Matthew Niederhauser

Hallstatt didn’t even see it coming. The UNESCO World Heritage village nestled against a lake in the Austrian alps hosts many tourists drawn to its picturesque setting, but didn’t realize some of them were slowly taking its measurements in order to recreate it as a whole in China. The new Hallstatt is now the centerpiece of a massive luxury villa development set against a artificial lake in Guangdong province. Although possibly a compliment to the original Hallstatt’s idyllic nature, many of the residents were quite stunned by the development. A local hotel owner stated, “I don’t like the idea of knowing that a team was present here for years measuring, and photographing, and studying us. I would have expected them to approach us directly – the whole thing reminds of a bit of Big Brother is watching.” Although the core of the new Hallstatt is finished, the developers continue to frantically build the surrounding units in order to capitalize on the publicity.
China’s grand urban development plans continue to grow at an unrelenting pace. Too much is at stake to slow down such a gargantuan economic force, even as cracks appear in them across the country. Pollution, natural resource depletion, relentless traffic, corruption, and social tensions heightened by growing income disparity are now a part of daily life. Counterfeit Paradises explores these cracks through the “harmonious” cities coming into being across China, along with sites of leisure and tourism now enjoyed by the growing middle class. This nouveau riche partake in an imagined space of contentment even as the gaps widen between reality and the reassuring political rhetoric regarding city planning and the trappings of “modern” lifestyles. This fantasy plays out in many spaces including newfangled municipal districts, communist heritage sites, amusement parks, cultural institutions, and themed residential developments. But in practice, many remain underused, fanciful but alien terrains. The hopes and dreams of many are woven into such spurious ventures.