by Martynas Mankus

The theory of literature has a few voluntaristic approaches stating that the literature of the world of all times can be squeezed into 7 (or, according to some other data, 15) narrative plots. In other words, several main narratives encompass all possibly conceivable plots, which are secondary and reiterative: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told” (Eco 2012: 526[1]). Similar opinion exists also in (pop)music – the entire musical creation can be constricted to several tunes. Of course, such approach is too simplistic, but it illustrates quite vividly the quantitative aspect of creation as an act of selection out of the allegedly finite number of variants. At the same time it also raises a question how much and up to which degree a piece of art may be unique and idiosyncratic.

One of the quality evaluations of creation, including architecture, can be defined by the notions of authorship, individuality and authenticity, and, respectively, by antonyms of the latter, such as plagiarism, copying, imitation. It is quite common to consider that plagiarism in architecture: i) lowers the value of a piece of art; ii) denies its exclusiveness and doubts its authenticity; and iii) is a theft of ideas generated by others. Similar accusations (of plagiarism) can be heard in public media after every significant architectural competition or every realization of an expressive object. Any such accusation of being unoriginal and using secondary ideas is not new, but in our modern times of radical individualism, probably it implies the most severe creative crime ever possible. Plagiarism in its any form opposes the fundamental ideas of modern (or postmodern) times: originality, authenticity and personal position. What are the grounds such accusations are based on? Almost in any case they are based on the external similarity to other (usually Western) objects. Although such architectural criticism is often non-institutional and prevails in the Internet comments and social networks, sometimes it is also invoked in debates of architecture professionals.

This text has been designed in attempt to orientate in the subject of architectural plagiarism. The notion of plagiarism here is based on a two-fold evaluation: i) the objective evaluation of originality and innovativeness of a piece of art; and ii) the analysis of its originality in the subjective aspects of the creative content. Before analysing the subject of plagiarism in architecture, it would be useful to have a look at the meaning of this term in a broader context and different areas of art.

The term of plagiarism is quite established in the area of humanities: “Plagiarism is the wrongful appropriation of another author’s work (in science, art, literature) or creative thought or idea; publication of someone else’s work as one’s own original work” (Tarptautinių žodžių žodynas (the Dictionary of International Terms), 2002). In the academic sphere, the definition of plagiarism (e.g. Mykolas Romeris University, Šiauliai University, the Electronic Plagiarism Detection System of Vilnius University) and means of its detection (e.g. in Lithuania) have been established and responsibility stipulated.

Although the aspects of multiplication and repetition, reiteration are important in architecture (industrialisation, mass construction), the idea of originality still remains fundamental in this discipline. Is it possible to recognize plagiarism in architecture? Or, even more importantly, is it possible to distinguish it from a quoting, interpretation and/or pastiche? How much plagiarism is a conscious act and how much can it be unintentional? Other terms, such as “copying”, “interpretation”, have been used in the present text, in order to disclose, what plagiarism means as a term bearing a radically negative connotation.

The concept of plagiarism unfolds also as a contradiction to the essential principle of modernism, being the result of the Age of Enlightenment: continuous aspiration for innovation. As a value, the notion of originality of an artwork formed relatively late in architecture and liberal arts; its occurrence usually is related to the anthropocentric Renaissance. Authors of the majority of famous medieval architectural constructions remained unknown. Even if some data on such authorship was disclosed, the individual expression did not play a decisive role. Thus individuality of an architecture work – the authentic expression of separate building – is a modern time phenomenon.

The aforementioned discourse of individual expression reveals the contradiction between tradition and innovation, which is essential in modernism, and on-going discussion what is more important – novelty or history, author or work. Before the times of modernity, the architectural expression could be generalized by the notion of style, until in 1828 German architect Heinrich Hubsch asked: In Welchem Style sollen wir bauen? (In which Style Should We Build?) by the title of his book. Because of the technological progress and changing living conditions, this title (probably, for the first time) clearly doubted the prevalence of the dominating style (the neo-classicist at the time). The vanguard architecture at the beginning of the 20th century openly tabooed the imitation of the past. Traditional architectural expression was also ascribed to the forms of imitation.

