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The Weird World of Cruise Ships
A sublime architecture of escapism
I have never been on a cruise ship, and probably never will. To be trapped in a crowded tourist resort miles from the nearest land is relatively close to my idea of hell. Yes, with enough alcohol and the right company, I can imagine it would be fun for a day or two (readers are of course welcome to sponsor a research trip). A week would probably drive me to the edge of insanity.
Still, I find these seaborne cities fascinating, enchanting even. If you boiled the spirit of the modern hospitality business down to its purest concentrate, you surely get something like the Icon of the Seas, the enormous new cruise ship whose digital renderings have recently gone viral online. Imagine Hieronymus Bosch painting Disneyland, and you get some sense of the diabolical energy of this project. I can think of no other artefact that employs design, engineering and industrial capacity on this scale for the sole purpose of escapism and pleasure.
When the Icon of the Seas begins roaming the Caribbean in January, its 7,500 passengers will have access to on-board water parks, surf simulators and climbing walls, along with the usual menagerie of bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and gyms, all ranged over twenty decks. This represents a pinnacle of luxury consumption and of travel as an organised departure from reality (cruise ships have no worldly destination, sailing in giant circles back to their origin). It should come as no surprise that the recently deceased Italian prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who pioneered the contemporary mode of politics as entertainment, started out as a singer on cruise lines.
While a large majority of passengers once came from North America, cruise holidays are now wildly popular around the world, visiting not just the Caribbean but the Mediterranean, Baltic, North Pacific and South China Sea. Passenger numbers are climbing back towards their pre-pandemic peak of almost thirty million per year.
The origins of this institution lie with the great ocean liners of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. These were already floating fantasy habitats, offering first class passengers much more than the luxuries portrayed in James Cameron’s Titanic. As Thomas Kepler writes, the most extravagant German liners boasted “Louis XIV and Moorish lounges, winter gardens, and restaurants… sometimes two or three decks in height, gilded to the hilt with Wagnerian kitsch.” The Imperator, launched in 1912, had a first-class smoking room “in the guise of a Bavarian hunting lodge,” as well as a neoclassical swimming pool called the Pompeian Bath. The White Star Line’s Olympic (sister ship to the Titanic) boasted a Turkish bath, a gymnasium and squash courts.
With the emergence of modern cruise ships in the 1960s, some of them converted ocean liners, such seaborne decadence gradually became available to a prosperous American middle class. One difference was that ocean liners were a means of transport, not simply indulgence, so their aesthetics were partly designed to distract from rough seas.
In the intervening decades, cruise ships have become such enormous and complex artefacts that very few shipyards are capable of building the biggest specimens. Just four in fact, of which three, interestingly, are in mainland Europe. But you shouldn’t imagine the ships being built from scratch in a single place. Construction is now highly modular, with up to eighty separate “blocks” – themselves composed of sub-blocks – being built simultaneously at different locations, complete with electrics, plumbing and furniture, before they are all slotted together. The result is an incredible concentration of different technologies, from gourmet kitchens to discotheques, in a single designed object.
The reason cruise ships have become so huge is largely financial: more passengers, more cash flow and fewer overheads. Since speed is no longer a priority, the elegant profile of the ocean liner has given way to the floating tub, maximising space for people and attractions. But reaping these benefits requires vast upfront capital investments and technical expertise, which means fewer and fewer firms can compete. The same dynamics can be found in many fields of industrial design; reading about the cruise ship industry is, strangely, quite similar to reading about the semiconductor industry.
As a form of architecture, the cruise ship might recall Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s celebration of Las Vegas as a democratic landscape of fun, as meaning for the masses. But we could equally look in the opposite direction from these postmodern theorists, to the great Modernist ideologue Le Corbusier.
The Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier’s famous 1952 housing block in Marseilles, bears many striking similarities to the cruise ship. It too uses a modular structure of identical apartment units, fitted like cells into a concrete frame. In terms of overall form, it certainly resembles something modern civilization would put on the sea. What is more, in keeping with the Modernist vision of the self-contained community, the Unité incorporates a range of leisure facilities, including a shopping arcade, running track, gymnasium and rooftop paddling pool.
What to make of these echoes? It is tempting to see the cruise ship as a kind of temporary reprieve from suburbanisation. Around the world, middle class families have spurned cities for larger, more dispersed dwellings, which presumably makes an occasional intense shot of communal experience quite attractive. Maybe the cruise holiday is, like the Unité d’Habitation, a form of utopian urbanism: a rare opportunity for designers to create a dense, cosmopolitan environment that is genuinely popular.
The lesson for urban planners? Free cocktails make a big difference.
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