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Machine for Living

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Royal Caribbean’s new cruise ship, Harmony of The Seas has much in common with the buildings along some of the coasts it will cruise. A maximum number of rooms face the ocean, and under and alongside them are entertainment, food and drink, and shopping districts providing daytime and nighttime activities for its 5,479 passengers.

Somewhere away from all the fun are engines and fuel tanks, a power generation facility, sewage treatment plants, a waste management system, internal and external communications systems, district heating and cooling and, let’s not forget, sleeping, eating and off-duty areas for its 2,394 crew. Harmony of the Seas has many amazing things, some of the most amazing of which we’ll never get to see or be told about.


For the tech-inclined, this is an advanced membrane bioreactor that removes nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous before returning end-product wastewaster to the ocean. It’s esssential equipment if the vessel is to be allowed to sail in protected seas such as the Baltic.   

Here’s a reverse-osmosis desalinator that makes fresh water.


This is an incinerator for dry and wet waste.


There’s other equipment and systems.


Those dealing with waste are mostly located at the end of the line for reasons more existential than biomimetic. Waste, after all, is waste.


If we forget about all this and the fact that Harmony of the Seas floats and has propulsion and navigation systems, it’s basically some accommodation along a steet and we can thus evaluate it as mere architecture. Or gated-community urbanism if you prefer. First up, an overview.



Harmony of the Seas has either sixteen or eighteen decks depending on how you count them, but at least two are used for essential non-recreational amenities such as tendering and the infirmary. Cabins are mostly on decks 9–13 that have been maximised for that very purpose. Crew quarters seem to be on Decks 3, 4 and below. In the image at the top of this post, their open space is probably that with the lights on, beneath the name.


We accept the basics of the configuration: amenity spaces up top, premium accommodation immediately below, worker accommodation beneath, machines out of sight. The top is, by definition, unenclosed and it makes a lot of sense to put outdoor recreational space there. We happily accept that the ocean is just for looking at, and not for swimming in.


It also makes sense to put recreation space up top if you’re on land and don’t have a garden


but it makes no sense if you do.


Cruise liners have more accommodation and recreational space than transatlantic liners built for speed. This is a consequence of the increased amount of accommodation on these sluggish beasts. It makes them essentially rectangular in cross section.


Uppermost deck space is used for terraces, pools, outdoor theatres, tennis courts, minigolf and such and, with Harmony of the Seas, Deck 15 has most.


Sunbathing seems to be a thing of the past, confined to terraced ‘solaraium’ slivers facing the prow. Promenades are also a thing of the past since, when all outwards-facing surface area is monetized as cabins, there’s nowhere to be anymore if you want to lose the crowd.


With Royal Caribbean vessels, what’s called The Royal Promenade is an internal shopping street. Traditionally, the uppermost promenade doubled as lifeboat access deck but, when there’s only one promenade, this function became increasingly obvious such as on Queen Mary 2. (Note those nautical railings.)


Around Royal Promenade is a running track but the view from it, we’re told, is obstructed by lifeboats.


Misfits despises this use of architectural language, preferring to see it as unobstructed access to lifeboats. We’re glad they decided to stick with the yellow. The running track seems like it might an interesting space and is one of the first things I’d want to check out

irrespective of comparisons such as this.


For one, I’d like to get a closer look at those railings where the running track loops around the stern of the vessel just above where the name is painted. They look like the same railings architects once had a thing for.


Outside cabins and most public places, the balustrades are sheets of some transparent material but, in what seems to be restricted areas such as the forecastle [fo’c’s’le] and running track, there are balustrades with open horizontal railings of the type small children love to climb.

nautical railings

They’re absent from the private and the public areas so parents can take their eyes off their kids for a second but their presence on the lifeboat level makes me think they have a safety or rescue function. [?!] Or is it just so waves washing over the ship [!] can drain away? Or both? [!!] One thing for sure: the nautical railing is not trying to be beautiful.


Building ships this big isn’t cheap. You’re looking at $1 billion or roughly the cost of the current US presidential election campaign.

Enclosed volume isn’t wasted on single-loaded corridors, making them curvy, or ‘breaking them’ with seating areas. At 1,000ft/330m, they’re only two and a half times as long as this famous corridor but just as straight-liney. Longline corridors and narrow rooms are the best way to exploit built volume.

EPSON DSC picture

At 218 ft (66.4 m) wide, there’s space for two big-brush strokes of accommodation. Here’s decks 8, 9 and 10. It’s quite an achievement that more cabins have ocean views than not.


It’s basically a hotel and the principles of adding value to built volume apply even if that volume doesn’t exist as a consequence of land. As we’ve seen, trends in hotel space tend to become realities in housing after a few decades. Housing isn’t lagging in exploiting any area or volume unsuited to more housing.


Atrium-view cabins view each other across a courtyard/atrium-like space called Central Park. It’s about 16m wide and equivalent to the UK minimum standard for opposing windows internal to a development.


The unenclosable floor of the courtyard/atrium is value-addingly amenitized by food and beverage outlets that, as with shopping malls and the city streets they try to pretend they are, inject a level of activity and provide a substitute view. Visual barriers and fixed glazing prevent the respective ambiences of the Deck 8 Central Park and the Deck 9 cabins from cancelling each other out.

I’m reminded of that MVRDV market building in Rotterdam. Apartments having views of internal courtyards weren’t new but what was was apartments having a view of a quasi-public space not even a courtyard. It was an alternate view for dual-aspect apartments.


Something similar is happening here on the Deck 5 Boardwalk that borrows ambient light from the Deck 8 Central Park level of the atrium.