Referred to as “machine of novelty”, the times of modernity (regardless of the mass production promoted by the scientific and technological revolution) obliged creators discover, renew and innovate continuously. Copying (of the pre-modern architecture), respectively, obtained a negative moral dimension – as an act denying the idea of authorship. The question how much the modern architecture was innovative by copying, repeating or sometimes even plagiarising itself still remains open. It cannot be answered straightforwardly, because it is obvious that the major part of modern architecture has been remaking and multiplying 5 postulates of the Modern Architecture formulated by Le Corbusier, which have become a cliché.

The imitation issue is significant and still relevant in contemporary heritage protection. Although in compliance with the Venice Charter, the historical environments of imitational (or falsification) form should not be tolerated in architecture, questions concerning such solutions are raised quite often. Heritage experts criticise not only contemporary architectural buildings contrasting with historical environments, but also objects derived from historical retrospectives. For example, while writing about the Old Town of Vilnius and mentioning a group of buildings in the so-called Tymas quarter, 21, 23, 23a, Maironio Str., the Barbacan Palace Hotel at 12/19, Šv. Kazimiero/ Bokšto Str., an extension of the Kempinski Hotel, close to the Cathedral Square, multi-apartment residential house in Strazdelio Str., reconstruction project of the Sereikiškės Park, etc., heritage expert Algimantas Gražulis named such buildings as “imitations of architectural structures and complexes of the second half of the 19th century tsarist Vilnius, which had never existed in reality” (Gražulis 2010: 22[2]).

Criticising modern architecture, the supporters of traditionalist approach in architecture often invoke French scholar Rene Girard and his theory of mimetic desire. Based on such theory, they (e.g. Samir Younes) argue that architectural identities are formed based on the imitated desired architectural forms and at the same time – the identities of their creators. Leon Krier and Samir Younes adapted the Girard’s concept of mimetic rivalry in architecture defining architects’ two-fold mimetic relation with forms and their own personalities (Younes 2012:8[3]). This could explain the relation how architects appropriate forms used in their compositions (formal imitation) and how they treat their own respected personality as direct model (personal imitation). According to the aforementioned authors, many architects, influenced by the cultural modernism, perceive themselves as creators of forms ex nihilo; thus artistic identity is confused with artistic uniqueness. Leon Krier was quite sarcastic about such expression: “[it is] imitation – hidden or declared.”

The discourse of progressive contemporary architecture unfolds in continuous innovation and invention, in search for new approaches, morphologies and images. In the 1990-ies Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas asserted he was tired of the process of daily architectural discoveries and declared he was going to patent the strategies invented by his office and found an affiliate of “generic” architecture (in his writings Koolhaas also spoke about the “generic city” as anonymous post-industrial townscape, where even exclusive, iconic buildings merge into a unified whole). So, quite paradoxical conclusion can be made: by following traditions an architect has fewer opportunities to be accused of plagiarism rather than when searching for (possibly reiterated) innovations.

While speaking of the concept of authenticity that is contrary to plagiarism, copying and imitation, works by Walter Benjamin of the beginning of the 20th century can be remembered: “Even the most perfect reproduction is lacking one element: a piece of art” (Benjamin 2005: 216[4]). In essence, this statement means the authenticity cannot be repeated by technical means. But through reproduction with the help of appropriation the original gains certain new quality as a support for the piece of art’s perception. Walter Benjamin uses a term “aura” surrounding an original work of art, whereas a reproduction lacks it.

In the 1960-ies, new aspects were brought into treatment of authorship and interpretation (in literature, art and architecture) by the notions related to post-structuralism and post-modernism[5]. The concepts of “the death of the author”, “open work” opened the way for interpretation of a piece of art. Postmodernism in liberal arts has brought a doubt in major narratives and in architecture – legitimated pastiche, quoting and references. By the second half of the 20th century, copying (historicist quotes) and metaphors (references to other objects, including architectural ones) no longer were signs of bad taste, but rather became full-fledged means of expression. In evaluation whether a piece of art is a postmodern radical appropriation of forms, or a plagiarism, one should remember the criterion of “a wish to be recognized”: if a recognized original adds to some meaning, expands the interpretation field, this should not be considered plagiarism. It is important whether the author expected and wished to be recognized.

