Beyond Buildings


The Ship's Shape

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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.


Constellation from room
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.


Constellatino from ARCAM
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.



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: richard | Time: 6:20 PM Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    If you think monster cruise ships look out of place in Amsterdam, you should see the image they present in Venice where they tower over almost the entire city structure. Not do mention the damage from their wake to already crumbling foundations and the thousands of passengers disgorged into a (once) residential neighborhood for their half day to 'see' the city.

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  • Posted by: vera | Time: 8:04 AM Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    Mr. Betsky, You describe in your blog a romantic concept of our naval industry, indeed! Have you thought of the enormous negative impact these floating devices have in our environment? According to eco expert Fred Pearce; “as ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars. Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations. “ And, how about cruise ships? Oceana, the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, affirms that cruise ships generate an astonishing amount of pollution: up to 25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets and 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers EACH DAY! Appalling isn’t it? In writing your blog, I wish you could encourage some of us involved in “pushing design to the limits” to enter in a dialogue larger than just a pursuit for the innovative, but also to solutions that will enrich the lives of all sentient beings.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.