Photo: Courtesy of Virgin Voyages
I found the new Virgin Voyages cruise ship scarlet lady lounging just off downtown Miami. She waved at me with her lipstick streaks, so I walked over to her, across the bridge and into the harbor (which is kind of like walking to LaGuardia: possible but not usual), and I doubled, trudging through a sea of parking lots. As I approached the company’s blindingly white week-long terminal, the ship reared up behind it, glass deck upon deck, like a newly sprouted waterfront condo that had drifted through Biscayne Bay. I had come to examine this vast floating object designed to carry thousands of people in a multi-day fantasy about the life of the yachtsman. A cruise ship is a leisure machine, and I wanted to know how it worked.
scarlet lady represents the first phase of Virgin’s expansion from air, land and space to sea. A near-identical copy, valiant lady, will depart from Barcelona in May, and two more are in the pipeline. With a capacity of 2,700 passengers and 1,160 crew, these $700 million babies aren’t the biggest, fanciest or most expensive of their ilk, but they are perhaps the most fanatically designed. . As soon as I boarded (nose rubbed, vaccine cards shown, mask on), I saw that barely a square centimeter had been left to neglect or chance. The elevator waiting areas were of no interest, and glimpses of the areas where the crew hides suggested that, as with all theatrical sets, the backhouse is bare and basic. But the rest of the fit-out showed the efforts of a dozen architecture and design teams, all led by Virgin’s chief cat breeder, Dee Cooper. His job was to align all of these different creative minds with the company brand – to patrol the line between bold and tacky, obvious and crazy.
So the jogging track runs along its own red steel walkway (by Concrete Amsterdam) elevated above the main deck, to better avoid collisions and vibrations from pounding heels. The hammocks, handwoven in Thailand from flame-retardant synthetic cables, hang anywhere, combining contemporary relaxation technology with a hint of Moby-Dick. The cardio room and weight room both offer boundless ocean views, so you can feel small while getting big. On the VIP deck, dichroic glass panels cast multicolored reflections on the white lounge beds. Diners can choose from the lean chrome-and-glass chic of Test Kitchen (“part cooking school and part restaurant”), designed by Concrete Amsterdam; the indigo and violet atmospheres of the upscale Mexican restaurant Pink Agave, from Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio; and a handful of other food habitats. Roman and Williams’ mansion is a soothing forest-green lair, perfect for old-fashioned quiet – until you walk through a Yayoi Kusama imitation “Infinity Mirror Room”, complete with twinkling stars above , below and all around, and in the sensory overload nightclub. Appealing textures appear everywhere: plush ottomans, metal partitions that look like they’ve been punctured by a machine gun and beaten with hammers, acres of faux leather, faux wood, synthetic moire drapes, and an assortment of other materials. which give an impression of luxury. while meeting fire code requirements for industrial toughness. Virgin has virtually eliminated cheap primary colored plastic with two sweeping bans: no single-use disposable containers and no passengers under 18. In the corporate brand universe (but not in the real world), adult apparently means sophisticated.
Designing a cruise ship is an idiosyncratic challenge, a mix of technical data and carefree fun. As in hospitals, bridges and oil rigs, the overall structure and minute details are governed by engineering, efficiency, safety and cost. Unlike these facilities, however, the function of a cruise ship is pleasure (or rather, the profit that comes from pleasure). The trick is to make passengers feel like they’ve been given a free pass to 110,000 tons of luxury, freedom and self-indulgence. And so a cruise ship is a complete habitat, its culture constant, its boundaries clear and absolute, its population moving in and out in regular tidal patterns. At sea, it offers plenty of food and comfort but no escape, raising the stakes of every design decision.
the scarlet lady has a reserve of royal suites pushed onto the bow, each with an expansive sundeck. Most cabins, however, are cramped, with glamorous lighting accents and smart design — beds that swivel into sofas, for example — to make up for the low square footage. This is deliberate, both because it increases the number of passengers (“sailors” in virgin language) that can be packed on board and because it pushes them into public spaces to mingle and drink. But people have different appetites for crowds and rowdiness, and creators have had to accommodate all-night dance parties, slot machine enthusiasts, and those who prefer to spend their evenings whispering over cocktails. Even on the outer decks, where there’s nothing to do but lie in the sun and drink, passengers may seek varying degrees of privacy or public display. In this sense, a ship is a miniature city.
