“A Game of Chess” Plagiarism: Commodified Architecture or the Theft of the Golden Grain

Architect, editor Audrys Karalius interviewed by Tomas Grunskis

T.G. The theme of this current issue of the Zine, the platform of culture and criticism of architecture, is Plagiarism. We try to look at it without any prejudice. While discussing it with the colleagues, we have noticed a certain ambiguity in this subject and understood we perceive it in quite a different way, although everyone agreed this subject is relevant, especially in our time and especially in Lithuania. We have noticed some accusations of plagiarism appearing from time to time in the architectural media: a few similar cases related to a bank, church and other buildings emerged, and impeachments of plagiarism of different character. In most cases these allegations were doubted, sometimes reasonably, and sometimes – not. The problem may be because plagiarism in architecture still lacks definition. Essentially, this is what we are trying to find out. After some personal talks with You, I have made an impression you realize this problem quite clearly and have appropriate arguments. Thus, my question is: Does plagiarism in architecture exist? If yes, what are the features or characteristics, according to which it can be described?


AK. I would like to start with a popular statement in Lithuania: “there cannot be any authorship in urbanism”. It is weird to hear architects and public officials to say so. Allegedly, it is not important, who suggested an urban idea, a right to its realization can be transferred to another architect. One of the most relevant cases in Kaunas is the competition (held in 2008) winning project by Šarūnas Kiaunė for the territory management of Kaunas Nemunas island. At present, the company Kauno Planas makes the detailed plan of the island and, as far as I know, absolutely ignores the author’s opinion, as if the authorship did not exist at all. Similar is the end of many other competitions – just waving goodbye to the authors of the winning projects, that’s it. I think, such approach is incorrect, because the essence of authorship is an original idea and its development up to a design project level. Idea is the essence, the so-called “golden grain”, and, I think, other architects or any governmental institution simply have no right to crumble, blow or redevelop this golden grain at their own discretion.


T.G. You mean the authorship and its usurpation or appropriation?


AK. Yes, it is not only the appropriation of authorship, but also its desecration, deformation. I have some painful experience in this aspect myself. Eleven years ago, I offered a concept for development of the right bank of Kaunas confluence [of two rivers, Nemunas and Nėris] in Vilijampolė district. My solution was orientated to the benefit of the city and its people. In it, I foresaw the development of the quay turning it into a system of public spaces with different navigation and cultural nodes and routes taking advantage of our largest rivers and strengthening the identity of Kaunas. I saw an especially relevant possibility close to the Kaunas Castle, next to the historical core of the city.

Unfortunately, within ten years, the concept presented to Kaunas evolved into nightmarish deformations of land usurpation and swelling of urban indicators in search for quick profits. Finally, after changing a few landowners and developers, these brilliant ideas have been profaned and turned just upside down. Without taking appropriate consideration, many may think the things that today are being realized next to the confluence are a continuation of my project. Unfortunately, the present projects contain practically none of the urban ideas suggested back in 2004. Thus, this form of plagiarism has been very painful to me, because the appropriators have taken just a shell of the idea throwing away its entire essence and stuffing it with absolutely different content. Of course, it is a shame, Kaunas municipality and other architects are taking part in this process. Such institutional actions, or rather negligence, imply to everyone that stealing ideas has become a norm in our country…

This case just once again proves the fact that there is no need to steal a project concept literally, in the material way. A good idea may be just satanised by distorting its original content and filling it in with someone else’s content. This is the way, how any godly idea may be turned into a satanic one. In my case, the suggested strategy for turning the city life towards water and vivid quays with multifunctional spaces for people and small ships was turned into the realization of cheap concrete slope with zero waterway pass and narrow stairs to descend to the water.

I believe, plagiarism in architecture and urbanism is much more dangerous than in art or literature. Because after stealing an attractive shape in architecture or urbanism you can fill it in with absolutely different content. And finally, such satanic stuffing can discredit the idea itself.


T.G. So, you relate plagiarism with the author’s work and its remake?


AK. First of all, yes, but plagiarism in architecture is a complicated and not so obvious subject. Let us say, the entire work has been plagiarised, so it is quite clear criminal case, subject to punishment. In architecture, however, a certain “game of chess” plagiarism thrives. This is when not the whole object is stolen, but rather defragmented and distorted for selfish purposes.


