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Inside the Amazon Spheres: The plants, the architecture, and a transforming city

It’s a conservatory and an office space—and symbolic of Amazon’s influence on Seattle

“Alexa, open the Spheres,” commanded Jeff Bezos, and with that, Amazon’s hybrid greenhouse and office space the Spheres officially launched.

“We wanted a space for employees to collaborate and innovate,” said Amazon Vice President for Global Real Estate and Facilities John Schoetter, introducing the building during the grand opening. “We asked ourselves: What is missing from the modern office? We discovered that missing element was a link to nature.”

Yesterday, Curbed Seattle got to take a look around the triple-domed structure, speaking with the architects and horticulturalists who built the concept and, eventually, the entire facility.

It’s been hailed as Seattle’s next major landmark. “Its artful design also contributes to the many iconic sculptures that our city and its rich heritage offer,” said Schoetter, name-checking Smith Tower, the Space Needle, and Pike Place Market.

Like those Seattle icons, the Spheres are distinctive and eye-catching, and are part of a big Seattle story; in this case, the Spheres mark the height of a tech boom in the city while still acknowledging the cherished relationship many Seattleites hold with the natural world.

Clockwise from top left: A central cylinder holds both a green wall and a tree motif. The top floor of the Spheres is lined with pendant lights. The largest green wall in the facility is 65 feet tall.

The big difference between those landmarks and the Spheres: Not just anybody can go inside the Spheres. It’s Amazon workspace with secured entry, but even Amazon employees have to reserve an entry time in advance. The public can’t actually go inside unless they’re on an Amazon HQ tour.

That said, the facility is impressive—and worth seeing, for those who get a chance. Just as the area aims to combine workspace with nature, the conservatory’s inner spaces are equal parts business and whimsy.

Clockwise from top left: A bouncy wooden bridge is supported by steel. The inside of a “birds nest” contains semi-private seating. The “birds nest” viewed from the outside.

The Spheres seem more towering from the inside than the outside. A green wall stretches up 65 feet, lining a staircase that climbs nearly to the top of the 90-foot-tall middle dome. Each of the levels provide different kinds of seating—some wrapping around a private center cylinder containing each floor’s restrooms with limited access to greenery. Others are tucked away within little courtyards.

A cafeteria-like area is anchored by a miniature version of the Renee Erickson donut shop General Porpoise.

In total, around 40,000 plants live here.

Clockwise from top left: Three plants are displayed in mounted light boxes. Fish round out an aquatic environment. Jeff Bezos admires an aquarium.

The facility took more than six years of planning, construction, and planting to come to fruition, and the Spheres weren’t always going to be spheres. Initial concept sketches by local architecture firm NBBJ show shapes ranging from rectangular to Gothic arches. Among those shapes was a more traditional, bulbous conservatory shape.

NBBJ design lead Dale Alberda shows some initial concept sketches for what would eventually become the Spheres.

That concept struck a chord with Amazon. Eventually, as the company and firm settled on the Spheres’s site, the more traditional shape evolved into more straightforward orbs.

“It got us excited because it took a traditional form and it took a whole new direction,” recalled NBBJ’s John Savo.

John Savo, left, and Alberda discuss the building’s design from the Green Room, a boardroom-like space surrounded by wire on the third floor of the Spheres.

But creating a sphere is more difficult than it may appear. While the Spheres bear similarities to, say, a traditional geodesic dome, this structure is far more complicated.

Like geodesic domes, the Spheres are constructed using a repeating geometric module. NBBJ is calling the pentagonal frames used to construct the Spheres Catalans, since they drew on the work of Belgian mathematician Eugène Charles Catalan—who in turn drew from the work of Archimedes—to create them.

Models of some of the modules used to construct the Spheres.

NBBJ worked with structural engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates to run simulations and settle on the geometry.

“There are very few of those shapes you can use again and again,” explained Dale Alberda, NBBJ’s lead designer on the project. “What we love about this is that you can then develop one singular component, fit together like a puzzle.”

A bench faces an outer wall of the Spheres, overlooking a city view.

Inside the glass walls, the metal structures appear more fluid, with curves favored over hard edges. “My goal was to have it not be so apparent that the building didn’t look like a pentagon,” said Alberda. “We wanted it to be much more organic and disguise this geometry so it’s something you would discover over time… more vine-like than structural steel-like.”

Outside the curvy structure, the building’s flat panes of glass form harder edges—bearing more similarity to a geodesic dome. “One the reasons people confuse this is we chose flat planes of glass and they’re triangular, [which] makes people think geodesic,” said Savo. “But we liked [the hard-edged glass] because it has that crystalline form to it.” It’s also more economical, added Alberda.

Inside the structure came the biggest challenge, according to Savo: making a project that is equally beneficial for plants and people. “We settled on a type of ecology... most commonly called a cloud forest,” said Savo.

A frog perches on a tropical plant inside the Spheres.

A cloud forest is a type of high-altitude tropical forest with cooler temperatures on mountain slopes, causing clouds to form which provide moisture to the plants. The plants that live inside the domes thrive in a zone “that didn’t need a lot of seasonal change and liked what people like during the day,” explained Savo. Temperatures here range from 68 to 74 degrees. The 60 to 65 percent humidity level “is a little higher than an office environment,” acknowledged Savo.

Still, the humidity is cranked up even higher when the humans aren’t around. Overnight, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the humidity level climbs to 80 to 85 percent—part of the plants’ diurnal cycle.

