Amazon's Seattle Home Looks More Like a Rainforest Than a Tech Campus

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Inside Amazon's tri-sphere biodome complex in downtown Seattle, employees will find ample opportunities to relax and unwind amongst 3,000 different species of plants, carnivorous ones included. (Rendering: NBBJ). (Photo: NBBJ)

Just when you were beginning to think you had it good with your foosball table, cold brew dispenser, meditation nook and breakfast cereal buffet, Amazon goes and really ups the ante by building its workers a crazy greenhouse-cum-chill-out zone that, at first glance, is more Pauly Shore than Jeff Bezos.

Consuming downtown Seattle’s Denny Regrade neighborhood like an encroaching fog coming in from Elliot Bay, it’s already been well established that Amazon’s new corporate headquarters/nonstop construction project is large (3.3 million square feet spread out across three city blocks), slightly ominous and impossible to avoid. Also based in Seattle, tech campus-specializing architecture firm NBBJ prefers to call its city-transforming work a “neighborhood rather than a campus” to more appropriately “reflect Amazon’s “community-based culture.”

Fair enough. But how many neighborhoods are composed of mid- and high-rise towers clustered around a tri-sphered biodome filled with upwards of 40,000 plants from 30 countries and 40-some massive trees?

Seattle is that city.

In a jewel-filled New York Times article published in 2016, readers were given a taste of what will transpire within the flamboyant, bubble-shaped heart of Amazon’s shiny new downtown Seattle campus.

The presence of the spheres — or bubbles or biodomes or whatever you want to call them — isn’t exactly a surprise considering the city approved the traffic-halting architectural centerpiece back in 2013. Chatter about the bulbous glass-paneled structure — positioned to be a Space Needle-level icon and “found treasure in the downtown neighborhood,” as John Schoettler, director of global real estate and facilities for the e-commerce behemoth, tells the Times — has been strong since the design renderings were first made public.

Exterior of biodomes at new Amazon headquarters in Seattle.
Exterior of biodomes at new Amazon headquarters in Seattle. (Photo: NBBJ)

Amazon's plant-filled spheres in downtown Seattle are off-limits to the general public, although guided tours will eventually be a possibility. (Rendering: NBBJ)

The Times piece confirms the structure will serve as an employees-only greenhouse where stressed-out Amazonians can “amble through tree canopies three stories off the ground, meet with colleagues in rooms with walls made from vines and eat kale Caesar salads next to an indoor creek.”

There are “suspension bridges high off the ground that will be just wobbly enough to quicken the pulses of employees who walk over them.”

There are an in-house horticulturist. Previously with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, his name is Ron Gagliardo and he’s busy tending to a one-acre greenhouse located a “half-hour drive” (read 90-minute) drive on Seattle’s suburban Eastside where the city’s tech campuses have traditionally blossomed.

There are vertical gardens, "living walls," with more than 25,000 plants.

There's even a 55-foot tall tree that was transported from southern California (arguably the hardest plant to move into the sphere).

There are tree-houses (aka meeting rooms).

The plant-benefiting climate will be kept at 72 degrees with 60 percent humidity during the daytime and 55 degrees with 85 percent humidity at night.

Many plants, including numerous rare and endangered species, were bestowed to Amazon from private growers and botanical gardens across the world.

As the Times explains, the collection is "worthy of top-notch conservatories" and include “carnivorous pitcher plants, exotic philodendrons and orchids from Ecuador that resemble the menacing flora from ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’” (Among the massive assortment is a plant from Namibia that Garliardo calls “the ugliest plant in the world.” How rude.)

An under-construction biosphere at Amazon HQ in Seattle.
Amazon wants its plant-filled bubble-plex to join the Space Needle and the Central Library as one of Seattle's most iconic structures. (Photo: Peter Alfred Hess/flickr)

I’m not entirely sure I’d want to spend my lunch break unwinding in a humid bubble filled with wobbly suspension bridges and orchids that resemble Audrey II and reek of “cinnamon, wax candy and baby powder.”

But that’s just me.

'A cathedral away from the hubbub of the city'

The goal here is to bring employee-benefiting greenery to the middle of the concrete jungle — a “wilderness with Wi-Fi” as a fantastic, biophilic design-focused Seattle Weekly article described the project back in March 2016.

“It’s a retreat, a cathedral away from the hubbub of the city,” Margaret O’Mara, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington, told the Times of the flora-filled bubble-plex that allows for extended forest-bathing sessions in Seattle’s urban core.

To be clear, there are primo forest bathing opportunities to be had just a quick drive from downtown Seattle — there's no better place than the Pacific Northwest to turn to Mother Nature for a spirit-lifting recharge and creative boost. But if you happen to work for Amazon, the city’s largest private employer, and are in need of a quick, plant-assisted pick me-up ...

“There’s scientific evidence that just looking at and being near plants does something to the way you think,” Dale Alberda, NBBJ’s lead architect on the project, told Seattle Weekly. “It enhances your ability to think.”

Apple has taken a similarly sylvan approach by planting 7,000 trees at its sprawling new campus in Cuptetino, California. Like Amazon's spherical urban greenhouse, Apple's Silicon Valley mini-forest brings nature to its employee while adding dramatic aesthetic oomph.

Whether or not 3,000 different species of plants will be able to collectively improve the brainpower of Amazon’s sizable army of employees while preventing their morale from wilting has yet to be seen. Amazon is obviously confident that the plant-packed structure can. (Between all the talk of pods, exotic plants and assiduous Amazon worker-bees colonizing a major downtown area, I can’t stop thinking of the horticultural horrors of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.")

Whatever the case, beneath all the architectural razzle-dazzle Amazon is on to something. Here’s hoping that employees working in the company's new HQ are bestowed with a modest potted plant for their desks, too, for when a leisurely stroll through an indoor jungle just isn’t in the cards.