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Life on the ocean wave: why architects are drawn to boats

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Modernist architects found inspiration in early 20th-century liners, translating nautical symbolism to their buildings

There is no modern architecture without boats.  This might not be true, but you could make a case for it.  From the pointed prows of the Chilehaus and the Expressionist buildings of the port of Hamburg, to the white walls and ribbon windows of the Villa Savoye, right through to the white sails of the Sydney Opera House and the metallic glint of the Bilbao Guggenheim, the history of Modernism represents a kind of longing gaze at the opportunities and sheer style of nautical design. The fetishisation of boats is right there in the Modernist bible, Corb’s Towards a New Architecture. The phrase ‘A house is a machine for living in’ appears in the chapter ‘Eyes which do not see’, a pompous treatise on the perversion of ‘style’ in architecture and one in which, Dada-like, photos of liners are juxtaposed with a text which bears very little reference to boats. One illustration shows a collage of the great monuments of Paris, Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe and the Palais Garnier opera house superimposed on a silhouette of The Cunarder liner. The implication is that these great ships have obviated the need for monuments, they have overtaken them and have become the default monuments of modernity. The use of a liner beside a skyscraper became a dimensional trope, like the English saying something is the size of Wales or a double-decker bus. When Hans Hollein collaged an aircraft carrier onto an agricultural landscape (‘Everything is Architecture’) or when Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen displayed a replica of the Villa Savoye semi-submerged in a Danish fjord, they were playing with these associations, absurd, surreal and yet clearly a pivotal part of the cultural consciousness – as are the studio sets for Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure.  

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1930s poster for Cunard Line showing the diverse internal spaces of a luxury liner in cross section

1930s poster for Cunard Line showing the diverse internal spaces of a luxury liner in cross section. Image courtesy of Shawshots / Alamy

Like so many architects, Corb was fascinated by the idea of New York in which the great liners docked as horizontal analogues of the skyscrapers. The Bauhaus was similarly infected with nautical symbolism, what else are those balconies so brilliantly photographed by Lucia Moholy other than maritime metaphors? Those white-painted pipe railings became the bars containing Modernism, a nautical corral appearing everywhere from the British seaside to Miami, Tel Aviv and South Africa. 

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Nautical motifs visible in the studio wing balcony of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1925-26

Modernist architects were attempting to escape the tethers, the confines of history and place and, in the great liners of the early 20th century, they found their inspiration. The design of ships was driven (supposedly) by function and not tradition. Those pilotis, prows and sun decks, the curving, streamlined glass of Mendelsohn’s De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill or the access decks of apartment blocks, they all spoke of a desire to float away from context, to eschew the ground plane in favour of something less fixed.  

It went the other way too. Architects engaged with the interiors of cruise liners as the apex of modern luxury and cosmopolitan chic (those interiors were then miraculously detached from function). Hollywood had created a global industry of aspiration in which sumptuous interiors could travel effortlessly from screen to screen just as liners floated from Hamburg, Liverpool or Southampton to New York or Cape Town. Architecture was uprooted and became a travelling spectacle, interior as globalised consumable.

The liner arguably presented an opportunity to create the first real total work of art of the modern age. The idea of an opera may have been a foundational Gesamtkunstwerk – but it was fake, a set, a fantasy. A cathedral was lovely, but bound to history and superstition. The liner combined elements of those fantasies to create a vision of floating luxury tied back to reality by the industrial language of steel and rivets, funnels, smoke and chains and the smell of coal and engine oil. It was design with the masculinity of engineering rather than Rococo flourishes of gilded plaster cherubs.

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SS Normandie’s Art Deco swimming pool

SS Normandie’s Art Deco swimming pool. Courtesy of Hamon

The liner came with its own world of posters and products, the cutlery and the menus, the graphics, the marketing, the image. Intricate models of ships became an art form in their own right, scale melted away, the tiny and the vast, the intricate and the sublime. Every component of the liner – the propeller, the ballroom stairs, the bridge, the engine – was a feat of engineering, a sculpture, a surreal component of a Dada collage. 

