At first glance, Francois Prost’s photograph of the Eiffel Tower looks like it was taken on any given day in Paris. But just outside the frame are clues that the structure in his picture is nowhere near the Champ de Mars: Chinese script adorns all the shop signs, and there is no shortage of canteens serving up fried rice. That’s because Prost didn’t capture that image in France—he captured it 6,000 miles away in a facsimile of the City of Light.
Tianducheng is a Paris-inspired housing development on the outskirts of Hangzhou, China. Its 12 square miles feature rows of Haussmann-style apartment blocks, neoclassical statues, and a third-scale model of, yes, the Eiffel Tower. You can even visit the Arc de Triomphe and the gardens of Versailles.
“The monuments look the same, but it’s a totally different context,” says. He explores the weirdness in Paris Syndrome, a surreal photo series juxtaposing street scenes from the real Paris with their Tianducheng knockoffs. “What I like about seeing them side-by-side is that you’re kind of lost,” Prost says. “You don’t know which is the original or which is the copy.”
Tianduchengwith enough room for 100,000 inhabitants—presumably some who wish they lived in the real Paris. But it’s less an exact copy than a theme park-like mish-mash; the Eiffel Tower sits within the gardens of Versailles, and—more inexplicably—near the Arena of Nimes, a Roman amphitheater in southern France. “They try to mix those clichés in a different way,” Prost says. “There’s not much sense behind it.”
Prost became fascinated by so-calledseveral years ago after learning about China’s European knockoffs—Dutch windmills, Venetian canals, and the like. But it wasn’t until seeing a fake version of his own city, Paris, in a Romain Gavras music video that he decided to investigate. So last October, he flew to Hangzhou, took an hour-long taxi to Tianducheng, and checked into an Airbnb right next to the Eiffel Tower.
He immediately set out exploring. The architecture looked surprisingly real, but he kept seeing things he didn’t in Paris—unsightly air conditioners dangling from windows, whole families piled onto single scooters, workers sweeping the streets with straw brooms. The buildings themselves lacked any trace of time, and the faces of some statues seemed slightly off. “Even when you try to copy it as best as possible, there’s always a bit of awkwardness, some details that are not right,” Prost says.
He spent a week wandering Tianducheng with his DSLR and tripod. After returning home, he organized the photos into categories for buildings, monuments, and people. Then he set out systematically documenting their real counterparts—about 50 total—always shooting in the same soft light.
The matches are sometimes eerily close, but there’s almost always a detail or two that signals something is off. That’s what makes them fascinating. Tianducheng doesn’t completely look like France, but it’s not exactly China, either.