On the indispensable copying of architecture (magazines) in China

Excerpted from the article, Illegal Copying in Mark Magazine#24.

By Bert de Muynck:

“Every architect in the Chinese capital has the phone number of a salesperson dealing in books who takes a call, at virtually any time of the day, and invariably appears at the door an hour or so later. What this type of representative offers is a sample card displaying an array of architecture magazines, monographs and catalogues containing all that is trendy, progressive and celebrated in the field of architecture. Such salespeople – who operate in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou as well – can be just as pushy as representatives who insist on leaving sample building products for examination. ‘If at all possible, they’d be in my office every day,’ says one Chinese architect. Another is even more explicit: ‘I do not want them in my office. These practices should be forbidden.’ He’s a bit too adamant for my liking, however. His protest is no doubt the result of a need to be politically correct.

The salespeople in question offer books not only in print, but also as DVDs. Looking through one salesman’s assortment, I browse through a plastic file folder containing four DVDs of S,M,L,XL, 40 of El Croquis and five of Mark magazine – in the same way I might survey the selections at the local outlet where I buy DVD films: fast and furious and in a constant state of surprise at the number of choices. I find different movies every week. I never ask the proprietor where they come from, who selects the films or whether he thinks such a cheap price is normal. Of course I don’t, because this is a service I wouldn’t want to do without. I always discover a real gem: a John Cassavetes or Werner Herzog movie, a collection of work by Woody Allen, a Pier Paolo Pasolini film or The Flight of the Conchords. And each DVD costs less than a euro.

When I ask the woman who’s selling the books how much I’d have to pay for 40 digital issues of El Croquis, she says, ‘That would be 20 euros.’ The printed copies cost between 6 and 12 euros – Xaveer de Geyter goes for the lower amount and Rem Koolhaas tops the list – but the price also depends on how many items I want. The brand-new Density Housing Construction & Costs from the a+t Density series is available for 8 euros. When negotiating the price of a book, you haggle by pointing out imperfections: the print, not dark enough; the paper, a bit flimsy; the images, not sufficiently sharp; the page numbers, not in the right order. Such defects are a matter of course when you’re dealing with illegal copies. ‘SANAA, Siza, Sipperfield – all very, very good,’ the woman insists. I’m wondering whether she realizes what she’s selling. But it’s not really necessary, of course, for her to know the first thing about architecture.

Demand determines supply.

‘Only in China!’ she declares with pride, seeing my interest in a binder filled with Mark magazines. Images of the covers of Mark 4 through 9 grace the front of the binder, and ‘MARK SPEAKS 1’, in big letters, is on one endpaper, followed by a 200-page collection of articles. Without the advertisements. I wonder who selected these particular projects. I ask the price of a compilation of ‘the best of Mark’. She has five different annual compilations, each of which costs 8 euros. I buy several. Later I notice that none of the magazines contains ‘Letters from’ or ‘Service Area’.

‘For the development of China, this phenomenon is not all bad,’ says one architect. ‘Every architecture office has such publications. You should look at this form of piracy as a marketing tool – as a way of popularizing and promoting ideas and projects. Seen as such, it’s beneficial to the architects that are published, as these copies increase the circulation of their ideas. It’s beneficial to consumers, too, most of whom don’t care who’s making or losing money, as long as the products they buy are cheap.’ I remind him that the practice is not very pleasant for publishers and authors like me, however, for whom copyright infringement is detrimental. How would he feel if his designs were being copied illegally? ‘That’s a different story,’ he replies. ‘That happens only when people are working against the clock.’

Whether they are the upshot of pressure imposed by time or of a lack of creativity, illegal copies of buildings – another widespread Chinese phenomenon – are not a direct consequence of illegally copied books and magazines. Both are a result of little or no enforcement of laws protecting intellectual property. Almost everyone here knows what happened to the fake Ronchamp erected in Zhengzhou in the ’90s. The Fondation Le Corbusier made sure that the building was demolished in short order (see ‘Copyright or Right to Copy?’ in Mark #5). But that was a one-off. China has an abundance of copied buildings still standing, including an entire British village and the Pentagon in the vicinity of Shanghai and, in Beijing, a metro station designed by a German architect. The architect who’s defending the existence of illegally copied magazines accuses a wellknown Chinese colleague of having duplicated a large part of Zaha Hadid’s oeuvre – ‘but only her bad projects’ – an ‘accusation’ that can be interpreted, with a bit of good will, as a commendation, a reference or a tribute. On closer inspection, the scope of the alleged excesses could be worse. The contemporary Chinese architect’s biggest problem is a lack of inspiration and originality.”

1 Comment On the indispensable copying of architecture (magazines) in China

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    “The contemporary Chinese architect’s biggest problem is a lack of inspiration and originality.”

    Sounds like a modernists mantra. I guess what he means is that they should look to the starchitects! Poor, poor China, copying ALL the mistakes of the West; socialism, modernism and capitalism. Unfortunately my own country as well is a perfect mix of these three ideologies. What we need is a radical NEW technology: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/author/nikos

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