T.G. So, you think it does exist?


AK. Yes, it does. Plagiarism prospers in architecture by stealing innovations from their authors. Such innovations are in no way legally formalised or patented. Let us say, frameless glass and structures came into use thanks to Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe. With time, they became a tradition of modern form. By using them today, we cannot call it plagiarism, but some authors still invent special solutions. When such, still “fresh” solutions are used by other author in similar context, this is plagiarism.


T.G. But don’t you think we can call it “quoting”?


AK. In some cases, yes, it is possible. For example, an architect publicly declares himself a disciple and follower of Tadao Ando, and makes his own architecture by following the same principles, applying the same means of expression, materials, chiaroscuro… Then we can call his actions quoting. But this particular case has one condition: the source being quoted must be publicly known.


T.G. Well, let us take another example. In humanities, for example, quoting is possible, in order to ground some statements, but such quoting cannot exceed a certain percentage of the text and indication of the author is obligatory. If the author is not indicated, such text is considered plagiarism and is subject to legal punishment. Architecture does not have any such regulations, so if you, for example, suggest in your object a huge pool of water with a cross by it, and all this can be observed from the inside of your “designed” church, this is considered a recognizable image, which could be reasonably considered a quote of Tadao Ando…


AK. Yes, that’s right. Such regulations should apply to architecture, too. A quote would be correct only in case of obvious signs [in a work of architecture] proving such quoting is an architect’s conscious behaviour. For example, I consciously dedicate a concrete work to Andrea Palladio and interpret the aesthetical and compositional principles by this great master in it. I believe, even in such case it is possible to make an original work, although based on the truths by another architect. But I have never seen such a case in my life – that some architect would publicly admit similar quoting.


T.G. Reality may be a bit different. Let us say, Le Corbusier formulated five principles of modern architecture, which later became a tradition. Later, in such tradition, as within the boundaries of some paradigm, other modernist architects worked, repeating its forms, spatial and functional solutions. Even at present, aforementioned Tadao Ando works in similar tradition creating modernist architecture in essence. Can it mean some principles expressed in a manifesto after some time become common property? And can someone create something unique, but at the same time universal, by following such principles?


AK. No, this case is different. I can compare it to religion, when a prophet declares his teaching. The door of creative workshop is opened for those, who follow these truths and become his disciples. The prophet gives over not only his world outlook, but also the developed creative principles and recipes to his followers. This is an absolutely positive practice. Nevertheless, it can be done by geniuses, architecture pioneers knowing for sure that anybody else, who will use his principles, will never surpass the master.

In daily life, everything is more banal. A difficult task for our architects is to acknowledge the quoting fact itself. We have no quoting culture in architecture. This may be the reason why architecture in our country never becomes a part of art and culture: because it does not follow the conventions and rules of culture and art… Lithuanian architecture is prevailed by legal and technical regulations, according to which everything is legal and allowed, if not banned by the law, construction standards and regulations.

Although I agree, it is quite difficult to avoid conscious or unconscious quoting and/or plagiarism in contemporary “ocean” of architectural information. Assimilation of architecture is a clear illustration, a mark of the time determined by the lack of natural identity and unification of thinking schemes. Not only the concept of authorship vanishes, but also the signs of architectural sex…


T.G. I think, we should agree on the issue of quite ambiguous treatment of authorship in urbanism and understand, why attempts are made from time to time to deny it. But probably only in case, when a clear author’s print on the urban structure is lacking, for example, the case of “urban hill”, when many actors take part in the creative process. But when you look at the problem at a closer range – to architecture as an act and art of space making – maybe in this case features helping to name plagiarism can be seen clearer? Elements or something else indicating its obvious presence? Once you have mentioned music has a certain method and principle contributing to statement that one or another theme has been plagiarised.


AK. It is not always easy to define authorship in urbanism, but due to this fact only the authorship does not cease to exist. When a part of a project has been stolen from one, another – from the other architect, so the third one, who have stolen everything and added his own “strokes”, does not obtain a right to call all three the co-authors. Co-authorship appears only in conscious cooperation. Of course, it is meaningless to use the term of plagiarism in banal, mass architecture, because its buildings lack any clear signs of authorship…


T.G. I would call such things “primitive brandification” in architecture, when architectural images are sold.


