before the arrival of the internet in the country.

Dilya explained that the apartment blocks were also an ‘experimental project’ as they made use of reinforced concrete walls and floors cast in a single in-situ structure, allowing for the curved balcony shape in plan. The sliding formwork was raised up as each floor of the building was cast — which in total took the construction team on average one working day per storey, therefore nine days for each housing block. The bonus of reduced construction time lead to their proliferation in Almaty, and supposedly also other sites in the former USSR. The willingness for the state to replicate plans in this period was pervasive, as can be seen in the proliferation of Khrushchyovka (хрущёвка), or mass housing blocks in the same period, a copy-paste method shown ironically in the opening sequence of the 1976 Soviet romantic comedy Ирония судьбы, or, ‘The Irony of Fate’.

Narkomfin Building in Moscow (1932) by Moisei Ginzburg, a main design inspiration for Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. © Robert Byron.

Also in the West, there have been times where an architectural copy-paste method has not been as litigated, or even sensationalised, as it is today. To take a well-known example, the twentieth-century Corbusian icon Unité d’Habitation has been replicated numerous times, in numerous variations throughout Europe since the Cité Radieuse was first erected in Marseille. Close variants include the Cité Radieuse de Rezé (1955), Corbusierhaus in Berlin (1958), Unité d’habitation de Briey (1961), and the list goes on. In fact, even the ‘original’ was heavily inspired by the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, designed in 1932 by Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg.

“There is a blurred and nuanced separation between architectural imitation as an act of plagiarism, versus replication and innovation as an inherent and progressive phase of an active design process.”

There is a blurred and nuanced separation between architectural imitation as an act of plagiarism, versus replication and innovation as an inherent and progressive phase of an active design process. All buildings are composed of techniques and strategies, elements and ideas, that have preceded themselves. Even if two buildings were to have the exact same plans, as seen in Wangjing SOHO, their realisation, due to a multitude of earthly parameters, including the economic and climatic, will be noticeably different. The concept of copy-paste also fails to recognize that the design of a building extends further than the plans of an architect, and, in almost every case, long after the building is built. Spaces are continuously shaped, re-imagined and re-interpreted by their users — not an easy concept for the architect to accept.

Many designers are also now choosing for their work to be held under a creative commons (CC) license, which is in itself seen as a political stance in favor of a more open-source culture, in reaction against privatization and nationalization of sections of the Internet. It is quite possible that, especially as technologies such as 3D printing become more prevalent, open databases of digital 3D objects, almost like a 21st century Central Archive — admittedly with individual agency over rights to publication — will most likely include parts of buildings, or even entire buildings themselves, available for general use and adaptation. Both perform a similar function in that they exist as an archive and resource for architects to use and adapt. Would architecture produced in such a way merely be ‘copycat’, or would the focus instead be on the differences, or, as Hadid put it, innovative mutations?

The Sphinx and the Parthenon, Lanzhou New Area, China. © Otis Sloan Brittain