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Freedom

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This is another of those posts from misfits’ prehistory, this time from August 1999. The description on the site https://www.tomorrow.city/a/freedom-ship says: “Designed by the engineer Norman Nixon at the end of the ’90s, the “Freedom Ship is a 25-story high megaship that is 1,371.6 meters long, 228 meters wide and 106.68 meters high. The vessel is too large to enter any port so it will be anchored offshore. Visitors use the top level airport and runway to access cities. This part of the design has always confounded me. Somebody once told me that all civil engineers like a bridge but it seems Mr. Nixon also had a penchant for aircraft carrier structure at great cost to the amenity of those living below. A regular cruise liner at least provides ocean views as private amenity yet still provides sky views as shared amenity. The presence of the runway is a major design decision and cost item and I can’t see how it was ever justified. If the vessel is anchored offshore from major cities then regular tenders could ferry passengers just as well, especially as the vessel is provided with docking facilities.

Engineering considerations aside, there’s also the important question of what kind of aircraft require a runway of less than 1,300m to take off and land? Aircraft weighing less than 10,000 kg usually require a runway of at least 1,800 m (5,900 ft). Larger ones will usually require at least 2,400 m (7,900 ft) at sea level. The image at left below – from a Wallpaper* of the time – shows a Concorde-like aircraft. This is misleading as Concorde required a runway length of 3,600 metres.] Anyway, Freedom was designed to bring together an “international, cosmopolitan and self-sustaining” community, and would circumnavigate the globe every three years docking at the main ports around the world.” It was a very late 1990s idea and, accordingly, was given much press. That the ship would also be a tax haven for registered residents was no small part of the business plan and living the dream. The project struggled to raise the necessary capital, underwent some redesigns, was cancelled and resurrected and probably died its final death when Norman Nixon died in 2012. Freedom is interesting now as a piece of history– of something people once thought was a good idea. In Britain at least, the idea of floating accommodation is still as attractive as it ever was, even if it’s no longer intended for the victims of oppressive tax regimes.

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If holidays are the experience of more desirable location or property for a couple of weeks or so, then cruise holidays offer a continuous assortment of the same. We have all seen the advertisements. “Travel the world without leaving home.” “A different view every day of the year.” SEA-GOING PROPERTY with its changing views (virtual property) has for more than a year now been on the market as freehold property. This was not such a big step since, on land, the increasing emphasis on views and particularly views over bodies of water has had the effect of de-emphasizing the actual land from which they are viewed. The natural extension of this was to do away with the land altogether and have residential sea-going property. The largest of these vessels currently being planned to do just this is the “FREEDOM”.

With prices in the range of one to four million dollars, the property itself consists of narrow cabins, stacked on top of each other, with light from one direction, and corridor access from the other. And that’s the luxury cabins. In shape and size, these cabins recall Russian worker housing some 70 years ago.

Being real estate, vessels such as FREEDOM have their shapes determined by the same forces that shape buildings. Maximising enclosed volume over the structural footprint results in a vertical extrusion having its height limited for reasons of maritime stability – twenty stories in this case. The sellable portions of these vessels are also subject to the same forces of location, size and view that determine the price of more conventional types of property. Cabins that are higher up sell for more than those on lower decks because one can see farther from them. They are also be further away from the potentially unsettling effects of large waves. Penthouses could have provided premium property having skylights and open terraces but the decision to use the top level as a runway meant these had to be sacrificed. The decks have a regular structural grid which allows for standard-sized cabins as well as for larger cabins that are multiples of the same amount of space. As with contemporary residential buildings, location and quantity of space will be the major factor affecting price, with layout and finishes being relatively insignificant.

Just as space is merely a function of money, so too is light. On land, spaces with light coming from many directions are seen as better than those having light from only one but apartments receiving light from only one direction are becoming increasingly common in upmarket developments when the demand for a view is great. 

On FREEDOM, receiving light and having a view are the same thing since properties are divided into those with private views from balconies overlooking promenade decks on every third level, and those that have communal views from those promenade decks. Two-storey high internal passageways span the ship at regular intevals along each deck with sub-luxury cabins either opening directly off of or overlooking these passageways. Some of these internal passageways open onto artificially-lit Portmanesque atriums. 

