Did you know that, four years before Adalberto Libera designed the Casa Malaparte, the Greek architect Georgios Kontoleon drew up plans for the Kyriakides Villa, whose tapered stair leading up to a terrace under which the house shelters looks almost exactly the same? Kontoleon’s house was never built, but the side-by-side images you’ll find in the new book Copy Paste: The Badass Architectural Copy Guide (nai010 publishers, 2017)—a selection of essays on the how as well as the whether to “sample” (to put it politely) in architecture—show how startling the similarities are. Did Libera copy Kontoleon? Probably not. It is more likely that the idea was a logical development of images and forms that were themselves based on building blocks architects had been developing and handing off to each other for a long time. So it is with architecture: design is a question of stretching, reversing, recombining, reusing, and otherwise creatively stealing and adapting what already exists.

Copy Paste is, above all else, a wonderful and useful compendium that discusses how and why such appropriation is done. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay as well, on Photoshop-based architecture.) In addition to a collection of shared forms and images, ranging from recent examples such as the correspondence between SANAA’s Rolex Center and another unbuilt project by MVRDV, to historical similarities such as Ben van Berkel, Hon. FAIA’s Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam with one in Spain from Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, the book also asks more probing questions. For instance, what do we make of an architect, whether it be Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, who uses the same form over and over, with only slight variations? Or of the tubular chair that Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer, who were in contact with each other at the Bauhaus, developed about the same time? How, in other words, do we define originality and invention in architecture?

Martin de Lusenet Ben van Berkel's Erasmus Bridge
losmininos Santiago Calatrava's El Alamillo Bridge

Perhaps, the book implies, we should stop worrying about those questions. Until the emergence of the cult of genius in the 18th century, architecture consisted of copying and perfecting existing forms—what you might call perfecting the canon. The premium we now put on invention and looking different from anything else that already exists comes at a great price and is becoming increasingly difficult to attain. This is true not just in architecture, of course. Most popular (and modern classical) music consists of sampling, reworking, and then drawing out existing tunes. Even when you think you have come up with something new, it is entirely possible that the chord progression you use has already been used for a hit song, as Lana Del Ray recently discovered when Radiohead’s publisher sought recognition on her new song “Get Free,” which sounds a lot like Radiohead’s 1993 song “Creep”—a track that, in turn, now credits Mike Hazlewood and Albert Hammond of the Hollies because they felt that “Creep” sounded an awful lot like their 1974 song “The Air That I Breathe.”

The opening pages of Copy Paste contain a collection of scans of newspaper articles in which buildings are compared to each other, either contemporaneously and historically (a triangular apartment building that resembles the Flatiron Building in New York), or biomorphically (the famous comparison between the Sydney Opera House and mating turtles). The images are at times amusing, at times revealing, and at times embarrassing when you realize how much architects copy—well, of course, embarrassing only if you think copying is a sin.

The simple truth is that you cannot avoid copying and pasting. The question is how to do it in a manner that is both self-conscious and productive. A greater sin than using good forms or images when they are appropriate is the laziness of coming up with one form, ascribing meaning to it, and then turning it into a shopping mall, a museum, or an apartment building, as Libeskind has done. Equally dumb is the repetition of the same plan, the same detailing, and the same form no matter what the climate or context, as many of those who produce minimalist grids are wont to do. Good architects, to extend the old saw, steal, bad architects copy themselves.

The philosophical question is why certain forms appear again and again. For a while, Jeff Kipnis gave a lecture tracing the emergence of the whiplash curve as a façade element to sometime in the early 1990s in the Netherlands (though whether at OMA or MVRDV remains an open question) and there is also the claim that Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, AIA, and Charles Renfro, AIA, developed it for their 2004 Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology proposal. Since then, it has spread throughout the world and it has devolved from a way to create continuous interior space signaled on the outside to a pasted-on treatment of windows. More recently, the off-kilter stacking of blocks has moved beyond the work of Herzog & de Meuron, OMA and MVRDV, and BIG into the world of minimal offsets that jazz up the kind of office buildings you see on the way to the airport.

courtesy The Why Factory

In other words, what makes for a good meme in architecture? And why is it that it almost always moves from something fundamental into just a pictorial treatment? These are questions Copy Paste does not answer. Instead, it gives us justifications for stealing and, in several chapters towards the end of the book, a how-to manual on intelligent plagiarism. Seen in another way in the “Generator” chapter, which shows ways that you can use basic computer visualization technology to develop form, the book is a modern-day equivalent of the treatises students read at the École des Beaux-Arts to learn how to make classical buildings that worked in their then contemporary situation.

Perhaps, our era is not so special. Our cultural sources might be wider and the speed and spread of appropriation might have become amped up, but the methods are not very different. The architecture hero claiming to sprout buildings fully formed from his (not her) head has always been a myth. Copy and paste: We always have, we always will, we must, but we must do it well.

Note: This story has been updated to add Charles Renfro's contribution to the design of the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology proposal.