For immediate proof that cruise vessels are intimately connected with the history of architecture and design, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation is a good starting point. Completed in 1952, this social housing block in Marseille features a flat roof emulating a liner’s deck and a swimming pool.

The building’s overarching structure was heavily inspired by the steam liners of the age. Writing in his 1923 book Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier called these vessels “a liberation from the cursed enslavement of the past”.

Like fellow modernists such as Alvar Aalto and Richard Neutra, he sought to birth functional structures with clean lines and light and airy interiors. If architecture was a machine, Le Corbusier said, it should be a clean one, designed to alleviate disease and encourage social harmony. It’s a mantra that is being revisited in earnest as Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe. To counter the virus, the general consensus is that architects and designers will need to rethink how buildings and public spaces can be altered or remodelled to make them safer and more hygienic.

Cruise ship design is one area that has received its fair share of scrutiny from a design perspective after outbreaks on ships such as the Diamond Princess in March 2020 helped cement a damaging perception that such vessels are ‘petri dishes’ for the virus. In such extreme circumstances there is a tendency to push for radical change, but not all architects and cruise ship designers are endorsing that philosophy.

“At the start of the pandemic there was a rush to say design is going to change out of all recognition. But the truth is that it’s not dramatically different,” says David McCarthy, marine director at AD Associates, a London-based experiential and spatial design agency founded by CEO Chris Finch. The admission comes with a caveat or two. As McCarthy clarifies, it’s not that the design process hasn’t changed at all: “You do see more barriers and screens, and, obviously, a lot more signage. Also, brands [have gone about] utilising technology like they’ve never done before,” he explains. Previously at Carnival UK where he worked on vessels for Cunard and P&O, including the Queen Elizabeth and Britannia, McCarthy has spent 27 years in the cruise industry, working his way up from junior assistant purser for P&O, a position he started after seeing an advert in the local paper.

It was a formative experience: working aboard those vessels for months at a time instilled in him an understanding of how ship design can influence on-board activity in tangible ways. Functional design, he says, is the key to building ships that last. Rather than ripping up the rulebook, Covid-19 has only enhanced the importance of these key principles.

“I think [with Covid] you’re almost reversing things,” he says. “Often it was a question of ‘what capacity can I get in a given space?’ depending on what sort of entertainment or services you’re actually delivering, and now it’s the same, but you’re having to naturally put more of a social distancing slant on things.”

Balancing technology and creativity

Technology, of course, has been a go-to solution for many cruise operators struggling to react to the unique demands of the pandemic, with mandatory PCR testing, thermal scanning and autonomous robotic cleaning being used to curb the spread of Covid-19. McCarthy points out that this facet of design in particular has seen a greater collaboration with the medical sphere.

“Suppliers are approaching the likes of ourselves, as well as brands, and saying: ‘we work within the healthcare sector and these are the products we have that are proven to be effective,’” he explains.

A notable change in the technology department has been the recalibration of air conditioning and sanitation systems. MSC Cruises will be the first operator to install a new and advanced sanitation system known as ‘Safe Air’. Deploying UVC technology, air flow is targeted with short-wave light – the kind used in generic UVC lamps – to destroy virus molecules and bacteria. Other modifications have been less radical. While not exactly reinventing the wheel, the virus has accelerated a trend towards contactless interaction that has been growing not just in the maritime sector but in the hospitality space more generally.

“[A lot of it] has been about making experiences touchless – whether it’s completing your boarding questionnaire, navigating yourself through a ship, understanding what spaces are busy or not, or automation within your cabins,” McCarthy explains.

In many ways, this adoption of contactless technologies is more a continuation of a long-term trend than a revolutionary panacea, but it will be a formative change for the industry as a whole and its on-board protocols.

“There have been obvious developments on the technology side. That opens up lots of opportunities,” says Terry McGillicuddy, director of international design company Richmond International. An established name in the hospitality industry, Richmond have been involved in the creative side of cruise ship design for more than 12 years. The company has recently developed cabins, suites and communal spaces on P&O’s Britannia and Iona ships, as well as the Arvia, which is set to join its fleet in 2022, and Cunard’s unnamed fourth ship. For McGillicuddy, the benefits of on-board technology are myriad, as long as they don’t overshadow creativity and measured design principles. He cites the way that Princess Cruises introduced its recently developed ‘Ocean Medallion’ technology, which allowed automated door opening on board its ships even prior to the pandemic.

This contactless chain of interaction also extends to data collection, enabling cruise lines to gain an intimate understanding of guest preferences. This can reduce queuing at bars and restaurants and minimise unnecessary contact between crew and guests. As McGillicuddy puts it: “It all just helps to reduce physical interaction”.

These new measures are bound to affect a vessel’s overall design, although quite how is still anyone’s guess. While there has been talk of a minimalist philosophy being employed to help calm guests’ anxieties, it remains to be seen whether this will be introduced across multiple ships and brands.

“I think it has its place, but I hesitate to say that it will be a global trend. Each brand will take their approach in different ways,” says McCarthy, citing the diversification of brand offerings – along with new technologies – as one of the most transformational aspects of cruise design.

“Now you’ve now got small, medium, large and expeditionary ships that are specifically designed with products and services to attract different demographics,” he continues. “And the competition is not just within the cruise sector, but also the global tourism sector as a whole.”

The team at AD Associates has channelled that drive to create distinct aesthetic experiences into one of its latest projects, the Crystal Endeavor. Billed as a spacious, luxurious vessel, the challenge was to balance opulence and comfort with the specific operational requirements of polar exploration. The vessel’s completion has been delayed due to the pandemic, but it is still scheduled for delivery in summer 2021.

New ways of thinking

Another facet of cruise design that is being touted as a post-pandemic trend is the emerging concept of biophilia, where plants and living walls are incorporated into the ship’s layout to promote calmness and reconnect guests with the natural world. While McGillicuddy can see the benefits of this approach, he is unsure how it would work in practice: “Plants on ships are quite difficult to maintain because of the sea air, the salt atmosphere and the cost of replacement so most greenery you see is artificial,” he notes.

Moreover, on the general hygiene front, while cabin crews will now be cleaning vessels within an inch of their lives, McGillicuddy maintains that the overall cleanliness of the ships before the pandemic “was still extremely high”.

“Hotels and cruise ships are constantly cleaned,” he says. “However, you rarely see the crew because of the secondary service routes on board the ships. These enable the crew to circulate and carry out their duties without being visible. After midnight, when you walk around the ship, there will always crew cleaning everything.”

Of course, it’s not just the ships themselves that are being recalibrated. Lockdown has changed the design process itself. Whereas previously plans were laid out in an office and brainstorming sessions might be conducted in a local cafe, the latest batch of ships are being developed from home kitchens and makeshift offices. Invariably, this new manner of working has taken some getting used to.

“For all the Zoom calls, it’s really not the same. Sitting down face to face, it’s so much easier to gauge what a clients’ aspirations are and how you can help shape them,” McCarthy explains. “Meeting with someone is far more rewarding than staring at them on your laptop.”

McGillicuddy is particularly worried about what effect this is having on creativity and innovation. “I feel that this lockdown has deprived us of experiencing and understanding things in reality. I feel very strongly that design and creation has become confused by the overuse of online media imagery,” he says.

While it will take time for trends to emerge post-pandemic, the general consensus seems to be that radical change is not necessarily the best way forward for the field of cruise ship design. A thoughtful embrace of new technologies and an even more rigorous focus on core design principles are seen as the best tools to combat Covid-19. While Le Corbusier once saw cruise liners as important signposts for a futuristic style of architecture, many of today’s ship designers remain firmly planted in the here and now.