AK. Most likely. Architecture at large has become a typological product, commodity. Often, such commodified architecture itself is plagiarism – modified, deformed mutant of its remote original. The culture of plagiarism is very often and becoming a rule in Lithuania. Some kind of a grey norm. Only a minor part of all architects go deeper, think, develop their own world outlook and style, which can be recognisable or traceable in their works. Vast majority just browse the information on the Internet and ruminate over their selected subject. In most cases their compilations are just salivated scran of the many analogues, a collection of quotes loosely attached to one another. Lithuania really has too much of such leftover architecture. Just a few Lithuanian architects’ studios have their own signature, their own face. Audrius Ambrasas, Rolandas Palekas, Darius Čiuta, Valdas Ozarinskas, Andrė Baldišiūtė, Tomas Lapė or Bučas with Bučienė, just to mention a few. They always have their own “scent”, regardless of the object. But the trend is to produce architecture on the mainstream conveyor, where a milder or more aggressive plagiarism is a muse… This is the way, how fast architectural food is produced, the hodiernal cocktail…


T.G. Could it be called the “DJ” architecture?


AK. Most likely. Is DJ a plagiarist? He takes anything what is unlocked and filters it through his personality… I think, this may be the reason why contemporary architecture faces a big problem of “no-style trend”, where anything is possible. A peculiar “tax free” architectural medium has formed, where all are “among equals, equal and free”[*] to make architecture of anything. Thousands of low-quality architects are ready to grab anything what is fashionable and use in their “fast-food” projects. All this determines mass assimilation and decline of authorship in architecture. Even the “macdonaldisation’” of architecture on the global scale may be explained by the inability of the market to distinguish the high-quality architecture from the widely spread epidemic of the lowest price architecture.

On the other hand, here we can remember quite an opposite thing, when unlimited budget and attempts to make exclusive architecture at any price also swamp, although in the different bog. I cannot resist mentioning A Thousand Litas Banknote building in Kaunas by Rimas Adomaitis. Although an exclusively expensive façade veil was drawn over a cheep office building within cheap context, no acclamation could be heard. Because an expensive ticket not necessarily guarantees success for cheap performance…


T.G. You have just touched an interesting issue. If you can remember, transition of postmodernism in architecture manifested in a few things, one of them, according to Roberto Venturi, being a Duck or Decorated Shed. This particular building has a prototype of a Duck, thus using such straightforward metaphoric literature.


AK. Maybe… But in this case (by Rimas Adomaitis), even such literary language has been caricatured. When the architect takes the most valuable monetary banknote of the first Republic of Lithuania, which, as far as I know, even was never put into circulation due to its non-practically big value and, without any doubt, promises and symbolizes the highest business quality, and uses it in creation of architectural image to cover cheap and primitive office building, all this can be perceived as a fake, as a lie. Just decorated promise without any content and fulfilment.


T.G. I think, in most cases, knowledge of some context may help to explain some actions… Let us say, quoting and metaphorical language in the tradition of postmodernist architecture is still present nowadays. Quite a number of award-winning objects of Lithuanian architecture possess these features (figurativeness), for example, the Paperclip and Cut by Rolandas Palekas and some others. Could it be so that after moving architecture on such semantic level, there is no possibility of accusing it of plagiarism, because even if someone thinks similarly, the features of plagiarism are erased by interpretation with form, function and other building qualities and the object is granted some other, even maybe unique meaning? Except, of course, cases of obvious quoting – then I consider stating of authorship an obligatory requirement. But unconscious quoting is also possible, as you have mentioned, many architects consume the same Ach Dailish images, which are sold as a product, and only then some creative processes start. Is there any clear dividing line between quoting and image gathering – interpretation?


AK. Of course, there are cases, when such dividing line between plagiarism and coincidence is very thin. An architect himself can know better, when he copies: gathers a certain amount of ideas and readymade moulds to use them compiled according to the circumstances. To my mind, this is plagiarism.

