Austrian lakeside village of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (wonderfull-tourism.blogspot.com)
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Hallstatt in the winter
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Central square in Hallstatt
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Chengdu, New English Town, modeled after Dorchester
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High Street, Dorchester
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German New Town, Anting, Shanghai
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Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler's architect and designer of Anting New German Town
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The Venetian, in Las Vegas
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The Rialto Bridge, in Venice
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The 800 inhabitants of the lakeside Austrian tourist village of Hallstatt must wonder what they ought to think.
A Chinese state corporation plans to literally copy Hallstatt brick for brick at a site half an hour by auto from Hong Kong. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, villagers seem mostly to fancy the idea, but many are creeped out by the hint of theft.
"I don't like the idea that a team was here for years measuring, photographing and studying us," says Monika Wenger, who owns a 400-year-old inn on Market Square. "I would have expected them to approach us directly. The whole thing reminds me of Big Brother."
Apparently the copycat was let out of the bag when a guest at her inn showed Wenger detailed drawings of the inn, the market and other landmarks, and inadvertently revealed their purpose. That "spies" from China Minmetals Corp., the nation's leading trader in minerals, had been secretly copying Hallstatt for years bothers citizens more than the fact that communist China wants to plop a copy of their village on its side of the world.
Who can blame China for that?
But Hallstatt is not only a tourist village; it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officials of the U.N. cultural agency say that copying the village from photos is okay, but even the world capital of counterfeit goods cannot measure its buildings without owner permission. Spokesman Hans-Jörg Kaiser says that "the legal situation still needs to be examined."
So the U.N. may be gathering its lawyers, but I am thrilled. Perhaps Hallstatt or UNESCO have a plausible case of copyright infringement, but Hallstatters themselves embrace a more philosophical approach to the theft of their civic art, one that is also much more practical -- and not just for promoting the tourism that is key to Hallstatt's preservation.
Attempts to copy beauty used to be the dominant basis for the advance of every art in every place and every era (except our own). Copying whole townscapes might not be entirely edifying, but it obviously brings pleasure to multitudes, and endows designers and builders with practice in the crafts required to invest new architecture with more originality.
Therefore, copying has a very long history in architecture. "Copying the past" is a phrase applied with derision by modern architectural theorists, who purposely conflate it with the time-honored use of precedent to guide contemporary work. Their self-interest in portraying the practice as somehow uncreative, inartistic and thus illegitimate obviously taints the quality of their thinking on the matter. They may be the only ones who fail to notice.
If the Chinese try to improve upon Hallstatt, are they truly copying it? For that matter, what if the Chinese consciously seek to create a lesser copy, as they must, since they cannot copy the original's Alpine environment, or rebuild it using native Austrian materials, or reproduce its climate, its age, its culture, or populate it with the citizens of Hallstatt? If they create an inferior Hallstatt on purpose (if not with gladness), are they still copying?
Hallstatt is not alone. Chengdu British Town is modeled after Dorchester. Shanghai has xeroxed sections of Barcelona, Venice and Germany (the latter, a 2005 generic modernist village designed by Albert Speer Jr., remains a ghost town). China must house about 7.3 million more people a year. No doubt some new towns in China pick up on China's own venerable heritage of architecture. And surely there are other examples in the world of copycat urbanism, acknowledged or otherwise.
My wife, Victoria, and I traveled to another World Heritage Site, Venice, in 2005. In 2006 we stayed at the Venetian, in Las Vegas, whose developer sent a battalion of architects to copy, with a commendable assiduousness, the most famous parts of the Queen of the Adriatic. The result fell considerably short of the original, of course, as will China's clone of Hallstatt. But we were impressed. Compared with most other hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, and even most of its abundant copies of other wonders of the world (such as Caesars Palace or Paris Las Vegas), the Venetian's borrowed togs are undeniably beautiful. China's Hallstatt -- will that be its name? -- is sure to outshine China's mostly prefab new towns in beauty.
I await news of a first successful reproduction, in China or elsewhere, of an existing modernist city or town or just a modernist street. Faux Brasilia, anyone? How about Houston on the Yangtze? Don't hold your breath.
David Brussat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.