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First look: Amazon’s jaw-dropping new HQ2 looks like a glass mountain

Yes, you can climb it.

First look: Amazon’s jaw-dropping new HQ2 looks like a glass mountain
[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
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A mountain of glass and steel is soon to rise in Arlington, Virginia. Spiraling up from the earth and interwoven with gardens, trees, and workspaces, the structure is the architectural centerpiece of Amazon’s HQ2, which is set to bring nearly 3 million square feet of office, retail, and public space to the company’s second headquarters, just outside Washington, D.C.

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[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
The new design, made public for the first time today, reveals a dense and urban campus that shuns the isolated and insular nature of tech campuses. With a focus on public space, connections to the neighborhood, and one very big artificial mountain, Amazon’s plans for the project suggest a different kind of company headquarters.

The design encompasses 2.8 million square feet of offices spread across three midrise towers, 100,000 square feet of retail space, a community center and daycare facility, 2.5 acres of public space, and, most prominently, the spiraling mountain building.

[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
The mountain itself will be more of an amenity than an active office building, but will include both indoor and outdoor spaces that can be used for individual or team work. And its spiraling design will create the opportunity for a somewhat strenuous midday climb. Designed by Seattle-based architects NBBJ, the mountain, dubbed the Helix, is intended to be a space where employees can escape and experience the indoor gardens or outdoor terraces, and also where they can come together to collaborate in unique settings. “Amazon’s culture really reinforces the inspiration for this building,” says Dale Alberda, principal at NBBJ and lead designer of the project.

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[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
Though clearly a showpiece building, the Helix fits into the overall approach to designing HQ2, according to John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities. In combination with the three office buildings on the site, the ground floor retail, and the acres of public space between them, the Helix is meant to create a space that not only showcases a nontraditional working environment but also embraces the city around it.

“We have designed spaces that promote physical well-being. We’re dealing with the whole person,” Schoettler says. “We’re thinking not only what it’s like for them to be inside, to be able to collaborate, but what is it like for them to be outside, and what does that mean for the local community.”

[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
HQ2 has been a high-profile and controversial project since its announcement in September 2017, largely thanks to Amazon’s competition-style approach to selecting one lucky city to become the company’s new home—and see an estimated $5 billion worth of investment in the project. After sparking a wave of self-promotion among more than 200 hopeful host cities, the tech giant’s November 2018 selection of Arlington and Long Island City, in Queens, New York, left many observers stunned and some local activists irate. Concerns over tax breaks and neighborhood impacts eventually led to the February 2019 announcement that the company was pulling out of New York, turning its bifurcated second headquarters back into a single development in Arlington.

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[Image: courtesy NBBJ]
This is the second phase of the HQ2 project, and is expected to be completed around the beginning of 2025. Each of its buildings is designed to meet the LEED Platinum green building standard and be fully powered by a solar farm in southern Virginia. Central to the design was the elimination of vehicular access on the ground level, which was actually called for in the county-level design guidelines that had been established for the site. “We pushed the envelope on that,” Schoettler says.

Instead, cars and service vehicles are redirected below ground, leaving the entire site a pedestrianized space. Lanes that would have otherwise been streets will now be walkable alleyways, connecting the retail pavilions that sit alongside the office buildings and serving as gateways to the surrounding neighborhood. The goal, Schoettler says, is for the site to be a place where Amazon employees and Arlington residents will feel equally welcome.

“We believe this headquarters should be integrated into the neighborhood, not closed off, not a place for Amazon employees only,” Schoettler says. “We’re really working hard to create an 18-hour district, a place that people will want to come to, not just travel through.”

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Even the climbable mountain building will be open to the public, though only part time. Given the recent spate of suicides at the Vessel, another climbable piece of architecture at New York’s Hudson Yards, restrictions on this amenity may end up needing to be even more stringent.

Plans for this phase of the design are now being presented to Arlington County, and a public comment period will follow. But the project is far from over. A second site a few blocks away, which began construction in 2020, will add another 2.1 million square feet of office space to HQ2. In total, the two developments will house about 25,000 employees and become a distinctive addition to Arlington’s skyline.

NBBJ, which also worked on the spherical buildings at Amazon’s Seattle offices, still has some technical details to figure out regarding the Helix. The workspace-garden-mountain is “absolutely a challenge,” Alberda says. “And in fact, Amazon said this shouldn’t be easy. It should be difficult to do. If it’s too easy, we’re not doing it right.”

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That may be a valid motto for the entire HQ2 process.