In the third century BC, after conquering his rivals, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, would build replicas of their palaces in his own city. However, this wasn’t out of honour or envy – it was a power play. It was to show that he too could design and possess such feats of architecture within his own capital. This attitude in China towards “duplitecture”, as it’s now known, has survived the ages, though its focus is no longer on neighbouring kingdoms but on nations far to the west – particularly Italy, France and Britain.
It’s this style of architecture that is the focal point of London born-and-based photographer Cian Oba-Smith’s series Shanzhai. Cian first discovered the phenomenon of copycat architecture during his studies at university, but he didn’t have the money at that point to fund a trip to China. Instead, he spent time preparing for a future one by extensively researching the subject. During this period, he came across Thames Town, an area to the south-west of Shanghai that was named after London’s famous river and modelled on British architecture.
Speaking on the emergence of such towns, Cian says: “Initially, the majority were essentially ghost towns, with little to no people living in them. The demand wasn’t there for the property due to the high prices and shops wouldn’t open up because the customers weren’t there to keep them in business.” But, after significant growth of China’s urban middle class, these places have flourished, with some now home to tens of thousands of residents.
Though this architectural mimicry is widespread across China, the towns that Cian chose to focus on in his series are located in Hangzhou and Shanghai. The latter were designed as part of the One City, Nine Towns policy in 2001, and completed by 2007. The idea was to build a number of these themed towns to help to decentralise the increasingly large population of Shanghai.
Now boasting small bustling communities, Cian says that each town feels quite varied and that some of them have a “Disneyland-esque feeling to them”, especially in the Venetian, Parisian and British towns. “But, in general, I found them quite peaceful; they provided a nice contrast to the hectic nature of Shanghai.” And, this sense of escape and tranquility is exactly what brings visitors in from other areas. “I noticed a large number of couples having their wedding photos taken so I think they are perceived as a bit of a fantasy for both China and the West.”
But, what really interests Cian about these towns is the way in which they are symbolic of the wider westernisation of China and its break from tradition. As the country hurtles towards its inevitable place as the world’s dominant superpower, it leaves little time for budding forms of modern Chinese architecture to grow and mature. These styles, championed by the likes of Ma Yansong, co-founder of Beijing-based architecture firm MAD, take inspiration from traditional Chinese design and merge it with contemporary forms. There’s not much space for such innovation in China’s master plan for expansion, however.
Despite pushes from various figures and organisations to veer away from copycat Western architecture, towns such as the ones in Cian’s photos continue to spring up. “I was talking to a Chinese MA History student in Hangzhou and he summed it up like this: ‘The Chinese don’t build for demand; they build for prospect’. In other words, they don’t need to fill the properties straight away, because they know the demand will be there eventually – the population currently stands at 1.46 billion and it’s only getting bigger.”
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