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‘Zaha Hadid vs the Pirates’

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These tales of Chinese piracy amount to great PR for Zaha Hadid’s architectural brand, says Rory Olcayto

It’s the biggest story of the year so far. Granted, 2013 has hardly begun, but news that Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO complex for property magnate Zhang Xin is being ‘copied’ by a rival developer, has captured the imagination of the international press.

The Telegraph, Dezeen, The Guardian, The LA Times and Wired are only the better known of the organisations that picked up the original story, which emerged on 28 December last year in Der Spiegel, but has since gone viral. Kevin Holden Platt’s ‘Zaha Hadid vs the Pirates’ feature for the German news giant says: ‘A contingent of pirate architects and construction teams in southern China is now building a carbon copy of one of Hadid’s Beijing projects.’ The report shows the Hadid design, three pebble-like blobs, and the ‘copy’ by developer Meiquan 22nd Century, which is formed of just two pebble-like blobs.

What the story doesn’t report, however, is that the ground floor plans are far from similar and there are other clear differences between the two projects. Meiquan’s scheme is not as tall, for example, and the floorplates and banded glazing aesthetic that defines its look is quite a bit chunkier than Hadid’s design.

‘Carbon copy’ it is not, despite project architect Satoshi Ohashi suggesting the possibility that ‘the Chongqing pirates got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project’ and reverse engineered the design. Der Spiegel’s story hangs on the tension this situation has created, with Holden Platt reporting that both teams are now vying to complete their version first, the implication being that the ‘pirates’ are pulling ahead.

Der Spiegel’s story goes on to explain that ‘China can copy anything … and piracy is pervasive …counterfeit iPods, iPhones and iPads are sold openly, and even entire fake Apple stores have proliferated’. It also says Hadid’s developer is planning to sue its rival and developments in the past week have seen the London-based practice promise to do the same.

What it doesn’t regale its readers with is a little background on the culture of shanzhai - ‘copycat’ design - and how it drives innovation in western companies supposedly stung by the East. Apple, for example, is at the centre of rumours which suggest it is developing a cheaper iPhone for the Chinese market, primarily because of shanzai spoilers. Yet a cheaper iPhone will be good for Western consumers, too (I’m sure you will agree).


What’s going on here? Remember how we sneered at toys - or anything else - with the ‘Made in Hong Kong’ tag? Remember our fear of Japan’s ability to copy and better our own products? Well, that dreaded fear is back. Even architectural criticism is not immune. When a mediocre high-rise is planned for London, we read tweets and headlines, by those who should know better, of gaudy Shanghai coming to dear old London town.

On closer inspection, ‘Zaha Hadid vs the Pirates’ and the countless, rehashed versions of it across the web have less to do with intellectual property rights. But it is clever PR for the Iraqi-born, but firmly western architect, designed to fuel the fever for her architectural couture. Few would argue now that Hadid has replaced Norman Foster as the most famous architect in the world. It’s also fresh evidence of the ‘Yellow Peril’ racism that now wholeheartedly pervades the western press. But that’s not all: the story, repeated without fresh inquiry, also serves to further commodify the art of designing buildings: A ‘Zaha’ today, is now thought of like a Rolex, a Ferrari or a Gucci. Just don’t blame the Chinese.

Zaha Hadid pirate copy

Zaha Hadid on the left, pirate ‘copy’ on the right

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