There is a long history of philanthropic and/or paternalistic industrialists providing recreational and garden space for their employers. We’ve all heard of Bourneville, Port Sunlight and Saltaire, while Helena Chance’s recent book ‘The Factory in a Garden’. (2017) gives a comprehensive overview of such schemes in both Britain and the United States if you want to know more.
However research, including by of all people, the American Space Agency [NASA] over the past 50 years or so clearly shows that it’s not just plants outside but those inside that are beneficial so houseplants are more than just green ornaments, they are good for your health too.
A 1989 NASA report concluded : “If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.” That’s because plants essentially do the opposite of what humans do when they breathe. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, and in the process refresh the air, and remove toxins. Other research shows that indoor plants reduce stress levels, make people feel good, promote concentration and as those earlier industrialists knew only too well, they help create a more contented workforce and increase productivity.
Today’s post is about a new post-industrial workspace packed with over 40,000 plants from all over the world in a group of three connected glass buildings which opened last year, and which I was lucky enough to be able to visit last weekend. You might be able to guess from the typeface and logo where I was and whose workforce this was designed for.
The photos are mine unless otherwise stated
The Spheres are the latest Amazon office development in Seattle, although an office development with a twist. In fact there are no “offices” as such, not even open plan in the usual sense of the word.
Few people work there permanently, just gardeners, security and cafe staff but all Amazon staff are entitled to use the various spaces around the spheres. These range from conventional tables and chairs to a large suspended “bird’s nest” and a room hung with creepers and all sorts of others in between.
Amazon have a big foothold in and around Seattle. They are the city’s biggest employer with more than 53,500 employees in the Greater Seattle area, and there serious concerns that they want to influence the way the city runs and the policies it adopts. But whatever one thinks about that, or their vast and growing, some might say insidious, influence on our way of life there is no doubt that this venture is an architectural and horticultural success story, and almost certainly is popular with their employees for whose benefit it ostensibly it is.
The Spheres took more than six years from initial planning to opening, and the initial concept was far from spherical. The architects NBBJ drew up plans based on traditional conservatories, rectangular glass boxes and even a Gothic church before settling on one based on a Catalan. [No, not a separatist from Spain but the work of Belgian mathematician Eugène Charles Catalan—who in turn drew from the work of Archimedes—to create them.]
Believe it or not a Catalan is a naturally occurring shape in nature derived from the face of a pentagonal hexecontahedron. Don’t ask me to explain – just google it! The shape was chosen because apparently it is more effective at letting in light than the triangular panes traditionally used on glass domes. There are 60 Catalan faces on each sphere using between them 2,643 panes of ultra-clear, energy-efficient glass. The largest sphere is more than 90 feet tall and 130 feet in diameter.
They sit between a series of standard office blocks, all also owned by Amazon and are surrounded by very non-municipal planting which gives a small clue to what’s inside.
The building stretches over 5 floors and has seating space for as many as 800 people, but it’s clearly not intended to be conventional office space. Instead the company wants its workers to have a place to “feel differently, to think differently,” according to Ron Gagliardo, the Spheres’ lead horticulturist, who has a 7 strong team of gardeners who look after the plants. On open days Amazon also employ a large team of specialist horticultural educators to answer questions and talk about the plants.
The underlying principle was to provide staff with an environment that gave a direct link back to nature. That rather limited the kind of environment that could be offered. Humans need certain levels of warmth, light and humidity in order to thrive – to say nothing of the legal requirements for working – so the plants chosen had to be able to cope with the same conditions. The result is a not very obvious split environment spread over many interconnected spaces. Between them they contain more than 400 species of plants from all five continents.
Let’s start with the most obvious part: a tropical rain forest complete with artificial misting that lives on a massive 60ft high four-story living wall that run almost the entire height of the building. It attempts to simulate the vertical stratification of the rain forest itself with, with different species of plants thriving at different light levels.
It looks great but the conditions needed to maintain it would be uncomfortable to live in. Imagine living in any botanic garden’s tropical conservatory. This means that the rest of the complex has to be more human-friendly with daytime temperatures ranging between 68 to 74 degrees, and much lower humidity. The plants chosen here are mainly those that have adapted to cooler ecosystems particularly from “cloud forests” that grow at altitudes between from 3,000 to 10,000 feet in cloud forest. Humidity levels are a little higher than a normal office environment, but then raised higher overnight, as the temperature drops to around 55F when the human occupants aren’t affected.
Everything relies on a simple hidden irrigation system with water and nutrients running from the the top of the wall, slowly percolating down fertilising and watering plants on the way, before being recycled back to the top. Of course because all three Spheres are interconnected they actually have to share a single temperature/humidity control system. This is based on air flow from radiant floor heating and cooling, but all these distinct microclimates can be monitored & adjusted by the horticultural team from a central location. As with the other nearby Amazon buildings much of the heat required is recycled from a nearby data centre.
