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Great architecture innovates not duplicates

Catherine Slessor
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Duplitecture – recreating famous buildings – is becoming a global phenomenon, but it’s an architectural dead end

Some years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Macau. Poised like a gaudy polyp on the Pearl River Delta, the former Portuguese colony is a now one of China’s special administrative regions with its own peculiar and permissive autonomy. Thanks to this and the Chinese love of a wager, tiny Macau has exploded into the world’s largest centre for gambling, easily outgunning Las Vegas or Singapore.

Across a causeway from the agreeable old town is the Cotai Strip, a tabula rasa of reclaimed land now being terra-formed with astonishing rapidity into an immense gambling park. Here, huge new casino hotels offer a groaning buffet of thematic and experiential options to suit every taste. Most jaw-droppingly of all (sensitive architectural historians should look away now), this tableau is dominated by the Venetian Hotel with its robotically perfect copies of familiar monuments such as St Mark’s Campanile, the Rialto Bridge and the Doge’s Palace. Inside these obsessively mimicked carapaces, automated gondolas ply their trade on a network of ‘canals’ filled with crystalline water. The Venetian will soon be joined by the Parisian, a French-themed casino hotel complete with a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. Welcome to the world of ‘duplitecture’.

Awards such as the Stirling and the RIBA Gold Medal extol the singular

We think of buildings as unique, each a specific synthesis of brief, budget, context, technology and their architect’s ambitions. Awards such as the Stirling and the RIBA Gold Medal extol the singular, the exceptional and the genuine pioneer. But as we also know, architecture is regularly plagiarised, reworked and reprised. Now, more overtly, famous historical monuments are simply duplicated by the yard as elaborate set dressings for theme parks, casinos and oligarchs’ lifestyles.

Macau’s is not the first replicant Venice. Aimed at Americans too nervous or lazy to schlep thousands of miles to experience the real thing in its more grungy and tainted reality, the ‘original’ fake La Serenissima is in Las Vegas. Doubtless there will be more. Meanwhile, duplicate Eiffel Towers of varying degrees of historical accuracy can be found in more than 30 locales, from Rawalpindi and Guatemala City to (inevitably) Paris, Texas, jauntily crowned with a giant Stetson.

Like kids in an architectural candy shop, the Chinese seem to have a particular penchant for duplitecture. Cultural curiosity, economic buying power and a forensic eye for detail have facilitated the transplantation of not just individual monuments but also the construction of entire city quarters. Shanghai has numerous satellite ‘cities’ built in different foreign styles to evoke particular atmospheres, akin to the faux-Italianate stage set Clough Williams-Ellis so memorably conjured at Portmeirion. Ironically, one of the most assiduously copied buildings in China is the White House, epicentre of Western power, recast in the more emasculated guise of hotels, courthouses and restaurants.

All this might seem charming and innocuous but it does turn architecture into a kind of pantomime, endlessly parodying itself and becoming stripped of meaning. It also contrives to inhibit the evolution of an authentic architectural language capable of engaging with society. The recent news that the Eden Project, shortlisted for the Stirling in its day, is due be recreated by a Chinese developer attracted by its ‘recognition factor’ might be heartening for its architect, Grimshaw, but it’s yet another example of a more sophisticated form of duplitecture. Ultimately it’s a dead end in a hall of mirrors. As the roll call of Stirling finalists and winners over the years shows, great architecture is driven by the urge to innovate not duplicate.

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