When does influence become plagiarism in architecture?

Sinead Keating investigates where exactly the line is between influence and imitation in the built environment.

Inspiration for a building can come from history, art, fashion, nature, even everyday objects. Sometimes, elements of other buildings can act as a source of inspiration. Particularly since the Renaissance, architects have been looking to buildings of the past for inspiration. Why not include a feature in a new building that you have seen function well before?  

No building is 100% original as it takes a team of people to carry a project through design to completion. All of these people bring influences from previous work experience and works of architecture that they have played a role in. There are only so many materials to choose from, so naturally, there will be a lot of similar buildings across the globe. The form, or shape, of a building can have more variety, especially as innovations in engineering and computer programs advance. While a building may have an iconic shape or use of materials, the visuals are just a part of the design. An architect does more than organise space well on paper. The storytelling, site contextualisation, quality of light and air, views and sightlines, textures, threshold and more all come together to create good architecture. This is something instilled in architects during university education; that many parts work simultaneously to make good architecture. The best way for students to observe and learn this is through studying precedents, where they are actively encouraged to research built projects and incorporate the successful parts of the precedent into their own work. (However, there is an unspoken agreement to not just borrow their entire project from other architects’ work!) As with many design fields, by the time a project is fully developed, it will have changed substantially from the inspiration piece. 

Once a discovery is made, it benefits the industry to replicate it and develop it. Modernism embodied this sentiment strongly, with a clear palette of shapes and materials to work from and many designs made public for their reproduction and adaptation. The celebrated modernist architect Mies van der Rohe is quoted as saying “I don’t want to be original; I want to be good.” Replication could be seen as flattery, as van der Rohe saw it when his steel and glass curtain walls were incorporated in cities across the US and worldwide. The question of why a building, or an element of one, is being copied, is an important one. Considering the previously stated wealth of thought and consideration that goes into a work of architecture, to see a building copied purely for its appearance is a cheap imitation. Being inspired by a precedent strikes a deeper chord, something about it resonated within and sparked thought. Imitation is more one-dimensional, which is why it may be seen as disingenuous. 

The recycling of an idea is commonplace within architectural practices. Why not reuse a good idea in a new competition, or a failsafe graphic for a new presentation? Time pressure is equally a big factor, with large scale schemes requiring a variety of graphics to be produced at an early stage in the design process, which leads to direct copying of certain elements that were proven to work of the practice’s previous schemes. The use of another company’s images or drawings is of course prohibited. One case of accused plagiarism of a building occurred as Zaha Hadid Architects were building a series of three buildings in Beijing. An entirely similar pair of buildings in Chongqing, China, also began construction, with both schemes racing to be completed first. The unique form of these buildings was wide and tapered with wraparound balconies, with rounded edges to look like pebbles sticking up in the sand. The term ‘piracy’ was used in the media as Zaha Hadid Architects speculated that “the Chongqing pirates got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project” in order to design and start construction of their version at almost the same time as the original. The Chongqing developer’s viewpoint denied the accusations on their blog and claimed their intentions were “never meant to copy, only want to surpass”. Ultimately, both sets of buildings were completed and nothing further happened.

As such a large and well-known practice, Zaha Hadid Architects see little importance in cases like that. A larger issue is if a large practice or a design for a prominent building is plagiarising a smaller practice. The credit goes to the wrong party, and without a legal case (that does not favour the smaller practice financially), there is little that can be done about it. Laws vary globally; in the US, the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was passed in 1990 to protect original works of architecture and their drawings from plagiarism, provided that the building has been registered for copyright. Chinese law has no special provisions for architecture under intellectual property. On the whole, the field of architecture encourages the sharing and adaptation of ideas, it is down to the individual to decide when it goes too far.