A HOUSE IS A MACHINE TO LIVE IN
THE SUPPOSEDLY UNINTERESTING STORY OF THE FATHER OF THE MODERN CRUISE INDUSTRY AND HIS DOOMED VISIONS OF UTOPIAN MEGASHIPS
It is clear that if there is to be any revival of the utopian imagination in the near future, it cannot return to the old-style spatial utopias. New utopias would have to derive their form from the shifting and dissolving movement of society that is gradually replacing the fixed locations of life.
—Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias”
Nowadays we do not resist and overcome the great stream of things, but rather float upon it. We build now not citadels, but ships of state.
—H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia
At the start of William Alexander Taylor’s 1901 utopian novel, Intermere, a small steamship runs into a fog bank three days north of the equator and drifts into a whirlpool. “I felt myself being dragged down to the immeasurable watery depths,” the hero recounts. He loses consciousness, and promptly wakes in a hammock on the curved deck of an entirely different kind of vessel—one with a “succession of suites and apartments, richly but artistically furnished.” The hero imagines for a moment that he is already in paradise, but the ship, a “merocar” propelled by “supernatural agencies,” turns out to be one of many technological advances engineered by a perfect society hidden inside the earth.
The jump from steam-powered transport to luxury yacht places Intermere midway along an evolution in utopian thought: A range of authors, architects, and engineers first identified paradise as a floating island, then as an island accessible by ship, and finally as the ship itself. Transport became destination.
In 2002, when the forty-three-thousand-gross-ton vessel the World shoved off from an Oslo wharf—christened by a triumvirate of Norwegian priests with a cocktail of holy water and champagne—it marked the first time it was possible to own real estate on board a ship.
The launch was greeted with telling fanfares.
“A global village at sea,” said the Boston Globe.
“Utopia afloat,” said Macleans.
I flew to Norway to meet the man who had coaxed utopian ships off the drawing board. Knut Kloster Jr. met me at the airport wearing a sea captain’s cap low on his brow so I could recognize him. It was odd to be met by Kloster himself. He was the father of the modern cruise industry, and the visionary scion of one of Norway’s oldest shipping families.
“I’m glad I don’t have to wear this hat anymore,” Kloster said.
On the drive into Oslo, he felt obliged to point out the city’s new high-speed train, and for the next couple of days he would sustain that act of reluctant tour guide. Kloster was almost eighty, but he was a large, buoyant, alert man, and he sluiced smartly through the streets, mumbling recriminations to drivers who didn’t quite grasp the system of signal-less intersections. We sat in the lobby of my hotel to begin our discussions. Almost all of my discussions with Kloster would be about what we would discuss in the event that we decided, collectively, that his was a story worth telling. I liked him immensely.
Kloster didn’t have a high regard for consistency, and even in our first chat he turned on a dime.
“Of course it’s an interesting story,” he said, of the grand megaship scheme he had first proposed in the 1970s. This wasn’t the World. It was a plan originally code-named the “Phoenix Project,” and over the years Kloster had spent tens of millions of dollars on it.
Then, in the very next moment, he said, “I’m a failure. I failed. You won’t get whatever you’re looking for from me. I’m not interested in cruise ships anymore.”
He took me to the only park in Oslo where he could walk his German shepherd off-leash, a sculpture garden filled with pieces by Gustav Vigeland. We climbed together to the centerpiece, Monolith Plateau, which featured a huge granite column of piled and twined bodies, people helping one another, straining against one another.
“It’s about life,” Kloster said. “Do you want to take a picture?”
I told him I didn’t have a camera.
“Good.” He was terribly relieved. “I thought you would want me to take pictures.”
Families and youths gathered around the statue, adding to the collage of forms.
“It’s about life,” Kloster said again.
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