The complex of the National Museum of Australia by architects Ashton, Raggatt and McDougall could be mentioned as a clear example of postmodernist pastiche (recognizable appropriation). Its part devoted to the culture of aboriginal people is a copy of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, of smaller scale and in different finish only. Daniel Liebeskind, the author of the lightning-shaped building in Germany, was very negative about what the Australian architects called “the quote” – comparison of the history of Australian Aboriginal to the history of Holocaust and postmodern quoting of the aforementioned Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, Vila Savoja by Le Corbusier, Sydney Opera House by Jorn Utzon, National Gallery in Stuttgart by James Stirling, a building by Aldo Rossi and others.

Whereas in the beginning of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin was very suggestive of the role of originality in the age of technology, at present we live in the age of global networks transmitting data to whoever has an access to them, any time, in any place. In such a context, quite naturally a question arises: is the authorship possible at all in the times of network reproduction? And going back to the real and tangible architecture, what role does the authorship and copying play in this age? If different analogues have spread and entrenched not only in literature and music (sampling, cover, remix, mash-up), but also in art (détournement, reappropriation, objet-trouvé, para-fiction), so why are they considered unacceptable in architecture?

Professional architects distinguish two situations, when cases of plagiarism can be considered – these are students’ works and competitions. The first case is related to the circumstances of fairly abstract academic tasks. In the second case – of architectural competitions – the tasks, contexts and clients, on the contrary, are very concrete and real, but the specifics of such tasks create certain conditions for plagiarism: one needs to present a most powerful, generalised and thus reduced solution within the minimum time.

Copying in the process of architectural studies is quite paradoxical because at the same time: i) it is supposed to form the foundation for learning/ studying and culture formation; and ii) it is the basis of conflict and contradiction. This means that due to such specifics of studies, students have to balance continuously between copying (such tasks as “analysis – copy”, analysis of analogues, etc.) and individual expression. Finally, an independent academic work is often related to abstract task (often elective and “poeticized”, therefore “adjustable” and “regulated”), freely chosen context and absence of actual client (and respectively, any concrete program). The outcome is conflicts in the academic circles. The results of the exhibitions Best Final Works of Architecture Students 2008[6] and 2010[7] were widely discussed on social networks. (Here we probably cannot be mistaken by stating that the majority of commenters also were students.) Two cases were considered controversial: one was perceived as similar to the work by foreign architects’ studio and another – to the previous students’ work. Any detailed analysis was restricted by the scarce presented material, but in summary both cases were of generalized and monumental form and minimalist expression, and this made the comparison of the works with the alleged originals even more complicated.

Similar problem of expression could be noticed in architectural competitions. Any more important and prestigious competition accepts no longer hundreds, but thousands of entrants’ tenders. Over 530 works have been presented for the recent competition of Helsinki Library, 831 work – for Bauhaus Museum in Dessau and 1,715 works – for Guggenheim’s Museum, Helsinki. The issue is how to handle (exhibit, analyse and evaluate) such hardly imaginable amounts of information. According to some calculations, the jury members in such cases have no more than a minute for evaluation of each work. It is no secret that the shortest possible way for entering a competition (although probably not a single architect can admit it) is a search for prototypes and analogues. And most often the competition result is one (or several) view (visualisation), i.e. images are concentrated to the maximum (or, on the contrary, reduced). Therefore correctly solved functional, programme and social aspects are taken for granted, and works usually compete by their emotional, effective and shape images (a question what can be judged according to such scarce amount of information remains open). Thus a tender of competition (visual image) has to attract attention immediately, lest it can be rejected. It is quite natural to be tempted to produce an iconic (distinguished by its form, dominance or contrast) or minimalistic (in a sense, the same) object on one condition – it has to attract attention. It is quite obvious, when quite complicated competition task (and architecture itself) is reduced to several “sexy” views, they (without any context, details and materials) may become a case of mutual comparison, and sometimes may be called even “copies” or “plagiarism”.

