Azure - - CONTENTS - WORDS _Matthew Soules

Ama­zon’s vir­tual Ama­zon rises in Seat­tle

One fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion is how it af­fects the phys­i­cal qual­i­ties of the built en­vi­ron­ment. The rise of on­line shop­ping, for in­stance, is chang­ing the re­tail land­scape of ci­ties as many brick-and-mor­tar stores strug­gle to adapt. Since shop­ping ac­tiv­ity is such a vi­tal com­po­nent of vi­brant mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, this trans­for­ma­tion is a real threat to ur­ban­ism as we know it. At the same time, the grow­ing work­forces of com­pa­nies such as Ama­zon have cre­ated an in­creas­ing de­mand for of­fice space. In that com­pany’s hometown of Seat­tle, it has been build­ing a three-tower com­plex (the third is still un­der con­struc­tion) at the heart of its ur­ban cam­pus, where more than 40,000 em­ploy­ees work in over 30 build­ings. The dra­matic growth is help­ing drive a gen­eral con­struc­tion boom through­out the city. But Ama­zon’s pres­ence in cen­tral Seat­tle dis­tin­guishes the com­pany from other tech­nol­ogy be­he­moths, among which the norm has been to lo­cate in sub­ur­ban set­tings. Ap­ple and Face­book, for ex­am­ple, aren’t based in San Fran­cisco, but in Cu­per­tino and Menlo Park re­spec­tively. Ama­zon, it seems, be­lieves in the idea and pos­si­bil­i­ties of the city. But what ver­sion of ur­ban­ity does the firm em­brace? At the cen­tre of its new cam­pus, in Seat­tle’s Denny Re­grade dis­trict, sit the Spheres, a con­ser­va­tory and

workspace hy­brid de­signed and ex­e­cuted by global firm NBBJ. Con­sist­ing of three in­ter­con­nected domes, the com­plex houses around 40,000 plants. The largest sphere, in the cen­tre, is 27 me­tres tall. Among the ex­otic flora is a se­ries of floor plates con­tain­ing a cof­fee shop and a va­ri­ety of sit­ting and gath­er­ing spa­ces. In essence, it’s a pri­va­tized in­te­rior park (the pub­lic will have only lim­ited ac­cess, mainly through pre-ar­ranged tours) in­fused with the in­for­mal no­tion of work that the tech in­dus­try, at least mytho­log­i­cally, finds so ap­peal­ing. Think T-shirt-wear­ing em­ploy­ees sip­ping cof­fee while con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing new soft­ware with col­leagues, all un­der an um­brella of trop­i­cal ferns pro­tected from Seat­tle’s chilly, rainy clime. With­out a doubt, it’s a re­mark­able and un­prece­dented cor­po­rate space. But it is also some­what fa­mil­iar, echo­ing the land­scap­ing of other am­bi­tious of­fice-build­ing atri­ums, such as the Ford Foun­da­tion’s in New York City. It is also im­pos­si­ble not to think of Buck­min­ster Fuller and his mes­sianic ad­vo­cacy of ge­o­desic domes for all man­ner of pur­poses. In 1960, Fuller pro­posed a dome that would cover the en­tirety of mid­town Man­hat­tan to reg­u­late weather and air pol­lu­tion. The im­pulse to cre­ate con­trolled, ex­te­rior-like in­te­ri­ors has a deep mod­ern his­tory that ex­tends from the ar­cades of Paris to the ski slopes of Dubai. The ben­e­fits of th­ese types of spa­ces are ob­vi­ous – ski in the desert, en­joy the trop­ics in Ed­mon­ton. In some ways, they have sim­i­lar­i­ties with the dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies that sim­u­late our world. They might even be thought of as mark­ers on a spec­trum of vir­tual re­al­ity. For me, the most in­ter­est­ing part of vis­it­ing the Spheres was see­ing the some­times-cu­ri­ous in­te­gra­tion of the sys­tems re­quired to sup­port the in­te­rior na­ture, such as the ven­ti­lat­ing fans hid­den in ce­ramic tree trunks among the ferns. Such mo­ments are pow­er­ful re­minders that sim­u­la­tions are never to­tal.

Linked via a canopy to the sec­ond of the com­plex’s three tow­ers, the Spheres con­tain nu­mer­ous sit­ting and meet­ing spots (be­low).

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