Office Park: A Review of Amazon’s Spheres




LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I work in an office, and also like many Americans, mine includes strange organisms with Latin names. I never asked for these officemates and, most days, I forget they’re even there. But on the rare days when they call attention to themselves — when drooping leaves announce the need for water, or yellow fronds start to collect on the carpet — I remember how they came to me in the first place. The Dracaena draco, or dragon tree, came from Beatrice, who left my school for one in Indiana. Ditto the Ficus elastica in the corner. My Sansevieria trifasciata, or snake plant, was once Becky’s, but she took a departmental chair position elsewhere. And my Pelargonium citrosum, or citronella geranium, belonged to Heidi before she quit academia in order to concentrate full-time on her writing.

These officemates of mine are an exotic bunch — the dragon tree is native to the Canary Islands, for instance, while geraniums are most commonly found in the Mediterranean region and southern parts of the African continent — but they are also a common feature of modern office life. They thrive indoors under semi-stable conditions, much like the human office worker. Since the 1950s, the decade that saw the growth of white-collar jobs in the United States along with its spatial counterpart, the modern office, researchers have observed positive correlations between aesthetically pleasing office environments enhanced by indoor plant life and apparent rates of worker satisfaction and productivity. The American biologist E. O. Wilson went so far as to argue in his 1984 work Biophilia that our attraction to plants is demonstrative of “an innate tendency” in humans. Wilson borrowed the term “biophilia” from the German philosopher Eric Fromm, whose original concept emphasized “liebe zum lebendigen” (or “love for the living”) and the natural capacity for “growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” By contrast, Wilson’s “biophilia” tries to explain our specific love for plants and nonhuman forms of nature, diverting the focus away from their roles within natural systems and, at the same time, their relationships with each other. While Fromm viewed biophilia as a societal objective that could only be achieved given a set of human-engineered advancements (security, justice, and freedom), Wilson changed the conversation by making it about loving the natural world enough to preserve it.

It is Wilson’s version of biophilia, not Fromm’s, that is chiefly on display at The Spheres, the new hybrid conservatory-office building located at Amazon company headquarters in Seattle. Indeed, Amazon cites Wilson directly in much of its display and advertising materials, which are available to the public, unlike the interior space of the building itself, which is not. While certain ranks of Amazon employees are permitted access to The Spheres during normal working hours, the public must be content with a basement-level lobby area dubbed Understory, which speaks enticingly of the building’s innovative features to an audience that is not allowed to actually witness them firsthand (except on official tours, which are offered twice each month). I was lucky enough to gain entrance to The Spheres recently in the company of Ira Gerlich, a contractor who works with but not for Amazon and whose company, evolution Projects, oversees the in-house dining facilities there.

From the outside, The Spheres resemble a set of Buckminster Fuller–style geodesic domes. They huddle side-by-side at the feet of construction cranes, amid the skeletal outlines of tomorrow’s skyscrapers. In recent years, Amazon’s presence has transformed Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, giving rise to numerous building projects. Across the street from The Spheres, for instance, a WeLive high-rise is underway. When it opens, it will offer “flexible” “furnished” apartments that are available on a temporary basis, just as it has done in cities like New York and Washington, DC, in an effort to meet the needs of tech sector employees. Through The Spheres’s humidity-stained, transparent walls, one glimpses billboards over at WeLive — an offshoot of the popular office space subscription company WeWork — speaking in slogans of Do What You Love and Live Better Together. The idea is to capitalize on the increasingly porous divide between work and the less productive facets of human existence (passion, enjoyment, social interaction) through dorm-room-style living arrangements located only steps away from places like Amazon.

Over at The Spheres, a similar spirit of porousness and fluidity reigns, along with a pronounced sense of confusion. When I started inquiring about visiting The Spheres, I was repeatedly told that it was “not an office.” (I was conducting research related to a book on office design, and my interlocutors seemed concerned that my time at The Spheres would be wasted.) This is in spite of the fact that The Spheres repeatedly bills itself as an office, calling attention to its hybrid status as a 24-hour-a-day “nature conservatory” and 12-hour-a-day “workspace.” In one of the promotional videos on display at Understory, Dale Alberda, principal architect at NBBJ (who designed The Spheres) explains how the building was inspired by historical designs for 19th-century conservatories, and how that inspiration was brought to bear upon the idea of the traditional office. “The typical office building is about enclosing as much floor space as possible,” Alberda notes, which explains why they look like boxes. The Spheres, by contrast, “are about volume” and the utilization of multiple dimensions in office design. The 4,000 enclosed square feet of “vertical vegetated surface” is designed to stoke Amazon employees’ creative furnaces by giving them alternative space in which to work and think. As Ben Eiben, the lead horticulturalist at The Spheres, puts it another promotional video, “You feel a little bit more creative if you’re removing yourself from all of the human implements and you’re just out in nature.”

So what are The Spheres like, and what kind of work actually takes place inside them? This is what I hoped to discover on my visit, which started off with a rather detailed security screening. I, along with my chaperone, had to have my access credentials checked and my photo ID processed before earning the right to don a red “Guest” badge and proceed through the checkpoint. Once inside, there is nowhere to go but up, as a series of stairs flanked by burbling water features climbs to the first landing (the site of what was a grab-and-go-style cafe offering ready-made sandwiches and other items, now closed). The atmosphere inside is steamy and vaguely tropical, with the daytime temperature ranging from 72 to 76 degrees and the humidity capped at 60 percent for the sake of plants and humans alike. When the human workers go home at night, the humidity climbs to 85 percent to mirror the diurnal cycles that the plants, which hail from a variety of mid-montane ecosystems, are used to. A living wall or “vivarium” starts with tropical fish installed within glass tanks at its base and then extends upward for several thousands of feet, the entire surface covered with species of fern and red-bristled bromeliad. It is the centerpiece around which an interlocking system of elevated walkways, stairs, nooks, and landings appears to swirl.