FREEDOM’s route is charted to ensure a perpetual summer, maximising temperature and sunshine. However, if the vessel circumnavigates the globe from west to east, the port (left) side will be the dark side for trans-Atlantic crossings and trans-Pacific crossings while the starboard side will be the dark side for trans-Indian Ocean crossings, with the situation reversing for when the vessel backtracks around the Mediterranean, around Australian and around the Caribbean. Either side has its advantages and disadvantages but may nevertheless affect property prices if potential buyers do their research. However, this will only matter for those having windows in the first place. In any case, granting the vessel tax-free status adds another dimension of desirability to all of the property and also serves to encourage a certain type of purchaser. 

For cabins with a view, the fact that the view changes is another force that will determine the relative prices of the properties for sale. The location of a cabin in plan would make less of a difference if the vessel were to be always stationary but, if a changing view is going to have value placed on it, property at the bow is premium property because those residents will be first to see it. The long taper at the vessel’s bow means that more cabins can have a partial view of the forward view.

By extension, the port and starboard “bay-window” protrusions allow low angles of forward view and it seems they will light either mid-deck communal areas or provide sub-premium residential space. And still following the same logic, public spaces and facilities will be placed at the stern of the ship (in much the same way as MVRDV is now suggesting for Parkland at the Dutch Pavilion, EXPO 2000).

This is economic expedience in that it makes the least desirable aspect of the vessel into a value-adding feature in much the same way as gymnasiums do for basements and luxurious lobbies do for the ground floors of residential conversion developments on land. On FREEDOM, these public spaces will include swimming pools, parks, playgrounds, and the usual entertainment facilities. The lowest level at the stern is reserved for smaller vessels and tenders to dock. However, since access (let alone residency) on vessels such as FREEDOM will be restricted, this will not be public property because there is no public as such. There will be only private property and communal property. In effect, FREEDOM is a gated development. 

But while FREEDOM a gated development, it is at the same time a fully-serviced community and therefore is vulnerable to urban planning problems that have recently surfaced, most notably in Aspen, USA.  Aspen is, as we know, a leisure community with premium property prices. The problem is that the people needed to service this community (bars, restaurants, cleaners, ski-lifts, etc.) can’t afford to live there and the solution was subsidised housing development for these people. This is not social housing but worker housing. The only reason for its provision is to keep the community viable for those who are served. 

Since FREEDOM takes a cruise ship as its model, there are already spatial precedents for the service areas and engine rooms that residents will never see. There will be a problem with noise. Since window area (= view) is the product for sale, the crew and staff housing is on level 3. Levels 4 through 9 are for office space. Levels 10 and above are only open to residents and invited guests. In other words, spatial and social segregation between the servants and the served will occur, as it did in Georgian and Victorian mansions. Again, as it did in Georgian and Victorian mansions, a hierarchy of staff will develop, with those ranking lowest being engine room workers, kitchen jobs and other tasks isolated both spatially and socially. Highest in this new old order will be bar/restaurant and leisure-oriented jobs since resident contact will necessitate spatial crossover and social interaction. We can expect cleaning and non-essential maintenance to be performed at night. 

While maximum return on investment generates form at the top end of the market, it also functions in the same way at the bottom end. This is especially true for prisons, which are a totally subsidised form of living space. Similar forms result. The only differences are lack of mobility and windows and what they symbolise. Having mobility and windows is the very basis of FREEDOM’s marketing attraction, while taking them away is the very basis of prison as a deterrent. Prison vessels and prisons in general are seen as ugly because they visibly invert both new and conventional notions of property. Architecturally, there is not much difference between keeping certain people out, and keeping certain people in. Colditz Castle, a multi-family residential castle, functioned equally well for both.

The architecture for keeping people out is no different from that for keeping people in. Colditz Caste morphed vary quickly from being the residence of the noble house of Colditz to the WWII Oflag IV-C POW camp, and then on to a brief stint as concentration camp and accommodation for the forced labour of the Reich Labour Service. During the pandemic we saw cruise ship Diamond Princess change from dream getaway to floating detention centre with passengers forbidden to leave their cabins as the vessel roamed the oceans looking for a port that would let it dock. It’s now very easy for us to see how any freedom on FREEDOM could very easily vanish. The Freedom vessel seemed like a good idea at the time but was ultimately too expensive to be built yet, because it used known technologies, its cost was too quantifiable for it to be visionary. In architecture, we only call something visionary when it’s impossible to even contemplate realizing.

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