When I toured the Amazon Spheres with one of the building’s lead architects, its head horticulturist, and Amazon’s real-estate chief, they didn’t conceal their delight while showing off botanic and design treasures in the gem-like building. The three interlocked glass-and-steel geodesic domes are filled with a combination of ordinary and exotic plants mixed together in the kind of harmony typically found in long-established and richly endowed horticultural collections at institutions such as the Huntington Library in California or public collections such as the United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C.
Yet the Spheres aren’t intended for public consumption. The building, designed by the architecture firm NBBJ, is meant for internal use by Amazon employees, providing a contemplative break from the boxy shapes and right angles of the surrounding urban neighborhood. Rounded and organic forms–both constructed and natural–literally take the edge off.
“Call it a modern office space: an opportunity for people throughout our urban campus to come here and be able to have a completely different work setting,” says John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president for global real estate and facilities and the driving force behind the company’s Seattle campus. The Spheres even soften the city’s harsh soundscape: The glass panels mute outside traffic, plants dampen interior sounds, and waterfalls provide pleasant white noise. “We want to … bring nature to our employees,” says Schoettler. The space can seat about 800 people, and the firm’s over 40,000 Seattle-area employees booked up all available time slots through April even before the Spheres opened.
The Spheres are Amazon’s signature imprint on a scrubby neighborhood it quickly came to dominate over the last few years. The company has erected two fairly attractive skyscrapers, with a third on the way. Between construction and leasing, its Seattle presence is 10 million square feet of office space. But this campus is not a campus. Instead, it’s a few dozen buildings of various sizes with almost no identifying signage spread out through downtown and an area north of it. This office space is freestanding and integrated with the neighborhood, alongside small public gathering spaces and amenities Amazon provides, like a small dog park and free banana stands. There’s no wall with a guardhouse. This integration into the city stands in sharp contrast to tech workplaces such as Apple’s new “spaceship” campus, a tiny city isolated by artificial hills in Cupertino.
When the Spheres were first proposed years ago, the artist’s rendering made them seems as if they’d tower over low-slung buildings nearby. What a difference a few years make. Now, they’re nestled among behemoths. When buildings across the street are complete, the Spheres will be hemmed in from all sides. (Why geodesic domes? “The spherical shape gave us the opportunity to have the most volume,” says Schoettler, but the design evolved organically through a long process.)
David Sadinsky, an architect with NBBJ, which has designed over 3 million square feet of Amazon’s central campus, says that the original master plan for the company’s buildings “is missing a center, it’s missing a heart, it’s missing a sort of spiritual soul.” That absence inspired the Spheres, although he notes that it “wasn’t always three spheres full of trees on this site.” The idea for the space and its placement emerged.
On some level, the result is just a fancy, expensive set of conference rooms with seating nooks that happen to be crammed with plants, and it’s impossible to know whether it will ultimately be seen as a folly or a landmark. Still, they bring new character to the neighborhood, with interior lighting and massive amounts of glass that offer an experience even to outsiders. It can feel a bit like being a baby who’s been shown a bright shiny ball and then had it snatched away, but in February, Amazon plans to add the Spheres to its free headquarters tours. (They’re currently booked through June.) The company also plans to offer field trips and other access to local schools and universities. Under the Spheres is “The Understory,” a level that will have a 360-degree immersive welcome center for the public and educational groups. And local restaurateurs will be opening bars and eateries at the building, some inside and available only to employees and guests, and others in publicly accessible portions.
Amazon’s Own Cloud Forest
Entering the Spheres from their uphill side, you’re confronted with a sheer monolith in a space the designers call “the canyon.” It’s a vertical living wall—one of the largest in the world—lush with plants, stretching from the ground level to nearly the top of the tallest of the domes, which is 90 feet high. Ben Eiben, Amazon’s “vertical horticulture manager,” devised a method to anchor plants in a robust polyester material rather than soil, wicking water to plants while also providing air flow. The wall is made up of 358 panels comprising over 3,000 square feet, with foliage that Amazon grew in a quarter-acre of its own greenhouse space.
This wall and the ambient temperature and humidity reminded me of the Costa Rican mountainous cloud forest in Monteverde, which I toured years ago with a plant expert. And, sure enough, Gagliardo says the majority of the building’s climate is designed to foster the climate of a new-world cloud forest, with a moderate daytime temperature and lower humidity. The Spheres will keep to an average of 72°F at 60% humidity during the day, and drop to an average 55°F and 85% humidity at night. They have micro-climates throughout, incorporating bits and pieces of other tiny biomes, like a tiny succulent garden at the top level and smaller gardens drawn from old-world species. Though Schoettler says that the habitat that Amazon created in the Spheres isn’t an allusion to the South American river that gave the company its own name, there are fish from the Amazon in one of the two bodies of water in the building.
The interior of the Spheres isn’t designed with a particular path through the building, and so far there’s little directional signage, though Gagliardo says some plant details will be added later. Winding ramps, stairs, and elevators allow for different routes and accommodate different abilities. Everywhere you look, there’s a different vista, with no two sightlines the same. Light and shadow will interplay across the day as the sun crosses the building, although I was there when heavy rain fell, streaming down the outer panes.
