Open Office

Inside the years-long effort to design the world’s least traditional workplace.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

The Spheres are open to the public two Saturdays per month at no cost. Photo by Sigma Sreedharan.

In 1659, Lord Henry Capel, a member of England’s Parliament, inherited a coveted estate along the River Thames near London. Capel and his wife moved into the grand manor house at what was then known as Kew Park and, as was popular at the time, began developing a series of formal gardens. But Capel’s plant collections were unusual. He built greenhouses for species that craved warmer climates, and his gardens burst with exotic flowers, fruit trees, and rare dwarf cultivars. Evergreens, oranges, flowering viburnum, Pistacia lentiscus from the shores of the Mediterranean. It was said that Capel’s gardens were “furnished with the best fruit trees in England.”

In 1772, the estate was joined with the adjacent Richmond Gardens, and in 1840, Kew Gardens, as it was then known, was conveyed to the public. The world-renowned botanic garden and research institute now boasts more than 30,000 types of plants housed in a series of ornate, Victorian-era greenhouses and ornamental gardens. Today, Kew is considered both the “cradle of the English landscape movement” and a locus of cutting-edge botanical knowledge. The gardens draw more than 2.1 million visitors a year.

More than 300 years after Capel planted his first fir, Jeff Bezos found himself meditating on Kew’s legacy. The American CEO of Amazon, and officially the wealthiest person on the planet, found the botanic garden bewitching. It was invigorating, nourishing. He wondered if an office could have the same effect. Was it possible to capture the sense of quiet inspiration? What would it look like?

Bezos now has his answer. The Spheres, a series of three nested, bubble-like structures that rise more than four stories in the heart of Amazon’s corporate campus in Seattle, are filled with exotic and rare plants, more than 400 species in total. Unlike the greenhouses at Kew, however, the Spheres’ plant collections are interspersed with the trappings of the modern tech office: stylish ergonomic furniture, informal meeting spaces, an upscale doughnut shop.

John Schoettler, Amazon’s real estate chief, has said that Bezos was blunt about wanting an iconic building that would last well into the future, even beyond Amazon itself. In 2012, Bezos described his vision to the design team for what was then known as Rufus 2.0, a three-block redevelopment of Seattle’s Denny Triangle north of downtown. (The project’s name is a reference to a Welsh corgi that was a fixture of company life until he died in 2009.) With the design of Amazon’s new corporate campus already under way, Bezos’s desire for an iconic structure sent the team “back to the drawing board,” Mark Brands, ASLA, says.

Brands is the managing principal at Site Workshop, which was selected, along with the architecture firm NBBJ, to design the headquarters. The project, now known as the Denny Regrade, originally called for three 37-story towers, two mid-rise office buildings, and a multipurpose center, 3.3 million square feet in total, located in an area dominated by low-rise motels and surface parking lots. NBBJ was handling all the architecture, Site Workshop all the landscape. It became their job to find a place in the plan for this Kew-inspired “alternative work space.” “It could be on top of a building, a forecourt to a building. It could replace one of the buildings that we had proposed,” Brands says. They went with option C, scrapping plans for the second mid-rise office building.

The design team realized they were in pursuit of a new type of building, one equally hospitable to Homo sapiens and Embryophyta that could bring the tech industry and botanical conservation into harmonious union. There were immense obstacles. A greenhouse is not comfortable to people for long periods of time; palms, to start, crave temperatures upward of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 percent relative humidity. Set your office thermostat to 80 and you’ll cause a revolt. At the same time, energy codes for commercial buildings often require low-E glass, which limits the transmission of the very kind of light that a lot of plants need.

Informal meeting spaces are tucked into the nooks and crannies of the Spheres’ densely planted gardens. Photo by Stuart Isett.

The search for a happy medium led the team to the equatorial cloud forest, a high-altitude ecosystem characterized by high humidity but relatively cool temperatures. This was the sweet spot. Such an environment falls within the psychometric threshold of human comfort and also supports a broad range of unique and interesting plants. NBBJ worked with structural engineers at Magnusson Klemencic Associates to design the superstructure, which is made up of a repeating geometry known as a pentagonal hexecontahedron, a five-sided module, somewhat diamond-shaped, wrought in steel and glass. Its rounded steel supports resemble nothing so much as the rigid skeleton of a sand dollar.

Inside, Site Workshop conceived of two main gardens. In the northernmost sphere is the New World Garden, with a plant collection predominantly from the Americas, including a 49-foot-high Ficus rubiginosa named Rubi. In the southernmost sphere is the Old World Garden, with species from Asia and Africa. The central and largest sphere has circulation, retail space, and a living wall, as well as vine-wrapped columns and freestanding planters.

Among the 25,000 plants that adorn the Spheres’ four-story green wall are rare, carnivorous pitcher plants. Photo by Stuart Isett.

