The Ship's Shape
When I woke up yesterday morning there was a ship in front of my window. That is not as strange as it sounds, as I was staying at a hotel next to the Passenger Terminal Amsterdam, but it was still a startling sight. My room was on the 16th floor, and the ship’s stack extended
above me. A little research told me this was the good ship Constellation; 934 feet long, 16 stories tall, and holding over 2,000 passengers. Its scale was astonishing.
Ships have always fascinated those who are addicted to architecture, with Le Corbusier being only the most famous aficionado. These days, ships are no longer a floating thing of beauty, if they ever were. The Constellation, built to the Miami firm Celebrity Cruises’ specification in France and registered in Malta, is an ungainly pile of decks, a floating version of one of the 1970s Miami condo towers turned horizontally. The decks seem to just sit on top of each other and stretch between bloats of glass bulging out to encompass various restaurants and lounges. Glass-sheathed elevators protrude beyond the hull.
The Constellation. Photos: Aaron Betsky
It was not until I descended down to ground level and saw the ship’s front prow that I got some sense of the sleekness with which such ships once inspired us. So it is with almost all our modes of transportation: the streamlined early jets have given way to the hideous hulk of the A380, and even cars these days are all folds and bulges that have more to do with fashion and target groups then speed and the efficient containment or expression of machinery. Only in train design do the new bullet trains maintain the romance of those things built to go fast, and even there atrocious graphics usually distract from the line turning into a bull nosed front.
The ship from my room
When I used to work in Rotterdam, I remember watching their tops drift above the midrise apartment buildings half a mile away, and often found myself at a port where the immensity of these floating fun palaces calls everything into question. During this trip, I spent the afternoon at the Amsterdam Architecture Center (ARCAM), and from there saw the smokestack sitting there all day, until it floated away in mid-afternoon over the top of the city. Everything that was big turned small against this ship, everything that was solid seems to waver as it drifted by in its leisurely float.
The ship from ARCAM
The logistics are another matter: they are the urban equivalent of the swan’s frantic paddling below the water’s surface. All morning long I watched the buses pull up, disgorge their passengers and bags, and leave again; I watched the trucks deliver all the supplies in long convoys that curved onto the quay and then curved away again to make room for more deliveries. Groups of men with fluorescent yellow jackets guided, lifted, directed, and controlled. It became clear that the building in which I was staying was designed, together with the roads and both the visible and the invisible infrastructure, to make all this possible. All this to and fro was to urban ballet as the Constellation is to the S.S. America, S.S. France, S.S. Rotterdam, or other legendary examples of aquatic streamlining, but it was a fascinating choreography of people and goods nonetheless.
It is when we push design to the limit to do something that tests our technological ability that things get interesting. Moving that much stuff through the water safely and comfortably, moving all that stuff to it, and then moving the object in and out of the city makes all those aspects of our urban environment that are static and everyday seem just that, as well as puny. For all the Constellation’s ugliness, it still managed to give me that realization.