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Wealth, Ego and Innovation

In August of 1661, an ambitious and extravagant French viscount invited a suspicious and vengeful King to his newly finished chateau in Maincy, some 40km southeast of Paris. It was there, at the Vaux-le-Vicomte, that the young and rising viscount, Nicolas Fouquet, is believed to have sealed his ruin. The chateau was a baroque masterpiece – an impeccable blending of artwork, architecture and landscape design.  There was nothing else like it in all of France – not even the royal Palace of Fontainebleau, just another 20km to the south.

Fouquet was firmly established in French society, known for his wealth and ambition. He had risen quickly in his youth and held the position of Superintendent of Finances for France. He was also known as a great patron of the arts. In building his chateau, he sought out architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and garden designer André le Nôtre. Not long after its completion, Fouquet threw an elaborate fête during King Louis XIV’s visit. Not only did it feature the unparalleled splendour of the chateau, but also the debut of a new play by Molière and extravagances of every variety. It was a celebration that had the whole of the French nobility talking. But it was not a celebration which earned the young king’s favour. Instead, it is believed to have stirred jealousy and anger, and hastened Fouquet’s downfall. Voltaire wrote of the incident and its consequences for Fouquet: “August 17, at six in the evening, Fouquet was king of France; at two in the morning, he was nobody.”

Shortly thereafter, Louis had Fouquet arrested and charged with embezzlement. After a long trial, he was thrown in prison for the rest of his life. But that wasn’t all, notes Anthony Bay, who studied History of European Civilisation at the Sorbonne in Paris, and who is now the principle at Anthony Bay’s Europe. “Louis then took the three men who built Vaux-le-Vicomte” – Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre – “and he said, ‘You did this amazing thing with Vaux-le-Vicomte; I want you to go to this little hunting house of mine in Versailles and just make it absolutely unbelievable,’” says Bay.

OO VersaillesAnd that’s exactly what they did. The Palace of Versailles was under construction by 1664, and it was to become the most elaborate and lasting impression of the monarchy’s wealth and splendour.

The account is emblematic of the ego that has fuelled so much of the world’s great achievements in art and architecture. While the number of incidents ending in incarceration are few, instances of one-upmanship are plenty. And they neither began nor ended with a rivalry outside of Paris. Displays of wealth and grandeur are as old as mankind: The pyramids, the Pantheon, the Empire State Building. Structures that inspire awe and wonder.

The superyacht industry is uniquely tied to this relationship between man and his folly. The growth in yachting’s popularity with the superrich over the last couple decades has fuelled a renaissance in luxury vessels. They have tripled and quadrupled in size, become more ornate than the stateliest of hotels, and are often equipped with more technological firepower than some of the small island-nations that they call upon. In essence, they’re floating palaces. And competition and ego have played key roles in realising such enormous feats in art and engineering.

“It’s a long lineage. It’s nothing new,” says Bay. “These guys today with their boats, they’re just doing what is a 20th Century version of what, if we were in the 15th Century, they probably would have got Leonardo da Vinci to paint a picture for them, or would have built a fantastic palace.”

A long lineage, realised today 

It probably dates back to the first tribes, says Lawrence C. Davis, an associate professor of architecture at Syracuse University in New York. This relationship between patron and artist, financier and creator, is as old as civilization. That’s how civilizations grew: through continual growth and competition. “The idea of using things – material culture – to illustrate your power and your wealth is as old as organised social living,” says Davis.

Look back at the Italian Renaissance, and much of it was fed by competition among city-states. “They were very competitive with one another in terms of material culture, as we call it,” says Davis. “And that happened to be through art – the culinary arts, the fine arts, the architectural arts. These things kind of combined to provide a cultural prestige.”

It was around this time that the Catholic Church ceased to be the lone power in Europe with the rise of a wealthy merchant class and monarchies. And with that class came the cult of the artist. “Prior to then, artists were generally nameless,” says Bay. “But from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, the cult of the individual becomes very important. So people vie to have a Michelangelo or a Leonardo or a Raphael to show off to their friends.”

OO Flatiron building NYAs the centuries progressed, interests shifted among the elite. By the dawn of the 20th Century, interests had returned once again to architecture with the advent of the skyscraper. Men vied to build the tallest building, pushing the boundaries of engineering to their limits. It was around this time, as well, that social mobility increased and the middle- and upper-classes grew in number. Consumer culture flourished. These newly wealthy used “conspicuous consumption” as a means of distinguishing themselves from lower classes, says Davis. “You have to understand the middle class is always paranoid of being perceived as not being the lower class,” he says. “And everyone’s always ratcheting it up a bit. And if you can provide a product that can do that – if you can provide a product that allows someone to illustrate themselves as being wealthy or of a certain social or economic class – people will do that. Whether it’s a car or a luxury yacht or whatever.”

In many ways, superyachts are just an extension of this idea. They are modern, floating palaces, says Guido de Groot, whose design firm works on interior and exterior yacht designs. “Especially with the market over 60m (about 200 ft), you can definitely say it is a replacement of the palaces in the past, with all the grandeur,” he says.

These days the question of what a patron is trying to say with the purchase of a superyacht may be less opaque than commissioning Michelangelo to do a painting. For the most part, it is an audacious display of wealth. And like French chateaux, like skyscrapers, people are often driven by a desire for the biggest and the flashiest. They want to make Boat International’s list of the world’s 100 largest yachts. People like Roman Abramovich and Paul Allen and Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum are constantly one-upping each other. With their yachts separated by only 7m (or 25 ft) in length, it was reported in May 2012 that Abramovich and Sheik Mohammed each had their yachts in the yard for “extension” work in bids to secure the title of “Largest Yacht.”