A plant in one of the smaller displays is misted with the Spheres’s fog system.

But during the daytime hours, it “feels like it does now you can work comfortably,” said Savo. “That’s the idea, of course—you get away from your desk [and] work in a park or a garden.”

Alberda said this allows people to be “in an environment that’s completely different than the work environment” where they can be more creative and think more clearly. “It’s not a conservatory in a strict sense, and it’s not an office building in a strict sense. It’s the combination of the two.”

The idea is far more than a novelty, said Alberda. “It’s not a showpiece, but it’s a real workhorse.”

As the project progressed, the project team became more plugged into the world ecology community. “Some of these plants are extremely rare, in fact, some are extinct in their natural habitat,” said Alberda, who noted that many plants were donated because ecologists wanted them to propagate in as many places as possible. The team soon realized the building could be key to the conservation movement, added Alberda. “That’s something we didn’t really know about when we started this project.”

And while the shallower, more noticeable aspects of the building were designed for people, some of the more hidden features are all for the plants. Even microclimates can be controlled within the array of vegetation, adjusted by horticulturalists in a room below the facility. Hidden devices monitor humidity and light levels.

Environments like the Fernery contain hidden sensors and ventilation to maintain the right environment for the plants.

“Ventilation is obscured by these monuments made of fiberglass, [because] plants from tropical environment tend to need lots of air movement,” said horticulturalist Mike Fong, who’s been working on the Spheres since October 2016, gesturing toward the plants surrounding one of the facility’s many courtyards. Fong is one of four full-time horticulturalists employed by Amazon to keep the plants inside the facility healthy.

Those light levels are one thing that was adjusted for both people and plants. Lights developed for sports arenas have an adjustable, full spectrum light from an LED array. Sometimes, in environments built just for plants, the light spectrum can create a purple cast. In adjusting the lights in the Spheres, the horticultural team can ensure that the light spectrums the plants need are present, while filling in the rest of the spectrum for a comfortable environment for humans.

Light filters down through a tree in the Spheres.

“There was a lot of [trial and error] with placement to make sure the light’s not glaring in someone’s eye,” said Fong.

Because it’s a living space, that exact balance takes a lot of ongoing adjustment. “There are certain shadows that are cast by the [structure] and by other plants,” explained Fong. “There will be lots of fine tuning, I’m sure. The plants are going to continue to grow. Stuff is going to be shaded out.”

Lights that line the steel framework in the Spheres are aimed toward plants—not humans.

“You can mix and match the color spectrum modules to [get the right mix] something that benefits the plants without looking too weird,” explained Alberda, “so we were able to mix those modules to get great light for the plants but also make it look sunlit.”

The lighting has a third function: drawing the public eye inside. The lit plants, filtered through that crystalline exterior, gives the building’s exterior a green glow.

“It’s a way we can share the gardens with the public,” said Savo.

The mission of creating a clear view of the space’s exclusive plant life was accomplished, for better or for worse; it’s unavoidable, like a giant, tropical snowglobe perched on the edge of downtown. The facility has become illustrative of Amazon’s grip on the wheel steering Seattle’s new identity.

While the project makes some ooh and aah, a brief sampling of the Twitter conversation around the facility shows that to some, the space has become a monument to a city torn apart by income inequality, which many attribute to Amazon—with those getting priced out of the city on the outside looking in.

The Spheres’s LED lights, visible from the street.

For NBBJ, creating a structure that blends into the city fabric while maintaining a private facility meant crafting retail spaces on the ground floor that anyone could access.

For the Spheres, that means an Italian restaurant—like the donut shop inside, masterminded by Renee Erickson—that’s open to the public. It also means the Understory, a tourist destination tucked in at the bottom of the Spheres. While it doesn’t provide a view of the main facility, it does tell the story of the project, and has some hands-on activities with an urban planning bent.

Clockwise from top left: Building blocks in the Understory feature towers, streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes. A series of screens describe the plants in the main Spheres facility. The view of the steel beams and a courtyard from the Understory.

“That’s what [Amazon] asked for, build us a neighborhood, not a campus,” said Savo, adding it’s the reason all Amazon’s towers look different, and why the campus has amenities like a dog park and public art.

Amazon is building at a breakneck speed, and NBBJ is designing its entire downtown campus. The firm is also designing some of the region’s more distinct buildings, like the new Rainier Square Tower (also leased by Amazon). We asked if NBBJ has a wider vision for the city in mind.

Alberda said no—although NBBJ does try “to be innovative and even provocative with all our work.”

Amazon’s Doppler and Meeting Center are visible through the glass of the Spheres.

“One of the things that our firm prides itself in is our work not looking like us, but looking like our clients,” said Alberda. “In Amazon’s case, there’s a very rich culture and attitude that’s very easy to draw from… and they were very specific from day one.”

The city’s identity does factor into the work, though, said Savo: “First the client, but it’s also the site, the place. This is the city of Seattle. We wouldn’t have done the same thing in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, and even though it’s a pure form it’s something that was designed for this particular [environment].”

The courtyard surrounding the Spheres features a canopy and public seating.

The futuristic orbs have been compared to the Space Needle, which, along with the Century 21 Exposition, launched an era of midcentury futurist architecture.

“That honestly wasn’t the inspiration,” said Alberda—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an influence.

“That’s part of Seattle though and I think that’s part of our DNA as well,” added Savo. “It’s not the driver, but it’s part of what was in the water.”

Amazon Campus

333 Boren Avenue North, Seattle, WA