Homes from home

Updated: 2012-08-24 07:40

By Meng Jing (China Daily)

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 Homes from home

The Thames Town in the suburb of Shanghai, where most of the properties are unoccupied, is still regarded as a commercial success by its developer. Meng Jing / China Daily

For some developers, copying european towns is right up their street

Sometimes in China, you can be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere else.

A smaller version of the Eiffel Tower that spikes a residential community with French flavor can be found in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. The idyllic Thames Town in the suburb of Shanghai offers a British living environment, complete with red phoneboxes, Tudor-style houses, steeple and spire churches, and even a man-made River Thames.

Now, Chinese housing developers are taking the nation's replicating skills to a new level by rebuilding the entire Austrian medieval market town of Hallstatt, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, in Huizhou, South China's Guangdong province.

Amid the downturn in China's property market and the increasing competitiveness to attract buyers, it seems that standard housing is out in China. More and more developers are searching for a new identity to stand out in the tough real estate market, experts and insiders say.

Minmetals Land Ltd, which is developing the Hallstatt villa project in Huizhou, claims it brought the Austrian image to China because "the country already has a lot of Spanish, British, German and Italian architecture".

Harry den Hartog, founder of Urban Language, a Shanghai-based urban research and design consultancy, says: "Replicating Western-style architecture is more of a branding and marketing strategy in China, especially in the high-end property market."

Shanghai, the most international city in China, was not only among the first to take action in diversifying its architecture styles, but also has been the most daring at the municipality level.

The municipality announced its "One City, Nine New Towns" development plan in 2001 and has since built nine core towns in suburban areas. Each is built with a theme inspired by a different Western architectural style, including the Anting German town, Pujiang Italian town and the most famous, Songjiang British town, or Thames Town.

Den Hartog, an independent urban designer and critic and the author of the book Shanghai New Towns - Searching for Community and Identity in a Sprawling Metropolis, says the Shanghai government used the replica strategy to attract more rich people from the city center to suburban areas. Although the suburbs provide more fresh air and lower housing prices, Chinese people prefer to stay in city centers.

"New branding that refers to classic European culture helps create an image and an identity that upper-middle class pursue in China, the same happened before in old Amsterdam and in the early years of New York," says the 40-year-old, who moved from the Netherlands to China nearly 4 years ago.

Around 80 to 90 percent of the 1,800 villas, houses and apartments in Thames Town are unoccupied, and few shops and restaurants are open. The majority of people there are couples who travel from the city center to use the British setting for their wedding photos.

Despite this, Thames Town is still regarded as a commercial success by its developer and local real restate agencies.

"The houses were sold out quickly and the average price per square meter has risen from 6,000 yuan (762 euros, $942) in 2006 to around 17,000 yuan," says Zhang Zhigang, an agent with Tianshu Real Estate in Thames Town, which is about an hour's drive from the city center. "But few people live here. They are more like holiday houses or simply an investment."

A similar scenario may have arisen with Minmetals Land's Hallstatt project, said to be the most high-end villa project in Huizhou. A salesman with Minmetals Land says that only a dozen of the 175 villas remain unsold since they came on the market in April. The average price is 10,000 yuan per square meter while the average housing price in the city center of Huizhou is about 6,000 yuan.

"The Chinese are buying these kind of houses because it is a show of status, like buying BMW and Mercedes, they also think that it is a safe investment for their money because it implements quality, although the actual building-quality here in Shanghai's new towns is still missing, it is just a thin layer," says Den Hartog.

Massimo Bagnasco, chair of the construction working group with the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, echoes Den Hartog, saying "we are still in the time in which what is not Chinese is considered better".

Bagnasco, who is also the partner and managing director of the Italian architecture firm Progetto CMR, says he occasionally encounters Chinese developers who want to copy a town from European countries.

"In 2005, at one of my first meetings in China, a Tianjin State-owned company showed me their plan to replicate St. Mark's Square in Venice. Fortunately, they didn't do it in the end," he says.

"It is okay to learn through imitating. But there is a line between learning the architectural style from other cultures and simply copying and pasting. China is a country with a splendid culture and long history. There is no need for China to do it."

However, Li Xiangning, a professor at the college of architecture and urban planning at Tong Ji University in Shanghai, has a different opinion.

"It is individual real estate developers' decisions. After all, they are business people driven by profits," says Li, adding where there is demand, there is supply. "There is nothing wrong in playing the culture card to sell houses. The reason they need to borrow the superior culture in architecture is a reflection of insufficient self-confidence in our own culture."

Li says the issue is how to get people to admire and nurture their own culture, but that is not the responsibility of real estate developers.

"Whether it is a town from Austria or from other countries, as long as the quality is good, it can be regarded as a good project," he says. "There is no harm having a few projects like this. They will be like theme parks."

Chen Mengfei contributed to this story.

(China Daily 08/24/2012 page15)