However, M/Y Azzam, at 180m (nearly 600 ft), easily surpassed both yachts when it was launched in early April by Lürssen. The owner’s identity is still shrouded in mystery but is believed to be a Middle Eastern billionaire, who was not only interested in size, but speed too. The world’s largest yacht is expected to be able to travel at speeds exceeding 30 knots.

Only the biggest? Only the best?

Still – size isn’t everything. Some owners are more interested in speed or function. A number of billionaires have invested heavily in producing the world’s fastest sailing catamarans to compete in the America’s Cup – a whole team of engineers and physicists and experts designing the newest, most cutting edge technology in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. Again with competition at its heart, there have been legal battles between the likes of billionaires Lawrence J. Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli regarding their racing catamarans. The America’s Cup is no new draw for the wealthy and adventurous, with billionaire media mogul Ted Turner even winning the Cup as the skipper of Courageous in 1977.

AZZAM 2Likewise, an owner with an expedition yacht is trying to say something very different from the owner of a big white boat. Even the idea of luxury is malleable to the times, says Christoph Santner, of Weimarer Visionen, a trend research group which has dealt with that subject. “There’s a real huge difference, if you talk about luxury, how it is shown and practiced in the U.S. and Europe and in the rich countries like Brazil,” he says. “They have a very different approach to China.”

That different approach to luxury has already influenced the design of yachts, says de Groot, because even the most mundane differences in culture signify important differences in how a boat is built. “The interior space on the yacht for Asian markets is also different. People stay more inside, so there should be more space and entertainment inside the yacht and less outdoor areas. So that gives also different proportions to yachts,” says de Groot. “We also have a design for the Middle East, and they’re often trying to stay in shaded areas.”

These varying ideas of luxury are influencing the industry – and will continue to influence it in the years to come, says Santner. While the newly wealthy in places like China and Russia and the Middle East are still invested in an idea of luxury “that is really about wanting to show off what they have,” there has been a significant shift among the elite in Western countries, he says. It has become less important to display wealth as to do something with it – whether that’s funding research or investing in environmentally friendly technologies. “It’s okay to live in luxury on the one side, but the luxury has to be produced in a sustainable way, under certain criteria,” Santner says. “It must be of the mindset of: planet, people, profit.”                                                               


Admittedly, superyachts are not necessarily forging a new path for themselves in terms of naval architecture, but they have certainly made up for that in terms of interior and exterior design. “The reality is, most of the innovation in the naval architecture has come from military and commercial, and not from pleasure boating,” says William S. Smith III, the vice president of Trinity Yachts.  “You do have some outrageous styling coming out of the superyacht market, but the naval architecture isn’t anything new. A lot of these guys, even if they want to be cutting edge, they don’t want to be the guinea pig. They’re going to use tried and true technology. And although it may be true to yachting, it’s not true to the maritime industry.”

Most yachts now benefit from advances in technology that were developed by either governments or private companies, often times for military purposes. However, it was only because of advancements in several areas of technology that yachting was able to feed the boom that it experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, says Smith. Advances in communications technology allowed the working wealthy to stay in constant contact with their businesses. That, combined with advances in stabilisation technology, made yachting more comfortable for many more people. And once word spread among colleagues and within the social circles of the superrich, the luxury yacht industry realised unprecedented growth.

OO wealth and innovation“Fifteen years ago, a yacht was something to bring you from A to B. And it was just nice to be on there,” says de Groot. “In the last fifteen years the yacht became one big entertainment area with having as many toys as possible on board. It’s really not anymore bringing you from A to B, but really having a floating palace with having everything on it that can entertain people, in terms of swimming pools, Jacuzzis, dancefloors.”

Largely due to this focus on comfort and entertainment, the industry has revolutionised maritime decoration – a sort of blending of opulent architectural styles coupled with the realities imposed by nautical limitations. Designer Jean Guy Vergès says this freedom to create something new and unique would never have been possible without the interest and encouragement from wealthy clients.  “For me, those people are always giving us the opportunity to go ahead in design and creativity and in a way they push us to do more and design to a higher level,” he says. “As for the attached pieces – such as art and innovations – again the fact that they wish to have something unique and unusual gives great opportunity for to end up with very high level and quality finish.”

In the end, however, it is a collaborative effort between owners, designers and architects. “I think the wealthy, by their lifestyle and requirement, are promoting art and architecture because they always come with demands that drives designers to create very specific and unique things,” says Vergès.

It all depends on the client, says de Groot. “We are, of course, sort of guiding them,” he says. “If we have the type of project, we are also trying to push the boundaries if we have the possibility. If we have the opportunity to try out new technologies, we will propose it to the client and sometimes we are proposing things that we still have to find the companies that are going to help us develop it.”

Santner says he believes this continuous drive to innovate will only speed up as scientists and engineers quickly conquer the final limits of what used to be impossible. “The limits of what we can build is no longer in the material,” he says. “But it’s in our heads. So what we will start to see in architecture are the most incredible buildings that were impossible ten, twenty, one hundred years ago. And I think we will see similar things in this field of yachts.”


Photo credits:

Cronos - by Simone Madella and Lorenzo Berselli

Chateau de Versailles, by Esalia (own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Flatiron building, New York City: By Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lürssen Yachts - M/Y Azzam

Schöpfer Yachts  - 91.5m M/Y Infinitas.


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