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after the Pompidou’s eccentric colourful pipes, the then-named Richard Rogers Partnership incorporated red and blue ventilation funnels on the design for 88 Wood Street, 1990-99

So the most commercially successful architects of the age gravitated to the boats. Mewes & Davis segued seamlessly from the Ritz to Cunard’s Franconia and Laconia, TE Collcutt went from the Savoy Hotel to working for P&O, Bruno Paul worked on the interiors for a Norddeutscher Lloyd ocean liner at the same time as designing tram cars and a model Modernist house for the Deutsche Werkbund. Meanwhile, Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, designed the miserable Bremen interiors for Norddeutscher Lloyd.

The Normandie (1931, but launched in 1935) was, perhaps, the perfect piece of 20th-century design, a sumptuous cocktail of decorative art, furniture, interiors, streamlining and accessories, everything from tourist posters to flatware. While the sleekly Art Deco Normandie was being fitted out, the world-bestriding Modernist architects and planners of CIAM 4 cruised from Marseille to Athens on the (slightly shabby-looking) SS Patris discussing ‘The Functional City’ (while taking in the sights of old Europe’s least functional monuments), disembarking with a draft of the Athens Charter.  

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SS Normandie, looking down from the sun deck of cabin class c1935

SS Normandie, looking down from the sun deck of cabin class c1935. Image courtesy of Byron Company / Museum of the City of New York

Boats became embroiled in politics, literal flagships for unsavoury regimes, imperialists, fascists, militarists and the rest. They were always only a ripple away from being requisitioned as troop or military hospital ships, or POW carriers.  They were the military industrial complex made physical, their manufacture a source not only of national pride but of keeping a skilled well-paid workforce out of the Depression.  

After the Second World War, the liners drifted back into the luxury sector. Gio Ponti revisited and embellished the interiors of the Conte Biancamano and the Conte Grande and made a name for making the chicest maritime interiors, Misha Black worked with the Orient Line, Casson Conder designed Canberra and the QE2 became the nautical twin of Concorde, a moment of real fizz for a slow-to-develop British Modernism. That former British flagship is now docked in Dubai, a slightly strange floating hotel, and its original, sparse 1969 interiors – ripped out in favour of the stolid, corporate 1980s German fit-out – have now been eccentrically and lovingly restored. The old first-class lounge with its 2001: A Space Odyssey-style disco floor, slender mushroom columns and illuminated ceiling is still pretty cool. It is a rare, almost magical survivor in a ruthless industry.    

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AR June 1969 cover of a special issue devoted to the design of the QE2

AR June 1969 cover of a special issue devoted to the design of the QE2

The language of nautical engineering continued to pervade architecture, from Prouvé’s portholes to Grimshaw’s guy ropes, from Rogers’ cartoonish ventilation funnels at the Pompidou, Lloyd’s and the Cheesegrater to the maritime-type stairs on the Southbank Centre. High-Tech, in particular, seems to have preserved the nautical fetish. The reason, I think, is the idea that boats have to work, they have to be perfect or else they will fail (unlike buildings, which can conceal and bodge a remarkable degree of failure), and by imbibing the visual language of the nautical architecture will somehow, by osmosis, become more perfect and functional. Think of Future Systems and Jan Kaplicky’s obsession with monocoque shells and marine fittings (even using metal cleats as pull handles in his early buildings and the practice’s Notting Hill office).  

It’s an idea borne out in architects’ own attempts to design boats, and to design boats they own. Architects of a certain type love to sail. Renzo Piano, Richard MacCormac, David Chipperfield, Frank Gehry, Greg Lynn and countless others sail out into the sea to salve their souls. Piano and Gehry have designed their own boats, the latter’s (Foggy, a play on Frank O Gehry’s initials), is a 74ft sailing yacht, sleek and simple, very unlike the architect’s Baroque buildings. Lynn’s vessel is a racing yacht, a parametric design with two outrigger hulls joined by what look like buffalo horns.  

