Huawei's mock-European campus: the phenomenon of China’s “fake cities”

Why did China’s leading tech company build a replica of ancient European landmarks?

Qin Shi Huang, whose name translates as “The First Emperor”, was just the prince of a warring kingdom when he took the throne of the Qin state at the age of thirteen in 246 BC. Twenty-five years later he had conquered all the rival states and unified China. To celebrate his victories, he built replicas of the palaces of the rival kings he had defeated in his own capital city.  Today, the Chinese tech giant Huawei is expected to become the most important smartphone company in the world. Its new campus, made up of replicas of western landmarks, celebrates the “history of failures and successes” of humanity it says but is also symbolic of its own accomplishments.

Huawei’s Ox Horn Campus is located at the north-west of Shenzhen, home to the company’s HQ, a subtropical megalopolis with a population of 12 million which can be easily recognised as the epicentre of the Chinese tech boom. The campus, which is open but not yet completed, is a small city itself, with an impressive area of 1.4 million square metres where Huawei’s 25,000 staff is accommodated in 108 buildings. Shenzhen is a city of gigantic buildings and glass skyscrapers whose surfaces become the stage of incredible shows of neon lights by night – but the campus looks totally different. It’s divided into 12 blocks, each modelled after a different European landmark. “It represents the world’s classic landmarks that accumulated the wisdom and essence of humanity for hundreds of years, recording a history of failures and successes,” Huawei says. Interconnected by electric trams inspired from Switzerland you can find Verona and Bologna, Bruges and Oxford, Heidelberg and Paris.

The campus has received huge coverage in international press but suffers from criticism at home. “I don’t like Huawei’s campus design,” says Domus China's editor in chief Yu Bing. Mrs Bing doesn’t see any real difference between Ox Horn and other Chinese “fake” buildings, as she defines them. “All landmark buildings around the world have their own growing environment. Architecture should not be created without its regional culture. Even if Huawei’s campus copied all the European architecture, it could not copy the local environment, scenery and folk customs, nor could it copy the local delicacies and specialities. It is just a puppet building without spiritual conception.” She believes an enterprise park should reflect the corporate culture. “Maybe Huawei wants to show that it has a global vision and wish to communicate the world while providing a different relaxing environment for all its employees,” she says. But the campus lacks one important element: innovation. “As we know, Huawei’s products have their own creative and innovative genes, which we obviously don’t see in its buildings,” Bing observes and asks which were the projects that were discarded. We asked Huawei about alternative architectural proposals, but they declined to comment. 

In China copying isn’t only legitimate, but can be valued as a marker of skill and superiority.

Ox Horn Campus is only the latest iteration of a broader phenomenon that Bianca Bosker, journalist and author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), has defined duplitecture, which is “the construction of homes, towns, or cities that, to an often stunningly literal degree, replicate foreign architectural styles or even specific places overseas”. Huaxi Village in Jiangshu has its own Arc The Triomphe and Capitol, while in Binzhou City, in Shandong, you’ll find the replicas of 36 world-famous bridges. “Duplitecture took off in the 1990s, when the Chinese government relaxed its rules on private property ownership, allowing real estate developers to build, market, and sell homes. As the number of residential developments grew, so too did the prevalence of China’s Western-style architecture”, Mrs Bosker explains. “Since China’s Baroque, Mediterranean or Beverly Hills-themed neighbourhoods could sell for more money – and more quickly – than their more generic counterparts, more and more of them appeared. For many, who associate the styles with luxury and wealth, the European and American architecture evokes an entire lifestyle that real estate agents can pitch with the homes”. These theme towns aren’t just shelter: buying them, the homeowners are buying “the appearance of upward mobility and success”.

China’s current duplitecture movement is merely the latest manifestation of a long history of landscape replication, according to Bianca Bosker. A tradition that goes back into the roots of Chinese culture. During the Empire, “rulers showed off their authority by building elaborate gardens that were pre-modern versions of today’s theme parks,” she explains, “In China copying isn’t only legitimate, but can be valued as a marker of skill and superiority.” Recreating a western village or a landmark is a display of power and freedom, a form of propaganda that showcases the ability to rebuild cultural and technical landmarks. “As extravagant and bizarre as many of these communities might seem, they are also testaments to the new freedoms,” Bosker says. 

In a country where so for long individual expression was forbidden, this architecture, which many would instinctively declassify as cultural epiphenomenon, is the product of a revolution that Huawei fully embodies.

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