As I walked through the different levels, guided up stairs and around corners by Virgin staff so that my sense of layout became more and more shaken, I saw that exploration is part of the onboard experience. Nested designs should be complex enough to provide multiple routes and destinations, yet simple enough to avoid frustrating disorientation. The result is that the bridges and bars where the indolent can spend the whole day in near immobility are also transit points for the restless. This makes a ship like this a paradise for prying eyes. It’s designed so you can look down on people who forget there’s nothing above them but the open sky. Confidentiality is always partial.
I am not the cruise industry’s target audience. Spending days on a floating version of a Las Vegas hotel in order to share a beach with the same several thousand fellow travelers who fill the onboard hot tubs, the slot machine and the bottomless plate – this is not not my idea of a good time. Sea monsters like those of Royal Caribbean new 7,000 passengers wonder of the seas strikes me as a manifestation of the global addiction to greatness, the disease that has puffy microphonesstretched skyscrapers, widened highways, blocked the Suez Canal, congested stadiumsjammed Ottawa with 18-wheelers, and even oversized demolitions. cruise ships pollute the places they visit and, over the years, have Venice so badly beaten that the government should (sort of) ban them from the lagoon. And then there’s the efficiency with which the onboard lifestyle promotes a living assortment of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.
Even so, I’m impressed with the imaginative reach of this self-contained world, and while I’d probably start looking at the lifeboats after the first 24 hours, I get the pull of suspending reality. With all its mood-lit nooks and carefully constructed ambiences, scarlet lady is a setting on which passengers can act out the scenarios they write themselves. A cruise depends on a stack of fragile illusions: that food is free, rather than prepaid; that wood is wood; that the swimming pool is a swimming pool rather than a paddling pool a few centimeters deep. (A volume of water large enough to swim in should be placed in the hold, not on an upper deck, to avoid destabilizing the ship.) And so if the ship has a heart, it can perhaps be found in the room red, the versatile theater designed by WORKac. That too can be whatever the performers want it to be. Seats are deployed on movable risers, the stage retracts, a grid of overhead lighting can shine into any corner, and the walls – red, layered, backlit and wavy – contribute to the excitement. “You could see a fashion show with audiences on both sides, then come back for a rock concert with a mosh pit, and the next night it’s a regular theater,” says Dan Wood, one of the founders of the company.
Wood and his partner (in life and in business), Amale Andraos, had ambitious goals for their first foray into ship design. Before getting the assignment nearly a decade ago, Wood had coincidentally taught an architecture studio inspired by Le Corbusier’s fascination with ocean liners in the 1920s. The modern architecture guru aspired to translate the streamlined efficiency of naval design into accommodations ashore. A century later, Wood saw cruise ships as deeply democratic places, where people of different races, ages and economic classes come together, potentially a source of lessons for the contemporary city.
When it came time to work on an actual ship, Wood and Andraos hoped to push core technologies toward greater sustainability, an effort as paradoxical as the concept of clean coal. “We wondered if we could reinvent a system on this scale,” says Andraos. “But this ship had sailed.” They quickly discovered that cruise ship design is hampered by a matrix of international regulations, shipyard practices and pre-certified materials. All the architects involved in the project must have been trained by the Genoese guru of naval architecture, Giacomo Mortola, who has more than 70 new or refurbished cruise ships to his credit. They learned that a ship is made of steel plates like Lego pieces, assembled in several shipyards at once. Pieces of scarlet lady were made in Sicily and Romania, then towed to Genoa and welded together.
A signed contract triggers an unstoppable process in which every delay or deviation from the norm has a price, ranging from enormous to prohibitive. “Timing is extremely important,” Mortola says. “One delay leads to others, then they start overlapping.” Virgin played a risky game in recruiting so many disparate designers — “A lot of prima donnas and big egos,” Mortola says — and then confronting them with the fundamental truth that all of their imaginative flights had to fit in the same steel box. But this cage is not much heavier or restrictive than an earthly city. Le Corbusier wanted architects to see ships as examples of pure engineering, beautiful in their nakedness. Today’s architects could study scarlet lady for the opposite lesson: seeing how much freedom can flourish within rigid constraints.