Aside from qualified usage in fine-art contexts, copying is generally thought of as a negative act, something which detracts from its source, and there are formidable legislative structures in place to prevent its unlicensed proliferation. Originality, creativity, novelty, innovation, these are ideals that we are told to actively pursue in our working lives. No management consultant would come to your company and tell you to slavishly copy someone else’s designs, or office structure down to the smallest detail, no matter how great the office in question. No good contemporary teacher would ask his or her class to memorise the entirety of an epic poem by rote, no matter how great the poem.
Today’s all important quality is originality, and so the epic poem is not memorised, but reinterpreted, not recited but performed and reinvented by the class, all in the search for innovation. But copying in its most positive sense is a creative act, in fact it lies at the very foundation of creativity. It is only through the hard work of copying, of systematically reproducing something as in traditional pedagogy, that one can fully digest and comprehend the fullness of what came before, understand it in all its complexity, failures and triumphs, and therefore be able to eventually move beyond it. Every time a new Asian economy raises itself to manufacturing powerhouse status, I hear people dismiss its rise as not being a threat to us because “they only know how to copy, not innovate”. But it is precisely this movement through a period of intense study, analysis and imitation of predecessors that paves the way for a profound and entirely singular leap forward in firmly grounded innovation. Just look at those copiers who are now arch-innovators like Japan, Taiwan, emerging S Korea and soon China.
Without the studied and entirely positive process of copying, we will only move like crabs sideways, endlessly searching for titillating novelty which is bereft of substance, because genuine newness comes rarely, and can only arise out of a totally thorough understanding of what came before. Architectural education currently has a dearth of copying and a surfeit of apparent novelty. If given precedents at all, students (even in their first year) are pressured to critically re-read, re-interpret, re-analyse and rapidly re-design and re-imagine whatever building, project, square, or city they have been handed to study. There is never the slightest chance that they may have the time to slowly comprehend the subtle complexities of their object of analysis, and thereby be handed the chance to one day surpass it. Instead they are goaded into generating sexy click-bait that has all the depth of a very well-illustrated conceit, and like satirical illustrations are entirely dependent on precedents that have been barely understood, let alone been superseded. Let us have a break from originality for a while, let the kids copy.