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Designing

Not Your Mother's Cruise Ship

How two Boston architects made ocean liners cool again.

By Larry Lindner
January 18, 2009
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Scott Wilson and Scott Butler have been paid, most recently, to watch grass grow. As master planners of the Celebrity Solstice cruise ship, which took its maiden voyage in November, the architects were responsible for creating, among other things, 12,000 square feet of lawn on the boat's top deck.

The first lawn at sea did not germinate without challenges. "How do you get grass to grow when it's constantly being sprayed with saltwater, which kills greenery?" Butler asks. "How do you keep the ship stable with the weight of grass and soil on the top deck, especially after a monsoonal downpour in the Caribbean?" We are sitting in his brick-walled Boston office, foam-core models of ships everywhere.

Butler doesn't expect answers. He has already figured out how to collect rain and saltwater spray in egg carton-shaped indentations under the soil, sending excess out to sea through drainage scuppers, allowing grass to grow. Indeed, he and his partner, principals of Boston-based Wilson Butler Architects, are a guiding force in designing every ship for both the Celebrity and Royal Caribbean lines -- some 35 percent of all cruise ships.

Since getting the plum job of master planners in 2004, they've been designing ships to look more like boutique hotels than, say, the Love Boat. Wilson Butler's new grand foyers forgo blasts of chrome and mirrors -- the "1980s mall" style of earlier boats -- for a more subtle, luxe look. Miami Vice pinks and pistachios are gone, too. The new staterooms are spalike, decorated in whites and earth tones.

There's still plenty of dazzle. The Solstice, which was built in Germany and sails in the Caribbean during the winter and the Mediterranean during the summer, has three pools, 10 restaurants, and even a glass-blowing show, the first ever on a ship. But the ship as a whole is entirely different. White canopies on the pool deck line up to provide shade in style while bringing order to what is typically a chaotic mash of recliners. See-through glass balcony panels allow for expansive views straight out to the sea from your cabin. Royal Caribbean (which owns Celebrity) is in the process of retrofitting all its ships to come more into line with Wilson Butler's aesthetic.

Until the 1990s, says Wilson, cruise ships had been designed by Scandinavians, and the end result was "largely a Northern European guess on what Caribbean-style ships would look like." Think: coral shell colors, aqua greens, and other design elements "that became the cliched stereotype of what a cruise ship was," he says.

Royal Caribbean began collaborating with Wilson and Butler when the cruise company changed tack in 1996, bringing in architects who specialized in particular spaces to configure the boat, rather than use its usual coterie of cruise designers. Wilson and Butler's specialty was in designing performing-arts spaces. (They have been putting their signature on every venue from the Wang Center to theaters up and down the East Coast since the 1980s.) But instead of coming up with traditional Copa Cabana-style cocktail tables, they designed the first actual theater on the ocean, replete with a balcony, orchestra pit, and rows of plush seats. This foray led to more assignments from Royal Caribbean on subsequent ships.

The pair were thrilled to find themselves in the ship-making business, which had always been their dream. Wilson, 56, grew up literally 100 yards from the Mississippi River, where he rebuilt a leaky pontoon boat that he could see "from my high school homeroom window." Butler, 49, spent his boyhood summers on a lake north of Toronto, where he fashioned a flat-bottomed skiff at age 14 and then skimmed across the waters of the Trent Canal system that connects Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay.

Both started their careers hoping to become naval architects. "So when we found this client who wanted to build ships, we were fascinated with every aspect of what was going on," says Butler. "We offered this skill set of designing theaters, but once we got to the shipyard, we were quickly looking underneath the hull, checking out the bridge, exploring the mooring deck."

Recently joined by veteran architect Bruce Herrmann, they're now working on another new ship called the Oasis of the Seas. Poised to set sail late this year, it will house an outdoor amphitheater and an informal English garden the length of a football field.

Of course, landscaping on the ocean is old hat by now. Wilson and Butler ultimately solved the challenge of growing a lawn on Solstice by going with a salt-resistant grass called Bermuda Tiff -- the fourth one that they tried. Next to that, tending calla lilies in the middle of the Caribbean should be a walk in the park.

Larry Lindner's next book, Good Old Dog, is due out next year. E-mail him at lindner2@comcast.net.

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