According to Architect Rolandas Palekas (with his team he won the 3rd place in the open competition for extension of Stockholm’s Library out of 1,170 competition entrants and was mentioned in the context of possible plagiarism in another, Lithuanian competition), “<…> you need courage to design “clean”, primordial form: by doing so you always take a risk of being accused of plagiarism… Any past or future pyramid, dome or cube-shaped building of the world can be compared to another similar object at such an angle or in such light that they will look alike. Simple two-pitched roof is also insecure [variant]. One can design some elaborated details or decorations and thus reduce the risk. Of course, a malevolent critic will forget an architectural work is more than just facades, but also inner planning, structure of spaces, its connection to the environment<…>” (Palekas 2007: 166)[8].

All the aforementioned cases, from plagiarism and copying to interpretation and collage, have their common denominator, which in general can be called “influence”. Many architects admit their creative processes are influenced not only by non-architectural sources (e.g. in most cases – by science fiction movies), but also some particular architects, trends and architectural phenomena (suprematism, constructivism, Bauhaus movement, etc.). Such confession is not new, but rather a permanent constant of their creation.

One more aspect or precedent of the influence is some theories becoming dominant. The mass of respective approaches and practices is consolidated around such theories presenting some “rules of the game” and generating specific zeitgeist – the spirit of the time generalising cultural, aesthetic and social experiences of the time. Thus works created under such influence, on the one hand, correspond with the spirit of the time, but, on the other, inevitably become affected by the styles, fashions and trends.

Finally, a case of overlapping ideas or unintentional coincidences may be distinguished (we would hardly be right by calling it plagiarism). This case can be explained based on Carl Gustav Jung’s “collective subconscious”, but it would be even more precise to derive it from the aforementioned ideas of the time, the dissemination of which was accelerated by global networking. According to Architect Tauras Paulauskas, “Of course, the most severe breach of copyright is plagiarism, but such cases are rare nowadays, because in this age of information it is quite complicated to plagiarise something on purpose or prove this is a case of plagiarism. All of us live in the same information environment” (Sabaitytė 2013:90[9]).

In 2011, Senior Architect of Vilnius City Municipality Artūras Blotnys criticised the first place winning work at the architectural competition for Modern Art Centre as being secondary (repeated). According to him, after two competition rounds, the winning work resembled the design project of the nearby Guggenheim’s Museum by Zaha Hadid. “We have some doubts concerning this variant – the winner[10] – because of its stylistics. <…> We do not appreciate two buildings of similar function, the tenders of which were presented at different times and by different authors, to be of somehow similar stylistics. As two similar objects appear in the same place with similar artistic or expression means, this could show our, the city developers, poverty in the creative sense” .[11] Here Mr. Blotnys talks about the two museum blocks shaped of dramatic triangles. Whereas he does not even mention their specifically different function, structure, plan or details, it is obvious he compares only the external images. Be the competition for Guggenheim’s Museum organized later, the issue of exterior similarity would hardly be raised at all.

It is also noteworthy that many of the aforementioned approaches belong to the western culture. The act and concept of copying in the eastern civilizations is understood quite differently. For example, in China, mimesis often can be treated as appropriation of power. According to some historians, copying can be understood also as a sign of superiority. Just in contrary to the post-colonial theory analysing the relationship between the sovereign and subaltern, according to which the sovereign’s symbols are moved in and imposed to colonies, in this (eastern) case subalterns themselves appropriate the sovereign’s symbols in proof of the subaltern’s superiority. Thus copying is quite common in China to start with separate buildings (e.g. the Eiffel Tower), complexes (the “British” or “Dutch” quarters) to the entire cities (the entire city of Huizhou in the south of China was replicated, including even sculptures). A group of buildings realized in the Chinese megapolis of Chongqing resembles a lot of Zaha Zadid’s design project of Soho in Beijing. After the developer of this project was publicly accused of copying, they released a jingle: “We didn’t plan to copy, just outrun.” Regardless of such abundant cases of copying, the trendsetters forecast such imitation period in China is just transitory, coming back to more contextual architectural forms as the country itself transforms from the third world into the developed country.

