In China, a new building has a nearby knockoff before its even built

Studio 360

The Wangjing Soho complex in Beijing was designed by noted British architect Zaha Hadid. Another complex in Chongqing seems to be a pure knockoff of Hadid's design. (Photo courtesy of SOHO China.)

China’s renowned for its big business in bootlegged merchandise, like wristwatches and handbags.

But there’s another knock-off being made in China right now — and this one is skyscraper-sized.

A huge office complex called Wangjing Soho is under construction in Beijing, consisting of three futuristic glass mountains designed by superstar British architect Zaha Hadid. A thousand miles south, towers with an uncanny resemblance are rising in the city of Chongqing. Those developers didn’t hire Hadid.

Their project, Meiquan 22nd Century, appears to be a real-time pirated copy of Wangjing Soho. Adding insult to injury, the unauthorized version might be finished first.

Hadid’s project director speculates someone stole the digital files of the project. But the architect’s reaction was surprisingly measured. When Der Spiegel first broke this story, Hadid expressed excitement at the innovative possibilities that come with cloned buildings.

And, at least according to one educator, in Chinese culture, copying work can be an honor.

“We’re used to things being copied, but not at this speed, and not at this scale,” architecture critic Edward Lifson said.

Lifson helps run the USC Architecture School’s American Academy in China.

“When I teach Chinese students, there is a very different attitude about, let’s say, ‘honoring a master,’" he said. "They don’t call it copying or imitating, it’s a part of their educational system, you ‘honor the master.’”

Lifson says that attitude creates less shame about copying ideas than Westerners would typically express. The Chinese government hasn’t been scrupulous about cracking down on piracy of intellectual property, like DVDs and fashion, but the building scenario isn’t exactly a clear-cut case, anyway. 

The buildings will differ in many small ways, and the Beijing complex consists of three towers, whereas Chongqing has two. But China is sensitive to global opinion.

“If there’s enough press that says, ‘This is wrong. This is not how we do it in the contemporary world. If you want to belong to international trade organizations, don’t act like that,’ the Chinese government could force the (Chongqing) developer to change the project,” Lifson said.

That traditional attitude of honoring or copying may also be changing under global pressure.

"The number of Chinese patents is going up and up exponentially every single year," he added. "So as a nation they are starting to worry more about copying and fakes — and protecting their own good ideas.”

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?