Inside Amazon’s Spheres

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Inside Amazon’s Spheres

Amazon’s long-awaited Spheres are finally open to the public — kind of, anyway. The bulbous buildings are a workspace meant for Amazon employees to use and the public to admire mostly from outside, unless you’re part of an Amazon HQ tour group or on a field trip from a local school.

Like most adventurous designs the Spheres are divisive: some will call them an eyesore or attention-seeking behavior by Amazon, but others will admire their originality and generous use of space. Seattle is no stranger to odd architecture, and the Spheres seem to meld the mind-bending MoPop (formerly the EMP) with the multifaceted complexity of the Central Library.

Click for many, many slides showing off the Spheres, their design, their plant life, and the opening ceremony.

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The long-anticipated Spheres

The Spheres are a familiar sight to anyone who walks or drives through downtown Seattle. They’ve been under construction for years, though only in the last six months or so have they looked like much more than empty shells.

The largest sphere is 90 feet tall and 130 feet wide, but the space is all continuous inside, as you’ll soon see if you keep clicking.

Their bulbous appearance has resulted in the bestowment of several friendly nicknames by locals.

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Public in the "understory," please

There’s a visitor center in the “understory,” accessible from 7th Ave, but the upper area is limited to Amazon employees and the occasional tour of the company’s headquarters.

Understory may sound like a diplomatic way to say basement, but it’s actually a reference to the sub-canopy levels of a forest. There’s a theme, you see.

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Obligatory Space Needle

You can see the Space Needle from the street outside the Spheres, but not from within, unfortunately. Seems like a missed opportunity. Of course, they own that big building there too, and every one for blocks, so it’s not like no one ever gets the chance to admire Seattle’s most famous landmark.

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Rare no dogs sign at Amazon

Amazon’s offices are well known to be extremely dog-friendly. The canine cavalcade is something I look forward to whenever I have a meeting there.

Unfortunately no pets are allowed inside the Spheres, probably because they would, at a bare minimum, touch the plants. Even people can’t do that, as I soon learned.

Service animals are okay, though.

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Facets, facets everywhere

Technically, the Spheres aren’t spheres. Really, it’s impractical at this scale. Instead, they’re overlapping pentagonal hexecontahedron Catalan solids. There’s a total of 2,643 panes of glass on the surface.

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Geometric main entrance

The entryway has a bunch more panes of glass but they don’t count toward the total. “No pets” signs everywhere, so leave your dogs in the office, Amazon people.

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To capitalize or not to capitalize

Confusingly, The Spheres are capitalized in type but the logotype is in lowercase. Actually, it’s not that confusing, because that’s what Amazon does with pretty much all its logotypes. But it is possible to be consistently confusing.

More on those pipe-holes later.

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The Living Wall

The largest single feature in the Spheres is certainly the Living Wall, which stretches the full four stories up and spreads around the main columns that hold the elevators and bathrooms.

It’s really quite extraordinary; it’s watered from the top down, and there are species cohabitating happily that wouldn’t normally in nature.

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Living Wall pocket ecosystems

The wall is covered in these little fabric pockets in which individual plants sit. That way they don’t strangle each other’s roots or lose their grip on the wall.

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The glorious top floor presentation space

This is where the grand opening ceremony took place. It is quite grand, even in the indifferent light of a Seattle winter.

The crowd was a mix of media, Amazon people and various other invitees, including a cute clutch of North Face-clad students.

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Beautiful downtown Seattle

Look out the 2,643 windows and you will have a lovely 360-degree view of the 2,643 Amazon buildings that have taken over the north end of Downtown and South Lake Union.

If you look closely, you might spot a crane!

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Day 1

Amazon’s biggest multi-purpose office building, Day 1, thrusts up and over the Spheres like a giant… popsicle.

What? What were you going to say?

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Washington Governor Jay Inslee

In the first of several short speeches by local officials, Governor Jay Inslee gave an enthusiastic introduction.

“People think of the Space needle as the iconic symbol of Washington… I think of the big R for Rainier Beer, but I’m proud to welcome a new icon,” he said.