For the most part, the gardens occupy the first floors of the spheres and the upper levels offer distinct vantage points. Work spaces are woven throughout. The furniture is as diverse as the plants, families of tables and chairs designed to accommodate any sort of activity. There are chaise longues with small metal side tables and high-backed black mesh chairs with throw pillows. There are curved wooden benches and large, round boardroom tables. There is a cantilevered work space that resembles a robin’s nest, with a circular bench inside. But there are no offices. The Spheres are no one’s permanent address.

Rather they are, in the designers’ minds, a place to escape the everyday environs, shake loose new ideas, and break up the monotony of corporate tasks.

The final design of the Spheres’ interior environment, where narrow paths snake through the gardens and tables are shaded by giant elephant’s ear (Alocasia ‘Borneo Giant’), is informed by “attention restoration theory.” Research shows that sustained focus on work-related activities leads to mental fatigue. Nature is understood to be a tonic to this kind of fatigue, a sort of “soft fascination,” as the researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan put it. And so, in the Spheres, exploration is encouraged, says Matthew Wood, a principal at Site Workshop. “There’s some plants you’ll never see unless you go exploring,” he says.

The Spheres are new territory, in every sense of the term. “The traditional building team is not used to dealing with living, dynamic entities like plants,” Brands says. “They’re used to working with people who have a temperature range of 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity level that wants to be down at 30 percent or something. That’s traditional Class A office space.” Here, the inside was outside and the outside was inside. The interiors of the Spheres are, in essence, an exterior environment, with water and soil and wildlife. “Landscape architects were now inside the building,” Brands says. “That’s very unusual for an architect and an MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] team that’s used to working as a group. And so everybody was challenged to think differently, and it didn’t go well at the beginning.”

By the time the Spheres opened in January 2018, the designers had balanced the needs of both the people and plants, but that’s not where they started, Brands says. There was at first an unspoken mantra of “people first, plants second,” he says. The landscape architects had to make the case that for equatorial plants, lighting, irrigation, and HVAC systems are life support. After months of design development, the team settled on an interior climate with a daytime temperature to hover between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity not more than 60 percent. At night, the temperature is lowered to 55 degrees and the humidity increased to 85 percent.

Concealed within the green wall are misters and irrigation lines, as well as sensors that measure nutrient and pH levels. Photo by Stuart Isett.

I saw the Spheres on a sunny Tuesday afternoon this past April, a few months after Bezos told Amazon’s voice-activated personal assistant, “Alexa, open the Spheres.” The streets thrummed with hundreds of “blue badges,” the colloquial term for the roughly 45,000 Amazon employees who wander Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. (Not all the badges are blue; they are color-coded to reflect tenure.) Portions of the streetscape were still under construction, as were some of the retail spaces. Among the amenities that had yet to open was a restaurant by the Seattle chef Renee Erickson named Willmott’s Ghost, after the English horticulturist Ellen Willmott and her namesake sea holly (Eryngium giganteum).

At the moment, the Spheres are open to the public two Saturdays a month at no cost, though reservations must be made in advance. I was being ferried inside by a friend’s husband, who works at Amazon.

Upon entering the central sphere, my eyes were immediately drawn upward, following the sheer face of a curved concrete slab to a monstrous living wall—67 feet high, with 25,000 plants—and farther still, to the domed ceiling, a skeletal web of curved white steel that is at once machine-like and molecular. Up a wide staircase flanked by ferns and a naturalistic rock wall, on the first floor, was a space-age paludarium—a terrarium with freshwater and terrestrial environments—glowing under clean white lights. Beyond it, a series of framed terrariums hung on bare concrete walls like art while employees stood in line for custard- or marshmallow-filled doughnuts at General Porpoise (another Renee Erickson venture).

The surrounding green space becomes an urban room within Amazon’s towering downtown campus. Photo by Stuart Isett.

It was all a little bonkers, like a real-life biodome designed for millennials. There are a million things to look at—the plants being just one of them—but there is also a sense of being studied yourself. During my visit, I had an acute sense of the enclosure, of being under glass. But I was also mesmerized, expectant at each corner. Maybe this could be the office of the future!

It can’t. Not because it’s ineffective, but because of what an intensive operation it is. The Spheres took six years and an undisclosed but likely astronomical amount of money to build. The total cost of Amazon’s campus is estimated at $4 billion. The project also required the creation of a horticulture team, led by the botanist Ron Gagliardo, which became a necessity when Site Workshop was unable to locate a landscape company qualified to care for such a large collection of fussy plants. It required the purchase and operation of a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse in Woodinville, Washington, 20 miles from Seattle, which housed the Spheres’ 40,000 plants as they arrived and continues to serve as a backstage area for the horticultural team. It required close coordination with botanic gardens, universities, and private collectors, who lent Amazon their expertise and helped find the kinds of plants that would thrive in the Spheres’ tightly controlled environment. And it required months-long tests of building systems, which also were conducted off-site at the greenhouse in Woodinville.

