Architectural Plagiarism? Iraqi Architect Zaha Hadid’s China Syndrome

Tom Maguire - January 10, 2013

"We should wage this war without surrender, for ideas are what have created and shaped our society and we should treasure them, honor them and protect them."

How do you copy a half-million square foot building? With Photoshop and a 3-dimensional printer, of course. At least this is how star architect Zaha Hadid thinks a developer in southern China has been able to rip off her design of the Wangjing SOHO Complex in Beijing and re-create it in Chongqing, a mega-city near the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.

China, which has always had a very spotty record of intellectual property rights enforcement, has, so far, turned a blind eye to the outrageous copying of Hadid’s newest project in Beijing. The Wangjing SOHO Complex is still under construction, but that hasn’t stopped a developer in Chongqing from cloning the design and moving ahead with construction on the forgery. The Chongqing project’s completion schedule is even ahead of that for Hadid’s original in Beijing – meaning the forgery might be completed before the original. Hadid said in an interview, that she is “now being forced to race these pirates” to complete her original project first. I don’t think that any art forgery has ever been able to pull that off. How has this been technically possible?

According to a recent article in the German publication, Der Spiegel, “the appeal of the Prtizker Prize winner's (Hadid’s), experimental architecture especially since the unveiling of her glowing, crystalline Guangzhou Opera House two years ago, has expanded so explosively that a contingent of pirate architects and construction teams in southern China is now building a carbon copy of one of Hadid's Beijing projects.” And, besides, China can copy anything. On my trip to China, I came away with this feeling, but also my often expressed concern that when the Chinese move from copying to true innovation the game might be over for the west.

It seems, in this most blatant case of intellectual property theft, the thieves might have used Photoshop collages of satellite images; perhaps some pilfered digital files or renderings and a 3-D printer. With a 3-D printer you can create a 3-D model and reverse engineer the whole complex. Given a digital rendering of an object, these incredible printers lay down solid, clay-like material layer by layer in micron-thin images much like the reverse of the micro-thin images produced by an MRI machine. I saw a printer of this sort in action at Antoine Predock’s studio in Albuquerque and it was amazing to watch. It took more than 24 hours to produce a model of one of Predock’s projects in Canada; but that is about the same amount of time that my old dot matrix printer took to print one of my musical scores on reams of paper years ago.

There is, unfortunately, little redress for Hadid and other architects in this face off with Chinese intellectual property pirates. Some feel the loss of control of intellectual property in a digital world is inevitable and, some even say, desirable. I think, as a civilization, we should wage this war without surrender, for ideas are what have created and shaped our society and we should treasure them, honor them and protect them.