“It’s a big day for Washington state, day one for the Spheres, and we’re gonna keep the ball rolling here.”

(All quotes taken from my notes, and may differ slightly from exact wording.)

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King County Executive Dow Constantine

Dow recalled a promise during his tenure to plant a million trees, and thanked Amazon for “their very elaborate contribution.”

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Mayor Jenny Durkan

Newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan repeatedly invoked gardening metaphors in her speech.

“As Amazon has moved forward and built a greater presence in Seattle, it’s a reminder of the necessity of building on what we have. It’s a place that needs to be nurtured.”

“Other cities are facing what we’re facing here,” she said, citing problems like homelessness and employment. “But no other city has what we have. Seattle is the city that has always invented the future.”

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Jeff Bezos takes the stage

This handshake isn’t especially important, but I didn’t want to exclude John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of Global Real Estate and Facilities, which sounds like an insanely hard job. He was emceeing, but later told me that the Spheres were “beyond my expectation. Everyone took so much pride in this.”

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Jeff keeps it simple

After thanking everyone, Jeff mentioned that he had “brought a special friend.” No one really had any idea who this could be, but in retrospect it was pretty obvious.

“Alexa,” he said. “Open the Spheres!”

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"Okay, Jeff."

A blue halo lit up at the crown of the Spheres and everyone around me thought the ceiling was going to open up. While that would have been cool, it would also have been a massively bad idea for several reasons. Not only are the Spheres a tightly-controlled ecosystem, but it was pouring out.

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Jeff on the move

After sneaking around to the VIP area backstage, I accidentally ended up on the stairs behind Jeff and Ron Gagliardo, the Spheres’ chief horticulturist, as they took an impromptu tour of the whole place. I thought security was going to tackle me, but they might have thought I was important.

Naturally every freelance photographer and network followed and hovered around to take pictures as they visited the various sights. I did too, so enjoy the next four slides!

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In the forest

One of the young horticulture experts told me that the different levels are different regions of plant life. The first floor, for instance, was “New World” plants, primarily American, while upstairs you’d find the “Old World, mossy, dinosaur” type growths.

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Jeff and Ben almost touch plants

You’re not supposed to touch the plants, which I found out after I did so. It’s a very sensitive environment.

Gagliardo explained to me later that they can monitor the air more closely than perhaps any other conservatory because they use a single, central sensor to test air from multiple locations, helping eliminate sensor bias.

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Jeff and MacKenzie touch the building support

I just thought this was a nice shot. Jeff seemed to be genuinely interested in all this stuff, as did his wife MacKenzie.

He was most interested, however, in the fish tank on the first floor. He must have stayed there asking about the fish for like 15 minutes.

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Jeff's sphere

I thought this was a fun shot but if someone in it doesn’t like the top-down perspective I’ll remove it. Let me know, Jeff.

Also, you’re not supposed to touch the plants!

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Green and grey

There are few straight lines in the structural elements of the Spheres (naturally), but there is a very deliberate and effective juxtaposition of lush growth and severe concrete.

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Minimal barriers to l'appel du vide

If you’re the type of person who gets nervous around big open vertical spaces because they invite you to jump down (it’s “l’appel du vide,” or “the call of the void”), you might have some trouble in the Spheres. I was afraid I was going to drop my camera the whole time. These little fences keep the little ones (and service dogs) safe, though.

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Designed by NBBJ, with assist by Escher

Seattle architecture firm NBBJ designed the place from top to bottom, and it is beautiful but a little confusing when viewed as a whole. This view from the top floor looks a bit like an Escher sketch.

The whole place holds up to about a thousand people. Nowhere near that there today, though.

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Incomprehensible maps for everyone

Luckily for anyone without a strong sense of direction, there’s a map. Unluckily, the map looks like you’re trying to navigate a cell and its vesicles. I’ll meet you at the easternmost mitochondria in 15 minutes!

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Don't call it a Buckyball

The surface of the Spheres is actually a regular pattern of sorts. But it isn’t a Buckyball or geodesic dome. “Geometrically, it’s more like a soccer ball,” explained NBBJ’s David Sadinsky.