Green wall panels grow in at Amazon’s nursery in Woodinville, Washington. Photo courtesy Site Workshop.

What are we to make of the Spheres? On the one hand, the building is part of a long history of wealthy elites spending huge sums to erect landmarks of their making, from Henry Capel to Edward Carlson, the hospitality executive who dreamt up the Space Needle. (Like Bezos, Carlson got his idea while traveling in Europe.) And Amazon’s announcement in November that it would split its new headquarters between Long Island City in Queens, New York, and Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, has engendered a considerable backlash over privacy, the proffering of public benefits, and predicted cost-of-living increases in the areas surrounding the new headquarters. Since Amazon moved its workforce to Seattle roughly eight years ago, the average price of a new single-family home jumped by 83 percent, according to a Builder analysis of Metrostudy data.

On the other hand, the Spheres have real conservation value. What began as an architectural curiosity has now evolved into a bona fide conservatory with a highly trained staff of horticultural experts. The Spheres have a genetic clone of one of seven surviving genetically distinct golden fuchsia (Deppea splendens), a red-and-yellow flowering plant native to the cloud forests of Chiapas, Mexico, now thought to be extinct in the wild. And the facility continues to trade rare plants with other institutions, aiding in their conservation efforts. Unlikely as it sounds, Amazon is now an important node in a network of botanic gardens and conservatories working to preserve Earth’s biodiversity.

Image courtesy Site Workshop.

It’s also worth noting that among American tech companies—including Facebook, Google, and Apple—Amazon’s campus is by far the most urban. It’s centrally located and tied in to Seattle’s transit network. It’s walkable. From the beginning, the Site Workshop team sought to create a neighborhood, not a corporate campus, Brands says. But the designers understood that even if the Denny Regrade is a neighborhood in form, it very well could become a tech playground in function. In fact, the Spheres initially weren’t going to be open to the public, which for Site Workshop was a hard pill to swallow. “We were spending all of these resources, doing all these creative things, and then you can’t get in there!” Brands says. “It’s like the candy store you can’t get in as a kid.”

Their solution was to put as much thought into the outdoor spaces as they did the indoor ones. They carved out space for a 3,675-square-foot playfield, big enough for active recreation, and designed a network of treelike shade canopies, rendered in the same material language as the Spheres’ steel structure. They also deviated from the typical Pacific Northwest plant palette, specifying less common species that nonetheless could thrive in Seattle’s climate. “That was an important gesture to the public,” Wood says, “to develop exterior planting that could be considered a botanical garden in its own right.”

Brands also points out that the size and shape of the Spheres, as well as their location on the block, create an “urban room” amid the surrounding towers. On the day I visited, the outdoor space was full of employees having lunch or on their way to a meeting and picnickers lying belly-down in the grass. I remember watching them from inside the Spheres. “You get this indoor-outdoor participation,” Brands says. “You’ll find people inside the Spheres being spectators to things going on outside the Spheres and vice versa.”

Since opening in January 2018, the Spheres have become a Seattle landmark. Photo by Stuart Isett.

What the team didn’t anticipate was how much of an attraction the Spheres would become, not just for plant lovers or architecture aficionados, but for Amazon employees. “People aren’t necessarily using it how we thought they might, like going in there and having these radical brainstorming sessions,” Brands says. “A lot of it’s about, ‘I’m gonna bring my parents here. I’m proud of where I work.’”

What about a century from now? Will the Spheres still be here? “I don’t know,” Brands says. “I can’t fast-forward 125 years in the future and know what it’ll be.” More immediately, their legacy lies in the conservation work that goes on behind the scenes and the urbanist values embedded in their design. In the end, the same thing that makes the Spheres irreproducible makes them a marvel. “It’s setting the bar high. It really is,” Brands says. “Amazon has done a great job of allowing us the opportunity to do this and setting the bar higher, on each block, on each project that gets built.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.

Project Credits

Landscape Architect Site Workshop, Seattle (Mark Brands, ASLA; Jim Keller, ASLA; Matthew Wood; Pieter van Remoortere, ASLA; Jennifer Low, ASLA; Fong Wu; Flora Yeh). Horticultural Team Amazon Horticulture, Seattle (Ron Gagliardo, Justin Schroeder, Ben Eiben, Michael Fong); Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta (Ron Determann); Windcliff, Indianola, Washington (Dan Hinkley). Architect NBBJ, Seattle. Structural Engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Seattle. Lighting and Mechanical Engineer WSP, Seattle. Water Feature Waterline Studios, Dripping Springs, Texas; COST of Wisconsin, Seattle. General Contractor Sellen Construction, Seattle. Landscape Contractor Teufel, Hillsboro, Oregon. Living Wall Support Systems Variance Design, Buda, Texas. Aquariums Tenji Inc., Carmel, California; Aquarium Zen, Seattle. Paludarium and Terrariums Variance Design, Buda, Texas. Irrigation MeeFog, Irwindale, California.

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