Little Boxes on the Hillside, in China and Beyond

Nate Berg offers his take on the replicas of Western subdivisions that have come to define social status in the burgeoning economies of the Middle and Far East.

2 minute read

April 7, 2012, 11:00 AM PDT

By Ryan Lue

It's often said that America's most important export is its culture, and in recent years, that's meant more than rock and roll and fast cars. Throughout the booming economies of the east (China is the prime culprit), planned communities are being manufactured wholesale, modeled after American suburbs and European towns.

Responding to demand for the trappings of a Western lifestyle (and the social status that comes with it), communities like Beverly Hills and Orange County are materializing halfway around the world from their namesakes.

These "imposturbs," which Berg calls "a little absurd," don't always meet with overwhelming success. Shanghai's "One City, Nine Towns" community, which features separate districts themed after "England, Spain, Sweden, the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Germany and Italy... haven't actually become 'towns,' as few people have moved in." Instead the development has become a destination for wedding photo backdrops and television commercials.

As Berg explains, "This style of imitation building is not new. In fact there's an early example right here in the U.S., the 1920s-era development of Coral Gables, Florida, where developer George Merrick and the American Building Corporation built six themed villages" modeled on European and Chinese architecture. Berg, however, takes a less sardonic view of the Coral Gables developments, since they "were designed meticulously by architects with firsthand experience in the places that inspired each village."

"To a certain degree, it's no different than all the various brand names that you might see for handbags or something," says author Thomas Campanella. "[Developers are] all trying to hit upon the Louis Vuitton of residential architecture. It's a brand consciousness. It's very consumer driven."

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