As the lead design team on the Oasis of the Seas, Wilson Butler Architects was a key creative force behind the ship’s most eye-catching features. The firm’s Scott Wilson talks to Christopher Kanal about the approach it took in making the ship an icon of cruise industry innovation.
When Royal Caribbean International’s (RCI) Oasis of the Seas set off on its inaugural voyage in December 2009, the gargantuan ship provoked many superlatives. But the largest cruise ship ever built is an exercise not just in excess but innovation. RCI has divided the on-board recreational facilities into seven themed ‘neighbourhoods’ including Central Park, with over 12,000 plants and 56 trees, a Boardwalk and 750-seat AquaTheater.
"Who wants to spend their career designing simple stuff?" asks Scott Wilson of Wilson Butler Architects, who, with his business partner Scott Butler, were the lead design team on the ship, and the first architects to be brought in to discuss how to bring to life the huge spaces on board the Oasis of the Seas.
The Boston-based practice is also heavily involved in the Oasis’ sister ship, the Allure of the Seas, whose maiden voyage is in November this year.
"We very much embody [RCI chairman] Richard Fain’s mandate that we are one third tradition, one third evolution and one third revolution," explains Wilson. "What makes the Oasis of the Seas special is how well quite disparate elements fit together," says Fain. "Almost anywhere you go on this ship, you’re going to see places of wonder, where you turn a corner and you’re surprised, because you never expected to see what you’re seeing."
Wilson Butler has worked with RCI since 1997 and has been involved in designing one out of three cruise vessels emerging out of shipyards today. The practice was responsible for the main theatre designs for Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class ships and theatres on its Radiance-class of ships, including the 900-seat Aurora Theatre on the Radiance of the Seas, and the 915–seat Pacifica Theatre on the Brilliance of the Seas.
"With every newbuild with Royal Caribbean our scope of responsibility has grown," says Wilson. "We are comfortable with each other and can predict what the reactions will be to things we suggest. We can almost forecast what ideas will stick and what ones won’t, which allows us to focus on innovations that can be executed."
How does the Oasis of the Seas compare to previous Royal Caribbean projects? "Ship size has crossed a threshold where bigger is actually better, as opposed to being just bigger," says Wilson. "I think the key component is the open space that has been created, which gave the 12 architects and planners of the ship incredible design opportunities. We have enough elbow room to design without feeling cramped and squeezed."
The practice provided master planning, architecture, interior design, and project team and construction oversight for many spaces throughout the 225,282t ship. "We are up and down the length of the ship," Wilson says "I think we work in every fire zone but that is what makes it fun. It brings you back to the core understanding of what the brand is and how the ships work and how we can make them better."
The designer says that his team have the advantage of not being cruise executives, allowing them to step outside of the box and approach design challenges differently. Of all the facilities the design practice worked on, the AquaTheater is perhaps the most novel and was the most challenging to design. "We had no map to follow," says Wilson of the venue, which has the largest saltwater pool of any cruise ship at sea. "We very much had to invent solutions to problems that we didn’t know existed a month earlier."
The venue’s stage engineering and complex hydraulics allow the depth of the pool to rise and fall to adapt to each performance. "The AquaTheater evolved when the shipyard first proposed a single hall with parallel superstructures with courtyards in the middle," he explains. "The obvious spatial approach was to let that courtyard open up to the sea and create a big open space for an outdoor performance venue."
Wilson Butler proposed that the design should try to integrate a pool into a performance venue so that it has a 20-hour use. "We put one and one together," says Wilson. "If we have a pool we should capitalise on it and make it into a performance space."
Together with the entertainment staff at Royal Caribbean, the team started to brainstorm and devised a venue that gave the producers and staff considerable creative flexibility. However, there were major hurdles to overcome in the design of the AquaTheater, in particular how to contain 135,000gal of water in the aft pool tank. Even when the seas are relatively calm water can still flood onto the deck. "When we began we didn’t anticipate that we would have wave or wind problems but as they pop up we addressed them and figured out creative, clever solutions to problems, which appear rather seamless now," he says.
The team ingeniously reduced wave motion by designing a retractable wall in the middle of the pool that can rise up to the surface, depending on how rough the seas are, and effectively split the volume in half. There are green and red lights to make performers aware of when the wall is up.
Wilson Butler has a history of overcoming obstacles on board cruise ships. On its first project with Royal Caribbean, it designed the Studio B ice rink on the Liberty of the Seas, which remains level, even in bad weather.
The idea behind the AquaTheater was to create a unique passenger experience. With the ocean as a backdrop, the theatre features LED-lit fountain jets and diving platforms. It is an impressive performance stage for aerial acrobatics, synchronised swimming, high-diving and ballet backed up with an advanced technology suite to manage the choreography, lighting and music.
The AquaTheater has three custom lifts, which are built into the pool that shuttles performers through and above the water. Situated 10m above the pool is a dive bridge specifically designed for aerial acrobatics. There are zip lines that extend from the dive bridge to rock climbing walls built into the sides of the deck above the audience. Underwater there are cameras that capture performances and project them onto two giant LED screens.
An attraction on board the Oasis of the Seas, which certainly drew considerable outside interest, was Central Park. The length of a football field, it features paths and wooded glades. On a less aesthetic but practical level, Central Park has its own filtration system for removing salt from the ocean water that hydrates the greenery allowing the grass to thrive.
"It was a crossroads of creativity," says Wilson. "It is probably the one area of a ship where every design team is represented. One of my responsibilities was to try and hold that together and make sure everyone’s vision didn’t get lost in the management."
Wilson is an admirer of the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who, with architect Calvert Vaux, created New York City’s Central Park. "The key to Olmsted’s design work is that he never saw a landscape design as one big idea," says Wilson. "It was a whole series of humanscale vignettes that grow from intimate little benches and small, private gardens and grand vistas."
It was a 19th century approach that Wilson reinvigorated for the 21st century. "On the Oasis of the Seas, it is a whole series of wonderfully crafted landscape vignettes that are revealed to you with every step along this meandering, curvilinear path," he says. "As you walk along the path, the purpose of the park changes from being contemplative to being a place to dine, a place to enjoy sculpture, and a place to gather as a community. If you go up to deck 15 and look down on the park you can see all these components in their entirety."
The innovations did not end there. Another space Wilson Butler designed was the 1,390-seat Opal Theatre, where the stage pushes toward the seats so that "the boundary between the audience and the performers becomes very blurred". The stage’s arch moves and is made up of two oval-shaped staircases that rise toward the ceiling and connect by way of a bridge. All the parts can be moved to make the front and back of the large stage one space. The bridge, where the orchestra plays, descends to the floor at the start of a show.
Despite the chutzpah of the finished project, Wilson Butler’s methodology boils down to a simple approach. "We are part of an Old World breed where we sit and draw," says Wilson. "We go down to Miami and we will sit there for a week at a time just drawing and sketching and be able to respond immediately to reaction and to questions."
Overall, Wilson is very happy with the completed Oasis of the Seas, and, given the record bookings the ship is attracting, so are the guests. "We met everyone’s expectations and that is wonderful," Wilson says contentedly. "I don’t think there is much we would do differently."