“We were looking into making an honest to god sphere, but we figured eventually one would break.” And it’s kind of an expensive fix to replace the whole building.

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Catalans?

The five-sided shape here, with the internal structure added for rigidity, is what NBBJ ended up calling a Catalan. They had to make up a number of terms for spaces and shapes not previously named, calling aspects of the Spheres things like “guitar pick” or “birdcage.”

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The Catalans that never got the chance

The team went through a ton of alternative designs for the Catalan; as long as they distributed weight properly to the five vertexes, the internal pattern could vary quite widely. I liked this chart of discarded but obviously fondly remembered designs.

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Scale model with negative Catalan

The round shape defined here in this scale model is actually the negative space created between Catalans. It doesn’t have a name that I know of, so call it what you will.

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Even the chairs are geometric

Nice attention to detail by the furnishers.

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Suspension bridges

These bridges look quite solid, but the planks bend considerably under your step — enough to make one nervous, in fact. But they’re built to replicate the feel of a suspension bridge with unsupported planks. There’s a metal undercarriage as backup, just in case.

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Just another day at the office

“What we have here is a very exaggerated version of what a workplace could be,” explained Sadinsky.

Schoettler has said something similar in his intro, saying that they aimed to supply “what was missing from the modern office,” namely “a connection to nature.”

No cubes, of course. Just how well it will work as an actual workplace we will soon see.

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Plant people

When I asked Ben Gagliardo how many people it took to keep the plants in the Spheres “operational,” as I think I unfortunately put it, I was expecting the answer to be at least a couple dozen. But he said it’s 10, “front of house and back of house,” in his words. They keep some plants offsite until they’re mature enough to be transplanted, or move them there if they’re at a sensitive stage that needs special pollinators or what have you.

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Transplants

This little display showed a few of the different ways in which plants are moved, split, replanted and so on. It’s quite a project, really, with 40,000 plants total and lots that are sort of joint projects with the University of Washington’s Botany department and others.

You may be able to tell in some of these shots, but many of the plants have little labels. It’s an educational space and there are some unusual plants here.

“I think we’ll be able to use this space to educate people about biodiversity,” Gagliardo told me.

No corpse flower today, though. It’s offsite.

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Hidden tubes

There are vents everywhere, both for sucking in air for testing and pushing it out to maintain the proper temperature.

The Spheres are “probably” the biggest conservatory on the west coast, by volume anyway, so naturally it takes a lot of air to fill them.

They have to introduce special insects, Gagliardo mentioned. Pest-eating types like “predatory wasps.” Great!

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What we need is more humidity

Seattle isn’t a very humid place, so it’s a bit of a wet slap in the face when you walk in. The place is kept at 60 percent humidity during the day and around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At night the temperature drops and the humidity rises.

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Dramatic micro-cliffside

This weird little display was over a fish tank and was blasting out fog.

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Looking up at the Living Wall

At the bottom of the “Canyon” you’ll find lots of people craning their necks to get a sense of the scale of the Living Wall. But in doing so they may miss the beauty of a single branch or leaf. Isn’t that true of so many things?

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Living Wall continued

This is what it actually looks like without optical tricks from a zoom lens.

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A Grand Canyon

The central atrium is a nice bright space, though at night it’s probably creepy. In my opinion they should add bats.

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All-gender restrooms

The inclusion of all-gender restrooms is a thoughtful touch. I’m aware this shot isn’t particularly good (I blame the lighting), but I wanted to highlight this choice and it’s weird to take pictures in or around the bathrooms so I was kind of in a rush.

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Good morning, neighbor

Kitty corner (or catty corner, if you’re one of those) from the Spheres is a reminder of the original Denny Triangle before Amazon got its hands on it. I actually wish they had knocked down Little Darlings and kept the Hurricane diner.

Again, I regret the quality of this shot, but I thought it was important to point out.

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Good morning, other neighbor

Conveniently located down the block for any visiting tourists: the Amazon Go checkoutless shop!

There was still a line outside.

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