With Market Building, double-loaded corridors weren’t an option as space had to be provided for the market because the market is an amenity for the city, not just for the people incidentally accommodated. The accommodation is merely secondary exploitation of the same land. It’s the opposite with Harmony of the Seas. The quantity of accommodation is paramount, and any space that can’t be used for accommodation is used to add value to that accommodation. Retail and leisure amenities don’t have to compete for custom as patrons will have already paid for many of them whether they patronize them or not.

“Make mine a double!” Drinks in the Bionic Bar are made and served by robot bartenders. These fancy vending machines are still more diverting than MIT’s robot bricklayer.


As you’d expect, height, view, area and window area are differentiators. There’s only one Royal Loft Suite. It’s 144 sq.m, has an entrance lobby, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large terrace with jacuzzi. That second door next to the bookshelves connects to an adjacent Crown Loft Suite L2 that sleeps another two of your family, your friends or your people.


There’s a dining table for eight but no kitchen so significant room service must be available, including staff on-call to man the piano and outdoor bar. It would appear so.

Royal Loft Suite.jpg

Cabins are Unité narrow and deep. The 180 sq.ft/ 17sq.m Superior Balcony type is the most numerous at 1,288. We immediately recognise it as a studio.


The Oceanview has a window seat instead of a balcony. The hull freeboard on Decks 3 and 4 has neither flare nor tumblehome so the large reveals to the windows of these lower-deck side cabins must conceal some serious hull bracing.


So far so good. There are only eight 2-Bedroom Family Oceanview apartments. We now get to see windowless bedrooms but we’re not as shocked by this as we might once have been.


Ships have a long history of windowless cabins and Harmony of the Seas adds to that history with the K, L, M, N, Q, VB-Virtual Balcony and Studio Single cabins. 


Virtual Balconies use projection screens to offer a real-time view of the outside. They are presented as the new normal. 


We need to process this now. Such projections could easily have live audio although artificially replicating the feel of the wind, but replicating the smell of the ocean, the taste of the air and the feel of the breeze may take some time. Architecture is ahead of the game as far as virtual views of enhanced skies are concerned.


Walls too.


I happen to live in an apartment with a curtain wall of fixed glazing panels. Heat and sounds and sights that I perceive as transmitted, could be replicated without too much trouble and someday some hologram might replicate the 3D effect but, even now, a virtual window (enhanced with dust) might well fool me if I kept still. Philosophers still grapple with the implications of this despite the topic having being thoroughly covered in those projected illusions we call movies. [misfits choose the red.]


With flatscreen televisions now larger than many people’s only window, it’s only a matter of time before they substitute for them.


They already do in some parts of Australia. This easily-roofed plan suited to narrow plots, turns a windowless space unacceptable as a living room into a value-adding feature offering visual stimuli preferable to what’s outside. There’s no living room as such.



Royal Caribbean helps us out with with their website’s neighborhoods link. We might bristle at the use of the word neighborhood but, at this size,


there’s no reason why there can’t be some common identity linking accommodation and the various services and amenities a particular area has to offer. On land it’s increasingly irrelevant whether or not residents are permanent and expected to have an interest beyond the financial, in the social and economic sustainability of their neighborhood.

Attempts at diversity are being attempted and, though commercially driven, we can’t say “worse things happen at sea. Now added to the mix are conference rooms implying something that sounds like work. The Crown & Anchor pub will cater to different people than the Jamie’s Italian. 


People in one place need more than just recreational activities even if that’s their main reason for being there. There’ll be a multi-faith chapel somewhere. Close to the infirmary on Deck 3 will be a pharmacy and doctors familiar with cardiac and vascular issues. People might happen to die at sea, so there’s going to be a morgue. People might also become unruly and a possible danger to others so there’ll something that won’t be called a brig. Plainclothes security personnel will be skilled in martial arts and at giving the impression a brave bystander (“Ex-military, did you hear?”) happened to be there at the right time.


The problem Harmony of the Seas poses for architecture is that it’s not visionary. It exists, and it exists without architects and architecture. It’s the sea claiming back much of what was its own in the first place and showing us the right way to build an instant city.

Picture 1.png

At $1 bil., Harmony of the Seas costs far more than the equivalent square metreage of motionless buildings that, apart from some token amenities, feed off the greater infrastructure. Anything they give back depends on the economic and social activity of the people they house.


Harmony of the Seas is a machine for farming people and its passive passengers are willing to let themselves be farmed in ways that please them and along a route they selected. It applies the principles of property development selectively, and ruthlessly.

Designing the accommodation bit is simple. Designing the hull and propulsion systems is something best left to naval architects. Designing for real, something that functions as a self-contained city isn’t something architects are equipped to do.

Even though cabins are becoming more spacious, the abundance of communal living and activity spaces means large cruise vessels such as Harmony of the Seas more closely approximate co-living than the average apartment building. In other aspects, it has a long way to go. It’s not made out of sustainable timber or salvaged plastic. It doesn’t grow its own vegetables or fish its own fish. It doesn’t generate its own power from seawater. It’s nowhere near being a closed energy system or ecosystem but it at least it’s aware it has to be one and needs to be better one.

Ocean-going vessels are worth another, less superficial, look. Hopefully, we’ll notice things we can actually learn from. In the meantime, Congratulations and Bon Voyage!


• • •

21st May, 2016: “Hold on guys – not so fast!” An article today says these vessels indeed have a long way to go as far as exhaust emissions are concerned. “At full power the Harmony of the Seas will burn 1,377 US gallons of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world an hour.” One comment on that article linked to an on ethical tourism, highlighting the cruise industry’s record on environmental concerns, labour rights of its employees, and human rights violations in some of the countries it visits. I guess this illustrates the folly of ever evaluating anything as architecture only.