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IN 2004, A recent graduate of Yale’s Master of Architecture sued David Childs, a high-profile architect and partner at Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. The dispute was over Childs’ design for One World Trade Center, then-dubbed the Freedom Tower. Thomas Shine, the former student, claimed that Childs had ripped off Shine’s Olympic Tower design, which he’d submitted as a studio project.
In Shine v. Childs, both parties ultimately withdrew their claims, but not before a judge weighed in on a few significant copyright matters. For one, the twisting, undulating shape of the Freedom Tower was similar enough to Shine’s design to suggest infringement. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it didn’t matter that Shine hadn’t developed a technical, structural scheme for the Olympic Tower. Even conceptual renderings can be protected under copyright law. A court’s ruling, in other words, is based on whether it recognizes originality or not. It’s murky territory.
The thing is, appropriation in architecture is not new, nor is it always bad. “Forms of copying, parodying, and critiquing are at the center of the discipline; they are as important to the discipline as novelty,” says Ana Miljački, a professor of architecture at MIT.
Along with Sarah Hirschman, a designer and UC Berkeley Department of Architecture lecturer, Miljački has curated an exhibit that seeks to draw a better line between permissible and plagiaristic types of architectural copycatting. “What I find problematic as a teacher is that the definition provided by law… separates use and usefulness,” Miljački says. “We teach that use and expression are fused together.
If you were to design by copyright law, it would produce a strange object.” Because the law separates utility from invention, teaching according to it “could easily lead to a kind of status quo base and an appliqué of stylistic expression.” Unique architectural forms—ones that are both functional and artistic—would be harder to produce. […]