But when an architect makes a solution corresponding to the thinking of another architect (teacher), close in the world outlook to himself, and consciously follows his compositional and space-making principles, rather than using his architecture by fragments, I would consider it quoting. Especially, when he publicly announces on such quoting. Nevertheless, without appropriate background information, it is quite difficult to distinguish one such case from the other.


T.G. It is true: many architects follow the so-called architectural prophets admitting their influence at different times, and later their architectural creation develops into something special. Then even quoting is hard to recognize.


AK. It is natural, we live in the world of architectural followers. It would be normal, if critics state that at present the influence of Tsumtoro can be felt in the works by architect A. A. Because such conscious, realized influence is normal, but copying, imitating and profanation deserve curse.


T.G. We have just discussed postmodern architecture, where a lot of imitation can be discerned. Probably it can be seen in modern soviet period architecture, and even more – in its postmodern trend. Modernist architecture by Dičius and Šeibokas, postmodernist traffic police building in Vilnius by Pempė and Ramunis… All these works reiterate similar tendencies of the time.


AK. Tendencies – yes, but not specific works. I have never seen, for example, anything like the Traffic Police building. It is a strong architecture work – clean, consistent and fair. In the aspect of architecture and purity of style, I can compare it only to Nijolė Bučiūtė’s Opera and Ballet Theatre – real amber. Nevertheless it is quite difficult to say the same about the majority of other buildings – application of typical forms, modernist principles of composition lead towards assimilation.


T.G. Can we relate the issues we discuss now to the phenomenon of brandification? I would like to return to this term. At a certain time, some architectural solutions become traditional and fashionable. Can it be that some “landmark” object, some architectural discovery later becomes of common use, as if without authorship and is used in the same way as any other invention, with some typicalities?


A.K. Or perhaps it is just fashion? Perhaps architecture is not so hysterical about fashion, as, for example, clothing industry, but in both cases the media-formed opinion magnifies icons up to the demigod’s scale.


T.G. Perhaps if such modernity-reflecting image is not offered, propagated and popularized so much, so that it is even stuck in our consciousness, it could not get such quick approval or disapproval?

AK. Most likely. But I am quite sceptical about architectural fashion. I believe, some professional dignity should stop an architect from reckless attempts to correspond to the “summer fashion”, new every year…


T.G. First of all, I use the “brandification” term to define certain architectural solutions as no longer having authorship. As soon as we agree on these being the matters of image sale, rather than unique copyright work, then we can distinguish [by using this criterion] good, high-quality architecture from low-quality architecture. For example, the Prosecution Service building by Kęstutis Lupeikis cannot be plagiarised or brandified, because any attempt to do so would be too obvious.


AK. I agree, because form is easier to understand, perceive and recognize. I would like to draw attention to the fact that the industry is very much interested in such commodification of architecture, because then unique structural solutions can be easier turned into commodities of common use. Let us say, Herzog and De Meuron’s stonewalls covered in steel mesh… They migrated to different countries all over the world, settled in different architectural objects, until becoming available at any gardening shop… Commodification of any original work is a terrible thing; it means its cultural death.


T.G. I would like to return to the first question about stealing authorship. I have mentioned that in humanities with the help of certain software it is possible to detect and evaluate the level of plagiarism – the amount of somebody else’s texts in the work. What do you think about architecture – is it possible to do the same? Can we apply a term of plagiarism in architecture still being objective and effective in our time? Is it possible to define this in one or another way?


AK. Well, yes and no. Architecture in this sense is very much alike to figure skating. It is possible to name precisely technical mistakes or obvious performance failures. But its creative, artistic level should be measured by expert method. I believe, some process for establishing authorship purity must exist. When, let us say, four experts out of nine admit a certain work has features of plagiarism, this should be considered a serious signal for the author and society alike, which should know a very thin line between plagiarism has been fixed. I think, such practice could be “healthy” for architecture, and such “filter” first of all should serve for possible national prize and other award winners…


T.G. Let us hope such expert evaluation will appear with time. Thank you for discussion.


[*] The author is being sarcastic to quote a notorious phrase from the anthem of the former Lithuanian soviet socialist republic. (Translator’s note)