As plagiarism and copying means fraud in the moral aspect, in the legal sphere it belongs to the area of regulation of intellectual property and copyright. Because of complexity of architectural expression, evaluation of plagiarism cases is quite subjective, a bit intangible and difficult to establish, not even to mention the fact that finished architectural work (except the imagined works) is always bound to some place and context, which always are different. While protecting copyrights of architectural works, legal paradoxes sometimes appear, such as a suggestion made in 2015 to protect the Google Street views in Europe, by erasing buildings (similarly to the deleted faces of people), when using their images without their authors’ consent.

Many countries have the established one or another legal approach to architectural plagiarism, in compliance with the Berne Convention protecting the intellectual property. In difference to many other areas of art, architecture is still lagging behind. For example, in the United States of America architecture was entered on the register of intellectual property objects as late as in 1990. Judicial disputes of plagiarism are based on the term of essential similarity. Some judiciary practice is, of course, present, but officially acknowledged cases of plagiarism are quite rare.

Among the most famous international cases, the hearing of the Freedom Tower case in New York (a skyscraper designed to replace the Twin Towers destroyed by the terror act of September 11). Its contemporary multimillion design was compared to the student’s work. The judges found some similarities both, in the structure and details of the building, but the claimant withdrew the case. Such outcome came as a disappointment to many, as the hearing of the case and its final judgement were expected to contribute to the final development of the notion of plagiarism in architecture, as well as setting the boundaries of intellectual property and its protection. Similar was the end of a few other judicial disputes, which have come to the conclusion that architecture is too complicated, multi-faced and nuanced discipline to discern and establish the obvious cases of plagiarism. The Commission of Professional Ethics of the Lithuanian Architects’ Union makes similar conclusions. All cases considered by the Commission, which were enlightened in the public media, were related not to the direct, passion-stirring plagiarism, but were quite banal cases of design correction or design taking-over by another hired architect.

The diligent practice of search for possible cases of plagiarism and copying, by all means, has its moral context. An accusation of plagiarism can be insulting, as it implies a doubt in the author’s creative abilities, lowers the value of the work, and diminishes its exclusiveness. The relative restraint by many practicing architects on the issue of plagiarism is quite understandable (some of them call the majority of such cases the “witch hunt”): diligent search for plagiarism in someone else’s works sabotage their own creative attempts and often turn against themselves.

Nowadays the improved technologies of scanning equipment and 3D printers make us remember Walter Benjamin and his issue of “a piece of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”. Contemporary development of parametric, algorithmic and open source architecture brings some doubts whether an architect’s authorship still can remain relevant. Architect and architecture theoretician Innes Weizman (Weizman 2012: 24[12]) suggests distinguishing not only architects’ copyrights, but also copyrights of buildings. Is it possible to perceive objects and buildings as subjects of copyright, the expression of which exists beyond the boundaries of the author’s interpretation? Architecture can be defined by many parameters: place (vernacular architecture), time (submission to the aesthetical ideals of a given time), architect’s personal preferences and influences. Although discerning an act of plagiarism, copying or mimicry in architecture depends on the perceiver’s (critic, user or commentator’s) education and competence, it should be considered an act of characterization and evaluation. So, architecture still remains in the field open for interpretation.



[1] Eco, U. 2012. Rožės vardas. Vilnius: Tyto alba.

[2] Gražulis, A. 2010. Vilniaus senamiečio žaizdos. Kultūros barai 3: 14-24.

[4] Benjamin, W. 2005. Nušvitimai. Esė rinktinė. Vilnius: Vaga.

[5] R. Barthes, M. Foucaul and U. Eco should be mentioned as the brightest examples.

[6] (viewed on 27 Oct 2015).

[7] (viewed on 27 Oct 2015).

[8] Palekas, R. (sudaryt.). 2007. PAS[s] : Paleko ARCH studijos darbų katalogas. Vilnius : Vaga.

[9] Sabaitytė, Lina. 2013. Profesinės etikos pažeidimai – problema ar ne? Statyba ir architektūra. Vol. 7, 2013. p. 90.

[10] Authors are architects Ž. Putrimaitė, D. Čipkus, M. Mickevičius, M. Morkūnas and D.Romanovskis.

[11] (žiūrėta 2015.10.29).

[12] Weizman, I. 2012. Architectural Doppelgangers. AA Files No.65.