When Architects Plagiarize

It’s not always bad.

Olympic Tower versus Freedom Tower

An architect has brought a lawsuit alleging plagiarism against David M. Childs and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, claiming that an early version of the Freedom Tower was copied from his project of six years ago. Whatever the merits of the claim, the suit raises a broader issue, one that is particularly relevant in an age in which “starchitect” buildings have become the norm: How important should artistic authorship be in the world of architecture?

For most of the last 500 years, imitation was the sincerest form of architectural flattery. The pattern was established during the Renaissance, whose architects were trying to re-create the buildings of ancient Rome. The fact that most of these buildings lay in ruins meant that designers had to do a lot of creative reconstruction, but that didn’t alter the principle of learning from—and copying—the past. Invention was necessary, but it was not the most important factor.

Architecture was not a private preserve. Part of the glory of the period was the way that ideas bounced back and forth, gathering momentum in the process. The great Donato Bramante was probably responsible for the motif that later came to be known as the Palladian window. The motif is often attributed to Andrea Palladio because he used it in one of his most famous buildings, the Basilica in Vicenza, a design directly based on Jacopo Sansovino’s St. Mark’s Library in Venice. Yet no one would accuse Palladio—or Sansovino—of plagiarism.

Michaelangelo’s St. Peter’s

Depending on precedents, and learning from the past, came to distinguish architecture from the other arts. Christopher Wren’s dome of St. Paul’s, for example, is inconceivable without Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. When Thomas Ustick Walter designed the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C., he modeled it on Wren’s, not because he had no ideas of his own, but because he so admired the original.

The first generation of Modernists wanted to upset the apple cart and devise a new language of design, but they, too, took imitation for granted. How else to explain all those flat roofs, white plastered exteriors, and factory-sash windows? When pioneers such as Mies van der Rohe made discoveries, they belonged to everyone; it was a sign of esteem when other architects copied his steel and glass curtain walls. And once a discovery was made, architects stuck to it. “I don’t want to be original,” Mies is supposed to have said, “I want to be good.” Design was too serious to be left to idiosyncratic imagination.

The U.S. Capitol, imitation as flattery

The idea that an architectural motif can be copyrighted—or plagiarized—reflects a very different idea of architecture, one in which originality is valued above all. This contemporary attitude distorts the creative process. Like fashion designers, whom they increasingly resemble, architects are expected to unveil new lines every season. When Frank Gehry takes the time to explore an idea over a series of buildings, he is accused of becoming stale. “Running out of ideas” is the harshest critique that can be leveled against an architect although, as Robert Venturi has pithily observed, “at least we’d had an idea.”

A recent article in the New York Times seriously entertained the possibility that the form of a proposed skyscraper by Zaha Hadid might be  influenced by the design of a screen  in Kennedy Airport. The architectural auteur is expected to be self-contained, untainted, sui generis. It’s OK to find inspiration in a common sponge, as Steven Holl is said to have done for a recent building, or in the shards of a broken teapot, as Daniel Libeskind confessed, but seeking inspiration from one’s contemporaries, let alone from the past, is forbidden. Thus, instead of architectural conversations, we increasingly have self-absorbed mumblings or soapbox oratory. And lawsuits.