Zaha Hadid's under-construction SOHO complex in Beijing (Image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects)

Zaha Hadid’s under-construction SOHO complex in Beijing (Image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects)

In Chinese, there’s a contemporary slang term, shanzhai, which refers to imitated or pirated brands or goods like fake purses and DVDs (or even books) that are a little too cheap to be real. Shanzhai culture has gone one step farther with a copy version of architect Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous new commercial complex in Beijing under construction by “pirate” architects, reports Der Spiegel.

Hadid’s Beijing complex was commissioned by SOHO, a massive real-estate development company behind an eponymous series of shopping center and office parks that dot the city. The SOHO centers are undeniably stylish architecture — one of them, near Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood, is a futuristic clutch of curvy vertical towers designed by Kengo Kuma. Hadid’s finished complex would provide another notch on SOHO’s record.

If she gets a chance to complete it uninterrupted, that is. A replica version of Hadid’s design, possibly pulled from stolen plans, is now under construction in Chongqing, in western China near Tibet. Hadid is now racing the pirate architects, who are actually building the copycat structure faster than the original, which is set for completion in 2014.

Though it’s not such a consumable product as a piece of clothing or a movie, a building is just as copyrightable, and it’s just as illegal to copy it, as difficult as that might be. But going to court might not even solve SOHO’s problem. It’s a little harder to confiscate an entire architectural structure than a store-full of James Bond discs. “Even if the judge rules in favor of SOHO, the court will not force the defendant to pull the building down,” explained Shanghai-based copyright lawyer You Yunting. “But it could order the payment of compensation.”

Original Hallstat (at left), Chinese Hallstat (at right). (image via Gizmodo)

Original Hallstat (at left), Chinese Hallstat (at right). (image via Gizmodo)

China is no stranger to architectural knock-offs. The country built an entire replica of the Austrian alpine chalet village of Hallstatt around an artificial lake in the city of Huizhou. Posing as tourists, Chinese agents visited the town over a period of years and photographed each and every building for copying. But even that’s nothing compared to Dubai, where a developed copied the entire world in a batch of luxury island residences. I guess that design’s not copyrighted, though.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

10 replies on “Chinese Pirate Architects Copycat Zaha Hadid’s New Complex”

  1. from what I understand, when building anything in China the architect gets nixed from the process once the plans are accepted. A 3rd party government controlled entity does all of the construction, planning ect. Another one of Zaha’s buildings in China is hardly 5(?) years old and its already crumbling and peeling away at the seams because of the shoddy Chinese contractors construction techniques. I would fear for my life if I had to work/live in a knockoff building.

  2. To add a little bit of color it’s not about ‘knocking off’ architecture as much as it is about recreating the experience of leaving the country without actually leaving the country. A tremendous amount of Chinese citizens make less than 4500 USD per year, yet they work 6 days a week. Wages have steadily risen for about 95% of the population at a pace of 6% per year and yet, they’re still only making 4,500 a year.

    If wages rose too far to fast it would result in worldwide instability, so they steadily climb and the government is able to remain in power and the rest of the world still gets ‘stuff’ on the shelves of their stores.

    Technology has heightened awareness. Small electronics that get manufactured there, like iphones, are desirable to just about everyone, east and west. And how could you deny that to the poor Chinese factory workers? They make all the iphones, they should be able to own them.

    Here’s the interesting part.

    Hollywood has transported all sorts of beautiful and magnificent structures via tv shows and movies onto these iphones. But a ticket to Austria is about as likely as the author scoring a trip to the moon. BUT, the Chinese goverment isn’t foolish (plus it has a couple trillion to spare) and can recreate these experiences for their citizens on their own terms.

    What you’re seeing is an interesting response to a unique problem. A govt drowning in money and a citizenry thirsting for culture.

    As a sidenote, my favorite was recreation of part of Paris:–housing-estate-China.html

    1. I like your point about the Chinese government being able to provide experiences for Chinese domestic tourists. There’s also a huge park in Beijing that replicates areas from all over the world, that was also the star of a famous indie movie by director Jia Zhangke. That film underlined the sense of alienation though; there’s a surreal distance between a miniaturized replica of a travel experience and the real thing.

      1. There certainly is, but you only know what you know. If your closest experience is a replica, then the replica is as real as it will ever be – to you.

  3. There’s a difference between shanzai and what’s going on here – I’d argue that this is simply a natural extension (aided by digital technology) of a process that’s been going on since the earliest structures were created. Architects have always imitated, iterated and improved on the designs of others – and this isn’t a bad thing.

    1. Hey Peter,

      That process of imitation and iteration is totally going on all the time, but I’d argue that this is more of an example of wholesale copying without the intention to improve upon the existing structure. It seems like an attempt to piggyback on Hadid’s brand moreso than a commentary on her architecture. I agree, though, that it’s not a bad thing at all!

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