There’s a conscious effort to break mental patterns. In one spot, there’s a bird’s nest-like seating area that floats above the rest of its space, which you enter via wood-slat bridges. “All the kids with their phones, I want to get the phone out of their hand as they step onto this and intentionally startle them a little,” says architect Sadinsky. “Just kind of to snap them out of it to get them to look around.”
A Tree Grows In Bookland
Amazon–a company that loves big numbers–has compiled plenty of statistics describing the scale of time, effort, and materials it put into the Spheres. The domes required 620 tons of steel, 12 million pounds of concrete, and 2,643 panes of a special glass that filters out infrared wavelengths to reduce external heat. They’ll hold about 40,000 plants across 400 species at any given time, spanning examples from five continents, some of them acquired from the University of Washington. The centerpiece tree is “Rubi,” a 55-foot, 36,000-pound fig tree planted in 1969 at a California farm and trucked to Seattle after spending a year in a “shade house” to acclimate it to Seattle’s less sunny climate. Amazon wasn’t initially sure how to transport it—”I was calling Russian cargo planes,” says Gagliardo—but in the end, a truck sufficed.
The tree wasn’t part of the Spheres’ initial concept, but it helps fulfill one of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s requests, which was to make the interior look like it had been growing for years, rather than recently constructed and filled with saplings and cuttings. “The mandate came late in the process,” says Sadinsky. “We were under construction. We never planned on bringing a tree of this size in the building.” Accommodating it involved some rejiggering of work in process, and the tree sat outside for a couple of days while last-minute concerns about its weight were addressed. Ultimately, it came in safely and appears to be thriving. And it not only pulls the space together, but makes the Spheres feel extremely settled.
Even though Amazon doesn’t bill them this way, the Spheres are a giant experiment. They’re a unique facility designed for co-existence between plants and people, including combinations that haven’t been tried in combination before. And its collection, which will change over time, has plenty of points of interest.
During my tour, Gagliardo pointed out a small spiny plant in a palette of greens of various textures at one level that looked pine-like, but which was in fact an Old World rhododendron, rhododendron taxifolium, believed to be extinct in the wild and only extant through cultivation. Later I jokingly raised the potential of a titan arum—or “corpse flower”—finding a home in the Spheres, as the University of Washington has specimens, and the species has been widely propagated. The plant blooms only every seven to 10 years, producing a flower that can tower as high as 8 to 10 feet for a few days with an odor that could politely be described as having an invigorating scent (my opinion) and less politely as the stench of death. (People have been known to faint on exposure, although that’s often in hothouse conditions after a long wait to view the flower.)
Gagliardo lit up. “We have several titan arums in our greenhouses, and as soon as we get one blooming, it’s coming in.” He pointed to a small example already in the garden. How will they handle the ventilation? “We will enjoy it,” he says. That’s a hardy spirit.
Suffice it to say that the building has plenty of ventilation, primarily as a tool to control temperature and humidity. The lighting is all LED-based, using stadium-style lights developed in the wake of the Super Bowl power outage a few years ago. The LEDs produce very little heat. Ventilation shafts are hidden in extremely realistic fake tree trunks on the ground level, and have a bold, trumpet-like appearance at higher levels.
An Echo, Not A Fire Phone
Amazon threw a kitchen sink of ideas at the Spheres, but ended up with something cohesive. It’s a geodesic dome, which should seem dated rather than futuristic. It’s a bespoke building that will ostensibly stand for many decades with the intent of becoming iconic part of the downtown landscape, but also a creature of its own time. It was commissioned by a billionaire, yet lacks the oddness such buildings–such as Seattle’s own Frank Gehry-designed MoPop, built by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen–often have. Its interior is a living mass of thousands of plants, but needs to accommodate as many as several hundred people at a time across spaces from its bird’s nest to ones that border on eco-resort chic. There’s even a sun lounge at the very top of one dome.
Schoettler emphasizes that the building is ultimately designed for work first, despite its appearance, and plants second. Though it’s aesthetically pleasing within and without, there’s nothing that makes it a slave to ideas. Put in product terms, this isn’t the architectural equivalent of when Bezos ordered a Fire Phone with features he found compelling and the market didn’t. Instead, it’s from the Amazon that nurtured the Echo and brought the market-devouring and now often beloved smart speaker to maturity.
As the Spheres rose in construction, a nickname spread in the neighborhood, one I often heard when I was working in 2017 at an art school a couple of blocks away: the “B Balls,” short for “Bezos’s Balls.” The nickname was meant to be both descriptive and mildly contemptuous of this structure rising in an area formerly full of squat motels, parking lots, liquor stores, and dive bars. It was a form of civic sarcastic disobedience about an intensely secretive company that’s swallowed Seattle and now has stuck a private monument to itself in our midst.
With swaddling around the domes removed, the sidewalks and roads restored, and their interiors revealed, it’s possible attitudes will soften. The Spheres are Amazon’s attempt at making its private space into public art. It could have built anything instead of them, including yet another skyscraper. Instead, the company plopped something that defies expectations into an increasingly homogenized area. You can’t separate Amazon from the Spheres, and you can’t even get in without the company’s approval. But the domes are different. That might just be good marketing and design, or it might reflect changes growing inside the company, too.