Form follows function when it comes to ship design

What will ships of the future look like? For those hoping for something more atheistically pleasing, don’t hold your breath, writes James Wilkes from Gray Page.

American architect Louis Sullivan (1856 – 1924) – the ‘father of the skyscraper’ and ‘father of modernism’ – is credited with the axiom ‘form follows function’ by which he meant the purpose of a building should be the starting point for its design.

The principal purpose of merchant ships has not changed for millennia; being to carry cargo by sea from one place to another. Naturally, as the nature of cargo and demand for goods has evolved so has ship design. Ships have become bigger, faster, safer, efficient. Better all round at the thing they are built to do.

They have not, however, become more aesthetically pleasing. Aesthetics has been the trade-off for unquestionable practicality.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), the American architect who designed the Guggenheim Museum, worked for Sullivan and extended his mentor’s theory. Wright said, “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

Digital technology and design AI are brilliant at giving us a window into a future where that trade-off is reconciled. Sleeker-looking ships, with hard angles replaced by rounder profiles. Rigid sail technology resplendent atop cargo decks. Bridge and accommodation structures looking less like they were conceived while playing with Lego and then simply rendered that way in steel at a yard. Perhaps in shipping, we are on the verge of spiritual union? Where, with a tad more ambition, form and function can be one.

Perhaps: but it’s difficult to underestimate the challenge of translating beautiful design concepts into practical reality because, lest we forget, the people who actually decide what ships look like are card carrying members of the Costocracy, for whom aesthetics is defined largely by the elegance of their spreadsheets.

It’s not that the requirements of the Costocracy are unreasonable. Merchant shipping is a savagely commercial pursuit and, unlike a building, the aesthetics of a ship will not add anything to its value, nor will the value of a ship will not appreciate over time (normally).

Moreover, very few of today’s ships will be around in 50 or 100 years’ time; to be admired, studied and valued. Ships are assets to be worked as hard as is safe and economically efficient to do, before they are put to the breakers torch.

No. It’s just a shame that the requirements of the Costocracy are so practically boring and aesthetically moribund.

We look back to the tea clippers of the Sovereign of the Seas and Cutty Sark era, and great ocean liners such as Queen Mary and SS United States, because they were wonderful looking ships.

We admire a small number of today’s ships for their looks too, even if we don’t say so in public (who wants to be the weirdo with the “have you seen the wonderful lines on that new ONE-chartered megamax?” conversation-starter?).

Aesthetics do matter, because there is a right side to our brains as well as a left. However, the purpose of ships is not to be aesthetically pleasing. They aren’t supposed to be fine art, sculpture or prize-winning buildings. They are not designed especially to be good looking. They are designed to be eminently practical.

Therefore, while Frank Lloyd Wright may have had a point when it comes to buildings – and even then the Guggenheim Museum has art and architectural critics – ship design is more Sullivan. Form follows function, and until the function of merchant ships changes, in 2030 they will probably look very much like they do now.

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