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Brothers From Another Mother

Did David Childs really steal his Freedom Tower design from a Yale student? And can you call that stealing, or just the way the business works? Our critic explains how plagiarism exists in architecture, and why there actually should be more of it.

Plagiarism is usually associated with college term papers and the occasional historical bestseller. Recently, though, the big story in architecture circles has been a growing list of supposedly “copycat” designs—in other words, architectural plagiarism. The hot architecture gossip blog, The Gutter, has made a regular feature—called the Gutterland Police Blotter—out of tagging similarities between, say, Rem Koolhaas’s elevated subway sheath at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a train station in Santiago, Chile. In a groundbreaking ruling earlier this month, a federal judge allowed a suit against Freedom Tower architect David Childs to go forward; the suit, by a former architecture student, accuses Childs of stealing the tower’s design from one the student had presented in a class project. And a recent New York Times article noted three other high-profile clashes between purported plagiarizers and their alleged sources.

Indeed, concern over the ownership of ideas—whether they be architectural designs or processes for buying books online—has been growing rapidly over the last decade. Patent law is traditionally framed around the physical manifestations of technology, but over the last decade the U.S. Patent Office and the courts that preside over patent law have seen an explosion of cases involving “business method” patents, or protections for the ideas behind the technology. In business, the question is one of intellectual property, and so while controversial, “business method” patents are also readily addressable within the current legal framework. But the ownership of ideas becomes stickier the further one moves into creative fields like writing and architecture. Where is the line between homage and replication? And how tightly should that line be policed?

These questions are even trickier in architecture—or painting, or sculpture, for that matter—than on the written page. A paragraph in a biography of George Washington, for example, that reads the same word for word as a paragraph from a previous biography of the first president is solid evidence of theft. But if a building has a torqued (that is, corkscrew-like) façade and thus bears a passing resemblance to an older, similarly torqued design, is that also solid evidence? On the one hand, you could say yes, and make the case that because the torque is so integral that it defines the building, it is therefore even more egregious to copy such an important element than to lift a single paragraph from a book.

But most people would go the other way, because architecture is fundamentally different from writing. A book’s value is decided in large part by the accumulated impressions gained from reading it; therefore, if part of the book was written by someone else, its author has rigged the reader’s appreciation of their work. But architectural appreciation works differently, more holistically. The vast majority of people, inside and out of the profession, judge a building by the sum of its parts to the near exclusion of its individual elements. What is important is not so much the torque, but how the torque works with, say, the building’s base or crown. To be sure, the difference isn’t completely distinct—a book’s worth is obviously determined in part by how well all its arguments and characters and whatnot go together, and an otherwise well-done building can be marred by a particular element, such as a poorly executed entrance. But by and large, we look at the two in fundamentally different ways.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, architects abhor the lack of a dominant movementSo why the sudden focus on the sources of architectural inspiration? It’s not as if the notion of architectural plagiarism is anything new—history is filled with instances in which an aggrieved architect claims to have had his signature style cadged by a rival. But there’s an obvious reason why it has particular resonance today. In the wake of postmodernism, there is no single, definable, ruling aesthetic; in fact, as more than one critic has noted, we are today in a period of aesthetic anarchy, in which all but the most general descriptions of design programs fall apart. Some architects are neo-modernists, à la Richard Meier, others deconstructivists, à la Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman—but the differences among them remain enormous. This is an undoubtedly good thing: Rarely has there been a period with this much creative effervescence, so much energy abounding in the architectural community.

But the downside is that just as nature abhors a vacuum, architects abhor the lack of a dominant movement. And so we have what you could call an anti-paradigm, a set of rules in the absence of rules, with the governing principle being difference. Each architect, rather than building off others in the formation and perfection of a particular aesthetic, is supposed to develop his or her own aesthetic to the near exclusion of everyone else. Drawing inspiration from other architects, once respected, is now downplayed, if not derided. And naturally, anyone who even appears to borrow from someone else’s designs is quickly accused of plagiarism, of violating the prime directive against borrowing from one’s colleagues

This is neither natural nor a good thing. Aesthetics does not evolve without integration; artists draw on and play off each other as a way of getting closer to particular aesthetic truths. Is it fair, or even wise, to expect every architect to be completely isolated from others, and for every building to look completely different? Take the Art Museum of Western Virginia, a building planned for Roanoke, Va., by Frank Gehry acolyte Randall Stout and featured in the New York Times piece. Stout claims the building’s sinuous steel façade is derived from the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, but his critics say it bears a strikingly close resemblance to Gehry’s signature buildings, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao. Stout has denied the charge, but so what if his critics are right? Would it be so bad if Gehry, held by many to be the greatest architect alive, inspired others to design similarly flowing shapes?

If architectural police gain sway, with their insistence that every design proceed ex nihilo, the process of architectural evolution may grind to a halt as architects are forced to start from scratch each time they approach a project. Not only is this artificial—architects are not trained in a vacuum, so why expect them to work in one?—but it would be deeply ironic if, at a time when architectural creativity is at a stunning high, the community choked off its own progress by insisting that the fruits of its labor cannot redound to its members.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen