Meet the Boston architects who designed the largest cruise ship in the world

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Looking back, it seems like a small innovation and not a particularly exciting one: An ice rink on a cruise ship.

But when Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas debuted 25 years ago, an ice rink on a cruise ship had never been attempted. At the time of its 1999 launch, Voyager was the world’s largest cruise ship, with 3,600 passengers, and the company needed fresh entertainment options to set it apart from its competitors.

The ice rink idea was pioneering but not without its issues. Chief among them was creating and preserving ice for the rink while at sea and then keeping it level when nothing on a ship stays level. A cruise ship is essentially rattled by a constant series of small earthquakes as waves batter against it. The answer to the ice rink problem came from an unlikely source: a small architectural firm in Boston called Wilson Butler Architects, which had never worked on cruise ship design before.

More than 25 years after that first ice rink, Wilson Butler can lay claim to a long list of innovative cruise ship firsts and superlatives. (One trick to the ice rink at sea, the firm determined, is making sure the ice temperature hovers at 32 degrees so it stays malleable.) From their office in Downtown Crossing, the architects went on to design the largest slide on a ship (10 stories high, to be exact), the largest glass dome on a ship (covering 32,000 square feet and weighing 360 tons), the first glass-blowing studio at sea, the first concert hall at sea, the first skydiving simulator at sea, and the largest, and only, urban park on a ship with more than 30,000 real plants.

The Pearl, a 53-foot-diameter kinetic sculpture on the Icon of the Seas, was designed in Boston by Wilson Butler Architects.Royal Caribbean

Their most recent work can be seen on Royal Caribbean’s jaw-dropping Icon of the Seas, the largest ship in the world. The $2 billion ship holds 7,500 passengers and 2,000 crew members. For Icon, the firm created a 53-foot-diameter kinetic art installation called the Pearl that also serves as a structural support, a 700-seat aquatic theater where divers and acrobats entertain in the largest and deepest freshwater pool at sea, a 1,200-seat Broadway-caliber theater, and, staying true to their roots, the largest ice arena at sea. At first glance, the Icon, with its gallimaufry of multicolor slides, tubes, arches, decks, and domes, looks like a phantasmagoric city sprung from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

It’s an impressive achievement for an architectural firm that never set out to design cruise ships and had no background in the industry. When Wilson Butler Architects was formed in 1997, its specialty was theaters, not creating massive slides on megaships.

Alastair Battson is the lead modeler at Wilson Butler Architects. The firm was known for its work designing and restoring theaters (and still is), but for 26 years, they have been the master planners and chief architects behind all Royal Caribbean Cruises. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Up until that point, the nature of our work had been designing and restoring theaters, like the Bushnell Theater in Hartford,” said Scott Butler, one of the firm’s founders. “So, when Royal Caribbean asked if we’d be interested in designing a true theater on a ship, that seemed like a natural fit. It was probably a combination of naivete and overconfidence that led us to say yes. ”

The result of that request was a 1,350-seat theater inspired by grand 19th-century European opera halls. It looked different from anything else on a ship at the time and was revolutionary because the architects moved supports that had previously obstructed audience sightlines.

“They are by far the single most influential architectural partner we have,” said Kelly Gonzalez, senior vice president of architectural design for Royal Caribbean. “They have really gone far beyond to learn about our industry and understand its complexities. They are real partners to our company and real partners with the shipyards that we have them work with.”

Birds eye aerial of Icon of the SeasCourtesy of Royal Caribbean International

Since its first project on Voyager of the Seas, the firm has designed an additional 50 ships for Royal Caribbean, plus Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, which are owned by Royal Caribbean. The architects and interior designers at Wilson Butler may have accumulated decades of experience designing cruise ships, but ironically, none of them refer to themselves as “cruise people.”

“It helps us that none of us are particularly in love with cruising,” said Rebecca Durante, an interior designer and principal at the firm. “It helps us see a lot of the negatives. We get where these people are coming from, so we’re always looking at how we can make it better for everyone, even the people who feel like they’re getting dragged along.”

Butler said the desire to offer more options for the cruise-hesitant and make the ship feel unique resulted in the Icon’s larger, monumental scale.

AquaDome located in the Icon of the Seas.Courtesy of Wilson Butler Architects

“We’re trying to take what people might see as getting on a tin can at sea, being rocked around, dumped on an island, and then herded like cattle back on board, and change the stereotype,” he said. “We’re looking to take that perception of a cruise ship and turn it into something that doesn’t feel the same, where there’s a richness of experiences, where foot traffic flows, where there are places to find solitude, even on a ship the size of the Icon.”

There are detractors — plenty of detractors — when it comes to the Icon of the Seas. The larger the ship, the bigger the hype, the easier the target. Its unique look led one writer from the Guardian to call it “what a human lasagna might look like.” In a piece for the Atlantic, author Gary Shteyngart wrote, “It looks like a hodgepodge of domes and minarets, tubes and canopies, like Istanbul had it been designed by idiots.”

Those opinions have not stopped brisk cabin sales (the first sailing of Icon was sold out months before it launched) and positive reviews, nor has it halted next summer’s launch of Royal Caribbean’s Star of the Seas, which will be larger than Icon. The Wilson Butler team designed Star of the Seas, and they are currently working on a third sister ship, but details on that project are hush-hush.

Wilson Butler does more than design megaships. Last year, they finished work on Silversea’s latest ship, the Silver Nova. The 728-passenger luxury ship prioritizes uninterrupted vistas and expansive windows so passengers can easily see the ocean and ports to connect with their surroundings. They have also been involved in the innovative Celebrity Edge series of ships, particularly with the futuristic, design-forward performance space called Eden.

Writer, maritime historian, and YouTuber Peter Knego confesses that he isn’t a fan of megaships but has become enamored of Wilson Butler’s designs over the years. He said he first became aware of the firm in 2016 when he sailed on the Celebrity Solstice and discovered the ship’s Lawn Club. It’s half an acre of live grass where guests can picnic, play lawn games, watch concerts, or relax.

A couple picnics on the lawn of Celebrity Cruise’s Solstice. Boston architectural firm Butler Wilson designed the ship with a half-acre of live grass on deck 15.Wilson Butler Architects

“Solstice is probably my favorite of their work because, aesthetically speaking, it’s just magnificent,” Knego said. “You don’t even have to be on a ship to appreciate the atriums, the interiors, and the artwork. But Wilson Butler was also responsible for the Lawn Club, which sounded kind of ridiculous in concept. But when you experience it, and you’re actually sitting on a lawn 15 decks above the sea, it’s incredible.”

The architects at Wilson Butler continue to design and restore theaters and performance spaces, but they’ve seen their business come full circle. Where once Royal Caribbean was looking for a true theater at sea, theater companies are now looking to the firm to design their performance spaces with the efficiency of those on cruise ships.

“We’ve heard a few iterations of it,” Butler said. “When we did the Calderwood Pavilion at the Cyclorama, they said they hired us because they needed us to fit a theater in a very tight space, like a cruise ship. One of our recent clients, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, eventually revealed that they hired us because we do cruise ships and know how to move people in and out of a theater, which was one of their problems.”

“But we’ll truly know if it’s come full circle if the theater companies start asking for ice skating rinks,” Butler said with a laugh.


Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.

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