On one of those landings is another cafe, General Porpoise, which serves coffee and gourmet snacks. It is part of a legion of offspring that have sprouted from a James Beard Award–winning local chef, Renee Erickson, and on the day that I visited, it was the center of activity inside the building. Mind you, that activity was of a humble kind: a few employees — less than a dozen — appeared clustered around its outskirts, bent over their computer screens, badges prominently displayed on their shoulders. Others could be occasionally found elsewhere throughout the building, including in an upper gallery area fitted with lounge-style lawn chairs where I saw one employee awkwardly reclining with a laptop balanced on their knee. There are dedicated meeting spaces designed to accommodate small groups, including a circular “crow’s nest” structure that extends out into the air, and a number of what I will call “co-working cages,” for a lack of a better term and owing to their walls being made from metal supports and wire mesh.

But there weren’t very many people using these spaces. For all its being chock-full of organic material and life, the mood at The Spheres felt rather down tempo and, well, a bit dead. Ira tried to shed some light on this situation, noting that we were visiting on a Friday. I got the sense that The Spheres might be plagued by a sense of confusion, resulting in low use — that, and the somewhat onerous security procedures necessary for access. While I saw plenty of plants and waterfalls and tropical fish, plus the occasional latte, I didn’t see a lot of work happening, including the work of tending and maintaining the plants, which must be substantial in order for the space to function and look its best. And this, I began to suspect, might be the whole point.

In The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Douglas Spencer observes the trend toward what he calls “techno-environmental immersion,” which the so-called “new architecture” of the 1990s began to reclaim in the service of managerial practice. Doing so involved placing an emphasis “on the design of open, landscaped and connective spaces,” which were, in fact, engineered for a kind of deception. The idea, according to Spencer, was to eradicate the notion of strife from the work experience and to get the worker to see herself as a component of a larger, “natural” order. This was architecture made to “kill critique,” and on two fronts. The first vector of attack involved stymying critiques of a building’s underlying design scheme through a focus on multifunctionality, which made the overall “plan” itself appear opaque. The second was to make the work itself immune to critique: if the worker did not actively associate “strife” with the work they were doing, they would be less likely to voice complaint about their position, about their rights and benefits as a laborer, about the company they worked for, or about the larger systems that might be supporting it. Rendering labor invisible was sacred to this project, too, guided by the theory that if a worker can’t tell whether or not they’re working, they’ll be inclined to work more. This gave rise to managerial strategies “premised on informality, collaboration and mobility” — strategies lifted from the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

Which is all to say: There is a reason why The Spheres resembles geodesic domes. The utopian-communitarian designs of the 1960s gave rise to the architecture of labs and technology research facilities of the 1970s, with both focused on aspirational values like collaboration, play, and a spirit of global consciousness. The offices of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated, when they opened in California in 1970, featured plant-festooned rooftops and came furnished with beanbag chairs. This is a history that challenges some of Amazon’s claims to “innovation” as far as The Spheres are concerned, but also one that positions the company within a larger narrative about technological progress and utopian design. As the Seattle-based writer Charles Mudede puts it, “Haussmann’s Paris is with us today in Seattle.” And in light of such a history, one can’t help but wonder if The Spheres, given the riotous effects of nature taking place both within and without, will age as poorly, in both political and material terms, as some of the projects that came before it.

Despite some material differences, though, my experience touring The Spheres brought to mind my own office. I spied a cousin of my Blechnum gibbum (silver lady fern) amid the fourth floor “fernery,” for instance. I inherited mine from a plant-rabid former colleague who, like so many others, is also gone now. My workplace has been ravaged by austerity in recent years, resulting in forced retirements and a lot of “pivoting” to careers in administration, which have cast a pall over our hallways and workspaces.

A similar kind of emptiness makes the green-filled spaces of The Spheres feel more like a branding move on Amazon’s part than a facility to be used by actual workers. It announces its company’s good intentions to the world by erecting a monument to absence — the absence of nature in modern life, the absence of social connection within white-collar work, even the absence of affordable housing in cities like Seattle thanks to companies like Amazon. But it doesn’t begin to alleviate the suffering caused by those absences, just as my collection of castoff plants doesn’t alleviate my feelings for the colleagues I’ve lost and the social interactions that once helped to buoy my working hours. Rather, the work being done at The Spheres is the work of preservation. The buildings, which resemble glass jars, preserve an image of Amazon’s supposed benevolence as a company and an image of neoliberal capital as growth, as opposed to absence and austerity. In both cases, the emphasis on the vessel’s construction is meant to distract from the hollowness lurking inside. And with Amazon’s decision to abandon plans for its New York–based HQ2 still fresh in everyone’s mind, it’s hard to see The Spheres as anything but an oversized swear jar brimming with half-hearted promises and watery intensions.

¤

Sheila Liming is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. She is the author of What a Library Means to a Woman, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, and Office, forthcoming as part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury.

 

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