Thames Town is a development outside of Shanghai that has had its fair share of interweb screentime. But like many fakes, replicas and copies, it’s not the end product that’s fascinating. After all, the ambition of a fake is to mimic the attributes of something that already exists so closely that we cannot tell the difference. The ultimate fulfilment of the faking process is the point where the hand of the faker becomes invisible. All the perversion, invention, deviousness, trickery and so on that is necessary to deliver such artifice is skimmed by a surface which normalises: calm, normal and straightforward.
It’s behind that surface that things get interesting. It’s here that we see the mechanics that one thing employs in its efforts to become thing two.
Perhaps the following story is a myth of the Intellectual Property world (there seems to be no mention of it anywhere online). It’s the story of the fake Hong Kong Rolex seized by the authorities. Once its Rolex-ey exterior was opened up it revealed something remarkable: inner workings entirely crafted from bamboo. The crazy complexity and ridiculous intricacy of this fake invents something far more unusual than that which it wishes to become. The difference – the gap between what it is and what it wants to be – is an imaginative, transubstantive, alchemic leap.
These are a set of pictures of Thames Town taken during construction by Joseph Grima originally published in Domus in ’06, then Urban China. They show exactly this kind of process, the startling mechanism of fakery before the artifice is complete.
Thames Town: a portrait in the nude
Urbanism, and particularly suburbanism, today fulfils itself in the art of evocation. Malls, neighbourhoods, districts and cities appear to half-heartedly yearn for a distant reality, each vista a pale, cliché-ridden replica of an English village, a Mediterranean piazza or a Parisian boulevard. Buildings and public spaces fulfil the same purpose as the icons on a computer desktop: colourful, low-resolution hyperlinks to the artifacts they stand for, tangible mental shortcuts to the intangible “real thing”. Language comes to play a vital role in this masquerade: exquisitely generic but meaningful names such as “Thames Town” are implanted with faux-na?ve enthusiasm onto vast new satellite cities such as Shanghai’s new suburban extension, Songjiang.
The elementary particle of the Village on the domestic scale is the Cottage, the two terms being equally evocative and equally devoid of any particular meaning. Scratch the surface of the Village and a suburb emerges; a visit to the Cottage under construction will unmask it as a reinforced concrete shell decked out in the superficial trappings of a far-fetched vernacular. Not that these accoutrements are to be dismissed: the community’s hopes, desires and aspirations are reflected, or perhaps dictated, by the outermost 10mm of the Village’s buildings. Its inhabitants become tacit signatories of an unwritten covenant binding them to participate in an ongoing ritual of collective hallucination, defined as the Lifestyle. Everything other than this evocative veneer, the legend through which the rules and boundaries of the game can be deciphered, is the grotesquely uniform outcome of the developer’s business plans and margin projections.
The Cottage has already imposed itself as a global vernacular, a paranoid, self-replicating architectural trope that bears witness to its inhabitant’s naturalisation in an imaginary landscape that can be defined in political and social – but not geographical – terms. In the Village, newfound aspirations are the carefully nurtured by-product of the newfound wealth spilling out from the congested and sometimes dangerous cores of Mexico City, Moscow, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Dubai…
A well-timed visit to the Village under construction, however, might catch it off guard, granting the visitor-voyeur a brief glimpse of the Cottage exposed and defenceless in a spasm of naked and involuntary architectural expressiveness. Stripped of – or rather not yet equipped with – their iconic veneers, the Cottages are transformed into an architectural bestiary, a series of radical and untamed compositional experiments worthy of the 20th century’s avant-gardes. For a moment the Village exists without its coating of paranoid bluster, humbled in the knowledge that its epidermic perfection is compromised. For a brief instant, its profit-oriented DNA is disarmed and humanised by its comical earnestness. Moments later, the Cottages don their armour; Thames Town becomes the latest division to join the global army of Villages.
Thames Town demonstrates the strange back-to-front process that occurs in Fakery. It’s a process formalised in the practice of Reverse Engineering. This is a process developed to evade Intellectual Property law. Say Company B wants to make a product similar to one produced by Company A without infringing A’s intellectual property rights. By Reverse Engineering they work back from A’s product to develop a means of creating it. Engineers, scientists, designers and so on who have all signed affidavits declaring no knowledge of how the product in question works. Here, the traditional end point of design becomes the starting point, working inwards from the outside. Copying becomes an exercise in backwards speculation, demanding its own form of originality.