But the technical wizardry doesn’t distract from the visual quality of the buildings or its trees and plants. The building is spectacular without being overbearing while the plants and trees are the dominant visual feature. It is as Amazon’s website claims “an instant botanical immersion that takes visitors far away from the urban landscape” but, as Gagliardo points out too “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.”
Right at the beginning he also makes clear that it was decided that this was to be a sustainable development rather than just “a shopping mall where we just replace plants every month…” However it is true that some plants routinely rotate between The Spheres and the Washington University greenhouses throughout the seasons.
“We wanted a place that was comfortable for people and able to sustain a more permanent plant collection.” As the project’s plans progressed, and plant choices were being made this became increasingly important and they developed links with botanic gardens and conservation projects around the world. Many plants were donated because ecologists wanted them to propagate in as many places as possible, indeed some are extinct in their natural habitat.”
This led to Amazon forging a partnership with the nearby University of Washington which over the past 30 years has built up a world-class collection of over 3000 species in its conservatory. The joint venture aimed to build on its established educational programme which brings in visitors from schools, colleges, community societies and groups. “The most delightful design feature of Amazon’s Spheres goes far beyond bringing natural beauty into Seattle’s urban core,” said Toby Bradshaw, Chair of the Department of Biology. “The use of plant biodiversity — including the ‘weird’ and ‘ugly’ specimens — to tell the story of interconnections among living things will be an inspiration to all who visit and work at The Spheres.”
So what, apart from the living walls, are the horticultural highlights?
There are some hi-tech versions of Wardian cases fixed to the wall. These highly specialised plant environments, with artificial daylight, even contained small creatures such as slugs and freshwater crabs.
Another of Ward’s inventions – the mixing of aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal environments – now known as paludariums – are also prominent.
Next must be The Spheres largest inhabitant – a Ficus rubiginosa an Australian native which has been nicknamed “Rubi”. Standing today at 55ft tall and 22ft in diameter, Rubi is 50 years old and came from a tree farm in California in 1969. It weighs about 36,000 lbs. and was too big to be bought in through even the widest doors.
Another crowd-stopper is the Amorphophallus – or Titan Arum sometimes known as the corpse flower. This strange plant has just one single leaf that can resemble a small tree and eventually which can reach up to 15 feet tall.
It usually takes at least 7 years to flower and then the bloom only lasts a maximum of 48 hours. It is pollinated by flies and carrion beetle and to attract them the flower heats up and gives off the stench of rotting flesh.
As at Kew when their arums flower, news spread around Seattle very quickly and 5000 people queued round the block last year to see it.
BUT it’s not just Amazon who have gone for plant power. Suddenly all the famous tech companies have fallen in love with greenery.
In 2017, on the other side of Seattle, Microsoft installed a series of treehouses for employees to meet and work. It has also recently revamped its main campus there, to include walking and cycle tracks.
At almost the same time Apple opened its “spaceship” campus, Apple Park, in Cupertino in California with a building with the world’s largest panels of curved glass, more than 9,000 trees and a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between nature and workspaces. Tim Cook who succeeded Steve Jobs as Apple’s boss in 2o11 asked the architects: “Can you imagine doing your work in a national park?” because “when I really need to think about something I’m struggling with, I get out in nature. We can do that now! It won’t feel like Silicon Valley at all.”
They’re all following in the footsteps of Facebook whose new HQ designed by Frank Gehry opened in 2015 and included a nine-acre rooftop park 70 feet above the marshlands of Menlo Park, also in California. They claim it feels a lot like the Highline, the popular former railroad line converted into an elevated park that runs through the West Side of Manhattan.
There’s no doubt that for Amazon the Spheres are the architectural crown jewels of their $4 billion investment in the city centre, and “an eye-catching landmark that symbolizes the rise of what 20 years ago was a fledging online bookstore into a global e-commerce and cloud-computing leviathan.” [Seattle Times 3 Jan 2017 ]
But as cynical friends in Seattle remarked Jeff Bezos doesn’t do anything just for the sake of it. There’s always a pay-off. So as a local website added: “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.”
I’m not singing from the Amazon hymn sheet but The Spheres are definitively impressive, even though lurking at the back of my mind is the same question – whose benefit is it really for? Is this a harking back to the days of benevolent and philanthropic employers like the Cadburys at Bourneville or the Levers at Port Sunlight? or do Amazon and the others – collectively “our glorious corporate overlords” see gardens as a route to something else?
PS…and if anyone can think why the restaurant is called named after Ellen Willmott and her habit of spreading seeds of an eryngium around her friend’s gardens please tell me as some of the volunteers at Warley Place, her former home, would like to know!