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captain Renzo Piano sets sail in a wardrobe devoid of any design pretension

Zaha Hadid’s ‘superyacht’ is a latticed fruit tart version of her fluid buildings and certain, I’d suggest, to remain a concept. Norman Foster’s 40m Ocean Emerald looks a little cheesy, like a luxury superyacht caged in an over-protective shell clearly aimed at making the design coherent and streamlined, but succeeding in imprisoning it in inelegance. Piano’s design looks more convincing. The Genoan architect, whose buildings have arguably often been ruined by clunky marine metaphors, is a keen sailor (there is even an enigmatic early picture of him in a pirate costume sailing, oddly, in a repurposed wardrobe) and his interest shines through in a design both sleek and practical, unfettered by an obsession with making the yacht some kind of design product. His boat, the Kirribilli, has a hinged prow, which lifts up to reveal the anchor so nothing spoils the profile. It looks, to me, like the capsule-eating spaceship in You Only Live Twice, a hint of James Bond silliness and it is, surely, among the best things he has designed. Philippe Starck once designed a yacht with Steve Jobs, which looked, bizarrely, like a floating Corb villa. Jobs was, perhaps, lucky to die before he saw it. Should have asked Jony Ive.  

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Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, project, exterior perspective, 1964

Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, project, exterior perspective, 1964. © Digital Image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

The history of modern architecture is peppered with passionate sailors messing around in boats. Super-keen sailor Wells Coates was too far ahead of the market when he designed his elegant Wingsail catamaran in 1950. One of Louis Kahn’s odder efforts was the Point Counterpoint II, a shiny metal concert hall boat which seems under constant threat of scrapping. John Pawson designed the interiors for extremely handsome B60 Sloop.  

The aesthetic of the boat began as a visual metaphor for modernity, an architecture imitating the functionality and healthy-outdoor living of a boat with sun-decks and minimal cabins in which the dweller was free to escape the filth of the cities onto the open seas. You can see Mendelsohn’s De La Warr Pavilion and Wells Coates’ Embassy Court floating off into the English Channel just as you can understand Oscar Niemeyer’s Niterói art museum or Hadid’s Capital Hill house as a homage to a ship’s bridge. The ship represented freedom – from tradition and the street, from the constraints of brick or concrete, and from the fixity of the site. 

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detail of Riveters from the ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’ series, Stanley Spencer, 1941

In the streamlining and the pointedness of the prow or the curve of a corner, it seemed that architecture could move through time as a boat sails through water, with a sense of urgency, the wind behind it, moving towards utopia. Perhaps, then, it’s ironic that the colossal cruise ships and warships of today look increasingly like the worst contemporary architecture. The megablocks moored in Venice and Miami despoil the city with their incongruous mass, an incursion of an unwelcome kind of super-modernity, which works through juxtaposition, just as did those diagrams in Corb’s book nearly a century ago. But they now serve to highlight the incongruities of globalisation. Warships, meanwhile, have taken on the bunker aesthetic of Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, the stealth angles and radar-avoiding crystalline form which seems a perversion of the German Expressionism of Hamburg’s Chilehaus, Gottfried Böhm’s concrete monoliths or Libeskind’s earlier, spikier work. Just look at the US Navy destroyer Michael Mansoor. They underline how architecture’s avant-gardes can be endlessly recycled for the wrong purposes.

Perhaps what was once a fetish, a hobby, will become an urgent necessity. The next instalment in architecture’s obsession with boats may well be hybrid. Arkup’s ‘livable yacht’ is a floating Miami Vice beach house, a fully functioning vessel with an engine, completely self-sufficient in power and with hydraulic legs that can anchor it to the seabed. The future may demand more than an aesthetic infatuation with the elegance of boats and the confronting of a reality of a flooded world.

Lead image: RMS Empress of Britain at John Brown & Co shipyard 1928-31, Clydebank, near Glasgow

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today