Plagiarism in architecture

A few weeks ago i blogged about plagiarism in architecture and in the creative world in general. The debate continues on in the NYT.

“Copying in architecture is at least as old as tracing paper.”

“Copyrights don’t cover ideas … only their tangible expression”

Hi, Gorgeous. Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere?
August 28, 2005 By FRED A. BERNSTEIN

WHEN a federal judge ruled this month that a lawsuit brought by Thomas Shine, formerly a student at the Yale School of Architecture, against David M. Childs, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, could proceed, the architecture world was caught off guard.

It wasn’t the accusation – that Mr. Childs appropriated one of Mr. Shine’s student projects in a 2003 design for the Freedom Tower at ground zero – that seemed puzzling. The surprise was that Skidmore’s motion for dismissal had been unsuccessful. For once, an accusation of architectural plagiarism had taken on a life beyond cocktail party chatter and snippy blogs.

Copying in architecture is at least as old as tracing paper. Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia was an effort to import Palladio’s neo-Roman vision to the New World. And the first United States copyright act, passed in 1790, made no provision for architecture. It wasn’t until 200 years later, in 1990, that the United States added buildings to the list of things – including movies, books and recordings – that qualify for copyright protection. But even among architects with instantly recognizable styles, it’s rarely possible to state with certainty which similarities result from direct imitation and which are coincidental.

Depending on the circumstances, architects can see work that resembles their own as homage. Daniel Libeskind doesn’t mind that Donald Bates gave Federation Square, a large commercial development in Melbourne, Australia, acute angles reminiscent of Mr. Libeskind’s work. Mr. Libeskind sat on the jury that selected the designer.

“I influenced many architects as a teacher, including Mr. Bates,” he said. “It flowed very naturally from our work together, from our relationship. I’m very pleased that the project has been so successful.”

Yet when Peter Eisenman unveiled the design for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Mr. Libeskind complained that it looked too much like the memorial garden he had designed for the Jewish Museum in that city. But he has since retreated. “It is true that I was initially disturbed, said Mr. Libeskind, who made his views known in letters. Subsequently, he said, “Eisenman’s design seemed to find more of its own voice.” As a result, he said, “the issue is behind us.”

These are matters of intellectual debate, not case law. Copyrights don’t cover ideas – like that of creating a memorial garden from an array of stones – only their tangible expression. So in cases like Shine v. Childs, jurors have to decide whether a lay observer would see the work as a copy.

(In his ruling, the judge, Michael B. Mukasey, of Federal District Court in Manhattan, did agree with Skidmore that a second student project by Mr. Shine bore no significant similarities to the Freedom Tower.)

Another reason accusations of plagiarism rarely make it to court is that architecture, despite the romantic image of the solitary genius, is largely a collaborative pursuit. Principal, project architect, project designer and outside consultants of all stripes contribute to a design. All the while, young architects move from firm to firm, spreading ideas and sometimes eventually opening their own, competing offices. As for student architects, well, just because they don’t get paid for their work doesn’t mean it never enters the commercial arena. “There’s so much rich activity going on at the schools,” said Bill Sharples of the Manhattan firm SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli, “it’s hard not to be influenced by it.” With so many influences and so many echoes, authorship is rarely a simple question.

Markus Dochantschi, a New York architect, concurred. “Think of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns,” he said. “Or C├ęzanne and Pissarro, who quite openly responded to each other’s work. In art, that’s considered creativity, not plagiarism. If there were more of a communal sprit in architecture, people wouldn’t see this as a problem.”

Here are three cases of architectural similarities, and why they are unlikely to end up where Shine v. Childs did:

WHEN COLLEAGUES at SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli opened a copy of L’Arca magazine, they were struck by a proposal for a Marseilles, France, skyscraper by the architect Zaha Hadid. “We were shocked,” said Mr. Sharples, one of the firm’s partners. To their eyes, and those of some browsing the Internet, the tower bore an uncanny resemblance to one of their projects.

Mr. Sharples said he tried not to jump to any conclusions. Maybe Ms. Hadid had not see the SHoP project, he reasoned. But he assumed that someone had. “It could be one of her employees,” he said.

The project in question was a partition in a first-class lounge at Kennedy Airport. “It’s ridiculous,” Ms. Hadid said. “Do you really think I’m going to copy a screen in an airport lounge?”

But Gregg Pasquarelli, another SHoP partner, is standing his ground. “We’re talking about a leading figure in our profession,” he said, “and she at least owes us a phone call.”

Still, Mr. Sharples said no litigation was planned: “We take the position that if it doesn’t hurt our business, we’re not going to do anything about it.”

A PROPOSAL FOR the Zollverein design school, in Essen, Germany, by Thomas Leeser, a New York architect, features floors, walls, and ceilings made from a single, folded plane.

So does the proposal for Eyebeam, a new-media museum in Chelsea, by the New York firm Diller & Scofidio. In fact, the two designs are similar enough that when both were displayed at the Venice architecture biennale last year, some people couldn’t tell the difference. But Mr. Leeser said there was nothing sinister about the similarity; he and Diller & Scofidio were merely exploring ideas that are current in their circles. “It’s the zeitgeist,” he said. He pointed to his own proposal for Eyebeam. “If we copied anything at the design school,” he said, “we copied our own work.”

Elizabeth Diller, a partner in the firm now known as Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, declined to comment on the two buildings, but wrote in an e-mail message: “The only way to avert the problem of plagiarism is to be a moving target. If your work is copied and that upsets you, it means you waited too long to move on.”

THREE YEARS AGO, the Art Museum of Western Virginia commissioned Randall Stout of Los Angeles to design its new building in Roanoke. According to the museum’s Web site, Mr. Stout produced metal forms “that pay sculptural tribute to the famous mountains that provide the city’s backdrop.” To some observers, however, they might seem also to pay tribute to Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Bilbao is nowhere near the Virginia mountains. Mr. Stout said that if there was a resemblance, it could be explained by the seven years he spent as Mr. Gehry’s employee, a period when the two men, he said, worked together on projects.

Asked if Mr. Gehry perceived any resemblance, a spokesman for the architect said, “He’s not familiar with the building.” And Heywood Fralin, board president of the museum, which plans to break ground for the $46 million structure later this year, warned against reading too much into renderings.

The architect’s model, he said, “doesn’t remind me that much of Frank Gehry’s work.”

He added, “I think the building is very uniquely Roanoke.”