The following is an excerpt from Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China by Bianca Bosker, published by University of Hawaii Press and Hong Kong University Press.
The seeds of China’s duplitecture movement have spread throughout the country, giving rise to Romanesque villas, Swedish towns, British villages, mini-Versailles, and Californian communities in the suburbs of cities from Beijing to Wuhan. In Shanghai, for example, local officials devised – and funded — a plan for “One City, Nine Towns” that called for ringing the metropolis with ten satellite communities, each housing up to three hundred thousand residents and each built as a replica of a foreign city.
Although these copycat communities carefully replicate the western originals down to their most devilish details, these simulacra do not entirely disassociate from their home turf.
Chinese developers have selectively reproduced elements of European and American architecture while also ensuring that they incorporate key living features that Chinese residents refuse to relinquish. These subtle Chinese architectural and cultural influences ensure that while Western, the simulacrascapes also remain Chinese in key ways.
Though a home in a duplitecture development may look, from the outside, to be the spitting image of a French villa, inside, more Chinese elements emerge. The floor plans of villas in the theme townscapes are often altered to better meet the needs of Chinese residents. The homes in Shanghai’s Scandinavia Stroll, for example, include a small bedroom and bathroom off the kitchen intended to be used by the hired help—who are nearly ubiquitous among upper-class Chinese families—and also include enough bedrooms to accommodate the traditional Chinese san dai tong tang (three generations living together) domestic arrangement.
Some communities have incorporated traditional Chinese courtyards into the layout of the home, and in the San Carlos community in Shanghai, Rococo-esque facades and patios flanked by Grecian statues give way to open-air courtyards at the core of the townhouses. The kitchens in many of these homes have also been tailored to suit Chinese lifestyles. By contrast with the open-plan arrangement typical of Western dwellings, these kitchens, which Xing Ruan, professor of architecture at the University of New South Wales, describes as “distinctively modern Chinese,” are enclosed and fully separated from dining areas. Many come equipped with appliances customized to Chinese cooking needs: ovens are often omitted, and stoves are outfitted with wok ranges topped by large, stainless steel hoods designed to filter grease and smoke.
Principles of fengshui frequently determine the siting, layout, and landscaping of Western-style residences. In keeping with the fengshui prescription that south is the most auspicious orientation and that water is the carrier of wealth-bearing qi, south-facing residences fronting artificial canals are common features of these communities. Dai Yin, a property manager at Luodian Town, explains that homeowners find the small artificial lake within the enclave to be the “most attractive” feature of the property. “The businessmen love water: they think it will help them make a lot of money and have good luck,” she says. While some estates, such as Weimar Villas, replicate the curvilinear layout of European towns, others follow typical contemporary Chinese principles of land use that maximize the number of south-facing units. By lining up homes in parallel rows, planners minimize the number of north-facing units, which are less desirable and fetch correspondingly lower prices.
With the landscaping, developers often try to cater to both indigenous and foreign design elements, such that sculptures of mythical Greek deities and European royalty crop up in gardens of traditional Chinese inspiration. In such subtle but important ways, the designers and managers of the properties diverge from a strict adherence to European stylistic imperatives and make concessions to indigenous beliefs and traditional practices.
Although a strictly Western design unadulterated by such “local inflections” might be the initial draw to prospective buyers, once they take up occupancy, these features often come to be perceived as undesirable. Chinese residents frequently find them to be inconvenient, uncomfortable, or unworkable.
Some buyers complain that the architects and planners—frequently foreigners—failed to take into account specifically Chinese modes of using space. In a number of instances, a too strenuous adherence to Western plans and a failure to respect the four values of Chinese residences—hearth, family, layout, and fengshui—have been liabilities for the developers. For example, villas in Luodian Town initially did not sell well because the European architects had neglected to shape their designs according to fengshui principles. A major stumbling block for Chinese buyers was the treatment of entryways. Doors had been placed on the incorrect side of the house, lacked symmetry, and did not include an appropriately constructed entranceway. Property sales in the enclave picked up only after the developer relaxed the restrictions on alterations owners could make to the exteriors of their homes.
In 2008, nearly every home in Scandinavia Stroll was being remodeled to adhere to fengshui standards. New entrances, with columns and porticos, were being installed on the southern face of residences, and both existing and new entryways were redesigned to be more symmetrical and unobstructed.
The interior disposition and layout of rooms also proved problematic for a significant number of buyers and residents. Xing Lei, a real estate agent at Anting Town, complained that after nearly four years on the market, certain apartments still had not sold because their layout was not amenable to Chinese homeowners.
“When they decided to build Anting, they not only wanted to try to make the outside look German, but the interiors were also definitely not Chinese,” he says. “The designers forgot to take into account how Chinese people like to live; the layout of the rooms and their direction were inappropriate.”
Whether preferring bigger rooms, more windows, or an orientation not typical of Western homes, many Chinese have found that the ways of the West are not always best. More specifically, these Chinese homeowners have begun to map out, through the concrete choices they make in purchasing and remodeling their homes, their ideal of the “new” Chinese in the post-Mao era as a synergy of East and West, adopting or preserving elements from each civilizational matrix as they respond to dynamically evolving cultural, political, and economic pressures.
Bianca Bosker is the author ofOriginal Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. She is a graduate of Princeton University and is the executive tech editor at The Huffington Post.
[ORIGINAL COPIES: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Published in the U.S. East Asia, and Australia on January 31, 2013 from University of Hawaii Press and Hong Kong University Press.]