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This graphic of comparative emissions suggests that cruise liners are the bad boys roaming the ocean. It doesn’t look good, even if all the cars are Volkswagens.

cruise ship so2 emissions.jpg

At full power, one Harmony of the Seas combusts 1,377 US gallons (5,200 lit.) of diesel per hour. This sounds like a lot but think about it – it’s the total energy required to sustain the lives and activities of 8,890 persons for one hour. In addition to the energy required to propel 225,000 tons of ship through water, desalinating sea water is energy intensive, swimming pools need filtering, drinks need ice, casinos need 24-hour bright lights. It all adds up and it’s all made possible by one pint (0.58 lit) of diesel per person per hour. There’s no similar isolable city or system in the world we can compare. Aircraft can hang in the air as a self contained system for several hours but even the fuel-efficient 747 burns one gallon (3.78 lit) of fuel per second

Buildings don’t go anywhere. They outsource their energy, water and waste management requirements to their cities and their occupants do the same for many of their domestic and leisure needs. If a building and its occupants were considered as part of a greater yet essentially closed system, and all the energy contributing to keeping the city moving to service that building and sustain those lives (including streetlights, rubbish trucks, deliveries, movie theatres, bars and restaurants, supermarkets, coffee shops, subway) were tallied pro-rata, the figure may well turn out to be more than one pint of diesel per person per hour. We don’t know. 

Until we do, cruiseship designers are playing down the smokestack as a design feature.


Gone are the days of jaunty red funnels such as the QE2’s.


Gone too are the days of smokestacks belching noxious fumes indicating the triumph of optimism.


And probably gone the same way is the environmenal ignorance of children.

children's ship.jpg

Meanwhile, every several years along comes an announcement of a new largest cruise ship. Last week it was Harmony of the Seas. In 2009 it was Oasis of the Seas.


It’s traditional for such articles to generate more articles about floating cities that themselves traditionally consist of no more than a wish list of desirable features. Shimizu Corporation’s Eco Island at least tries to aim high.


Most don’t. A 1999 project called Freedomship promised freehold, sea-going, tax-free property, announcing it in cruisespeak such as “Travel the world without leaving home!” and “A different view every day of the year!”


The project website still exists, along with a wiki. As recent as 2013, a video was still kicking around. Over the years, successive vizualisations have come to increasingly feature trees – the very thing I never thought of oceans as needing.

A July 2008 press release explained the difficulty of obtaining reliable financial backing. I’m not surprised. As the website helpfully explains,

Since the design of the ship is not complete, the details and respective prices of the residential and commercial units are subject to change.” 


Prices are firm down to the dollar so must have been calculated backwards from a desired margin and a ballpark construction estimate (initially US$8 bil., but currently ≈ US$13 bil.) Despite the love spent describing amenities and other wonders, there’s no mention of engines, fuel, energy sources or emissions. This is a worry, but not a pressing one. We have enough worries with our current fleet.

There’s the environmental issue of emissions from them having to power across seas and generate their own electricity at the same time. This has local consequences but is essentially a planet-sized problem.

There’s the dilemma of these vessels bringing in tourist money but spoiling the views people have been carried in to photograph. This is more of a problem in Venice with its history of ruthless exploitation of maritime advantage, than it is in Haiti the historic hangout of a more hands-on kind of pirate.


To solve this first-world econo-aesthetic conundrum for the good of all, someone suggested cruise ships dock at a new port terminal on The Lido. This is an eminently sensible idea and, like discouraging kids from glorifying the noxious emissions of smokestacks, will mean another death of another era.

a+u 72-p104-105

There’s the problem of cruise ships simply accommodating too many people. The Balearics are struggling to cope with this year’s surge of vacationers foregoing the Mediterranean’s eastern, south-eastern and southern shores. Seasonal tourist influx has always been a problem but, in Majorca this summer, people have realized that these vessels bring more people than the island’s infrastructure can cope with.

Palma photo by Enrique Calvo:Reuters

Finally, there’s the problem that cruise liners are perceived as unnecessary, that their passengers are frivolous fun-seekers. To be sure, all passengers are probably not sweet retired couples who’ve saved up for the commemorative cruise of a lifetime but, even if they were, it’d still be proof they’d been economically productive somewhere at some time in their lives. We can’t be so sure about the owners of upmarket apartments.

rescps_park1_1460698040 (1)

Robert Stern’s 220 Central Park South has a 185-room Four Seasons Hotel on the lower floors, and 157 luxury apartments above. It cost US$450 million. Assuming two-person occupancy for the hotel rooms and an average of 4-persons per apartment, that’s $450,000 per person.

Harmony of the Seas cost US$1 bil. and accommodates 6,780 passengers at $147,500 per person. That’s one third the cost of a 220 Central Park South. If we include the Harmony of the Seas‘ 2,100 crew then the figure drops to just over one quarter. As a spatial entity providing accommodation, Harmony of the Seas is extremely good value for money.

“Ahh but the cost of the land!” you say. OK, let’s remove it but, at the same time, let’s subtract from Harmony of the Seas the cost of its ocean-going hull and naval spec, its navigation and propulsion systems, its waste management system, power generation system and everything else that makes it self-sustaining. Let’s take away all of that until we’re left with just a hotel and a mall on a barge.


Unlike Majorca with its problem of cruise ships accommodationg more people than the island can process, New York has a problem with processing too many people but not enough places to accommodate them. So let’s park our slimmed-down liner at the pier at the end of say, W57th street, hook it up to some utilities and see what a cabin sells and rents for. The only difference is that space is allocated with tenancy agreements, not tickets.


A stationary cruise ship plugged into city utilities is a good start to this new housing typology. Luxury refurbishment probably isn’t a good idea as, in Dubai, we’re still waiting for the QE2 to reappear as a luxury hotel.


Better to keep it simple and proportional to the type and scale of the problem that needs solving. What I’m suggesting are upscaled co-living houseboats. More than one.


I’m not normally one to praise MVRDV but they almost got it right with Silodam. If buildings like this were built as floating structures and not on piles, they could be constructed at shipyards skilled at building things like this, and then towed into position. Construction traffic could be kept out of cities. Floating is good because … you never know … Top deck recreation and amenity space is a no-brainer.

The only other improvement I can think of is lose the pier. Roll-on-roll-off ferries are their own. The building can be an extension of a street, a grid.


Making both ends open might be a good idea.


I’m not normally one to praise Foreign Office Architects either, but the forecourt of their 1995 Yokohama Ferry Terminal works well.


As far as plug-in cities go, big, stationary, communal houseboats along Hudson River Greenway for starters. This is neither visionary nor architecture. As a housing solution it’s obvious and underwhelming. There’s an absence of Architectural Imagination. On the plus side, it uses known techologies and a minimum of resources to solve a pressing problem in a cost-effective and familiar way. Architecture or a solution? Architecture can be avoided.