10 White Houses, 4 Arcs de Triomphe, 2 Sphinxes ... Now China’s Tower Bridge Attracts Scorn
BEIJING — China has at least 10 White Houses, four Arcs de Triomphe, a couple of Great Sphinxes and at least one Eiffel Tower.
Now a version of London’s Tower Bridge in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou has rekindled a debate over China’s rush to copy foreign landmarks, as the country rethinks decades of urban experimentation that has produced an extraordinary number of knockoffs of world-renowned structures.
This week, photographs of the bridge were posted online by various news outlets. One headline proclaimed: “Suzhou’s Amazing ‘London Tower Bridge’: Even More Magnificent Than the Real One.”
Indeed. Suzhou’s urban planners had clearly stepped up their game. The bridge, completed in 2012, has four towers — compared with the two spanning the Thames in London — making room for a multilane road.
Cars and pedestrians crowd the bridge and its observation platforms. At night, the towers are bathed in blue and yellow light. Not surprisingly, it has also attracted couples eager for a European sheen to their wedding photographs.
Suzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, is probably most famous for its ancient gardens and tranquil waterside views. Often called the Venice of the East, it features some of China’s most exquisite traditional architecture, with whitewashed courtyard houses and meandering walkways above lotus-carpeted ponds. (The Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was modeled after a house in Suzhou.)
Nevertheless, Suzhou, too, has joined the scramble of Chinese cities in recent years to erect clones of famous foreign structures, partly as publicity stunts and partly to attract business.
Not everyone approves. Online comments about the Suzhou bridge have been scathing.
“Piracy!” wrote one.
“Embarrassing,” wrote another.
Li Yingwu, president of the OAD architecture firm in Beijing, called the bridge outright plagiarism and questioned the decision to build it in a city with its own rich architectural heritage.
“I was really surprised that it got built in Suzhou, because it has preserved its culture really well,” Mr. Li said in an interview. “It shows that local officials lack confidence in their own culture. They don’t understand that architecture essentially is about culture. It’s not merely an object.”
A commentary on Monday on JSChina.com.cn, a news site of the Jiangsu provincial government, read, “We don’t have any reason to give a thumbs-up to the replicated iconic building, and all Chinese architects need to reflect on this.”
The copy, it said, would impede the promotion of traditional Chinese culture.
According to Cheng Taining, an architect at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, many officials see foreign designs as shortcuts to achieving a look of modernity and worldliness.
“Chinese officials like foreign things they’ve seen,’’ Mr. Cheng told Beijing News in 2015. “They will tell you ‘Please design a building that looks like that building overseas.’ That’s obvious in the numerous cloned buildings in China. Officials believe building a ‘White House’ or a ‘European-style’ street confers status.’’
It’s unclear why the Suzhou bridge, which has been in place for years, has suddenly attracted a burst of attention. But the criticism it has been receiving is in line with President Xi Jinping’s calls for a greater emphasis on China’s cultural legacy.
In a speech in 2014, Mr. Xi called for a halt to “weird buildings,” an appeal echoed last year when the State Council, China’s cabinet, denounced urban architecture that was “oversize, eccentric, weird” in favor of buildings that are “appropriate, economical, green and pleasing to the eye.”
In December, in a speech before the Association of Literature and Art and the Chinese Writers’ Association, Mr. Xi called on artists to “consolidate confidence in Chinese culture.’’
The Suzhou bridge was commissioned by the city’s Xiangcheng district government around 2008, according to an employee at the Suzhou Municipal Engineering Design Institute, which built the bridge, who answered the telephone but declined to give her name. Local officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“I think the bridge was built just to be decorative,’’ said Zhou Qian, 36, who works at a construction company a block away from the bridge. “It doesn’t have a real use.”
The version of the Tower Bridge is just one of 56 copycat bridges in Suzhou. Others include versions of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia and the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris. The Western-looking structures were reportedly part of an attempt to brand Xiangcheng district as an international trade and finance center.
这座山寨的塔桥只是苏州的56座仿制桥之一。其他还包括澳大利亚的悉尼海港大桥(Sydney Harbor Bridge)和巴黎的亚历山大三世桥(Alexandre III Bridge)。据说修建这些西式建筑，是把相城区打造为国际贸易和金融中心的一部分。
Certainly, the bridge has advanced some commercial endeavors. Studios specializing in wedding photographs in Suzhou have flourished.
“The effects in the bridge shoot will be quite good, and you don’t even need to go abroad!” said a woman who answered the phone at a Suzhou studio that offers Tower Bridge wedding shoots. She gave only her surname, Su.
The site’s popularity is reflected in local news reports about the number of traffic accidents caused by wedding shoots at the bridge.
Even 95 miles away in Shanghai, a studio is offering a tour package with wedding photographs at Suzhou’s Tower Bridge, with a price tag of 19,999 renminbi, about $2,900.