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Gates Foundation campus: Can everyday function and global ambition coexist?

The cantilevered ends of hallways are like compact glass nests, some with stunning views. Credit: Lawrence W. Cheek

How should architecture express humanity’s highest ideals? The Greeks did it pretty well — and for about 2,400 years architects were so paralyzed by the classical precedent that they kept returning to it for capitols, churches, banks, and bungalow porches.

Happily, NBBJ architects, designers of the new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus in Seattle, have demonstrated no traces of paralytic thinking in these spectacular new buildings. They’re a new paradigm for the 21st-century workplace.

Whether they successfully express the Gates Foundation’s mission is a more complicated issue, and we’ll get to it. First let’s just imagine going to work here.

Parking is tough and expensive — the campus at Fifth Avenue and Mercer Street rolls right up against Seattle Center — so you’ll do your best not to drive. Fine; it’s easy to get here. Some employees are even grabbing the Monorail. Those who must use the parking garage should be gratified to see that most of it is underground, so it doesn’t dominate the campus skyline with a brutal concrete hulk.

If you’re just back from a longitude 10 time zones away, as Gates staff and guests frequently are, you’ll appreciate the building’s lavish daylighting. NBBJ pounced on research suggesting that bodies recover more gracefully from jet lag when exposed to the home port’s natural light cycles, so walls of windows are everywhere.

The main circulation hallways on each floor open to the campus plaza with floor-to-ceiling glass (buffering direct sun with automatic Venetian blinds). Offices and conference rooms on the opposite side of the hallway sport window walls to gather the daylight in the hall. An atrium attached to the north building serves as a lunchroom and reception hall, and its transparent walls are 60 feet high.

Since the buildings curl back on themselves in an acute boomerang form, this transparency has a secondary purpose and benefit: You’ll constantly see other people walking the halls on opposing wings. This encourages the sense of community in the foundation, and animates the buildings. The human flow becomes a piece of the architecture.

Many corporate and college buildings today are designed to encourage the flow of accidental meetings, like neutrons in a chain reaction, but these buildings take the concept deeper than most. Even the atrium-like curving stairwells are designed for people to view each other climbing and descending, and to suggest a bottom-to-top sense of the entire community. It’s a mutation-into-respectability of architect Paolo Soleri’s “arcology” concept, in which an urban development becomes a fully integrated ecological system. (Soleri’s showcase “city” in Arizona, Arcosanti, resembles a mad baron’s ranchito on the planet Mongo and serves mainly as a hangout for leftover hippies.)

If you’re a Gates employee, you’ll likely find yourself frequently overwhelmed by the toughness of the problems you’re dealing with — dropouts in Detroit, AIDS in Africa — so a prime driver of the design here was to create a great variety of environments people can work in, either for respite or inspiration. There’s a large and delightful plaza, designed by Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., and inside the building, an engaging collection of spaces to wander into and meet, work, or just think hard. Employees just moved in last month, and it’s already apparent that some favorites are the cantilevered ends of the wing hallways — compact glass nests with seating for no more than two, some with stunning views of the neighboring Space Needle.

Steve McConnell, NBBJ’s partner in charge of the project, says the driving force for the design as a workplace was to create an incubator for far-reaching thinking. “How do you enable a great new idea to take root? That’s part of what we tried to do here — create an environment that will support that.” From all appearances, they have.

The other part, probably just as important, was to express the foundation’s ambitious mission. To do this, NBBJ had to design a colossal office complex (900,000 square feet, accommodating 1,200 employees) that somehow didn’t look like the headquarters of Insatiable International Commodities Ltd.; that despite being prodigiously expensive ($500 million, according to Gates spokeswoman Melissa Milburn) wouldn’t look conspicuously extravagant; and that would offer visual cues to evoke the foundation’s global outreach while simultaneously grounding it in the Gates family hometown.

All of these impossibly contradictory demands must have had the NBBJ designers wishing they had some magic respite-and-inspiration retreats themselves over the seven years it took to design and build the campus. They didn’t fully succeed, and it’s not surprising.

McConnell says they worked hard at materials and design details that would provide a “non-corporate-slick” setting. There are a bunch of these, from the alder end-grain flooring to the not-quite-workaday perforated corrugated steel that cloaks the fire escapes. There’s a beautiful Tibetan handmade honeycomb wallpaper in the Conference Center that would seem abstractly quaint in a corporate headquarters. (It’s sustainable and fair-traded, underscoring the foundation’s commitment.)

But the building, taken as a whole, still is slick, its high-tech sophistication overriding all the details that try to break down its formality. There’s not a square inch of it that’s mock-rustic or whimsical or casual. The foundation engages in dead-serious business, and it’s no mom ‘n’ pop operation. That’s the architecture’s strongest message.

McConnell says the outward-flying arms conceptually connect the buildings to their global mission, while their partial alignment to the Seattle street grid serves to integrate them into the urban landscape. That’s a nice concept if a little abstract; how many of us would get it without being told? It’s an interesting game to idly imagine how the campus might have suggested Seattle reaching out to the world more solidly. Something that resembled the Space Needle’s flying-saucer hat dissolving into an abstract  Chinese container ship?

Here’s the impossible mission arising again: Creating a new, authentically Northwest modernism that doesn’t fall back on cliche or silliness. It really wouldn’t make much sense to slap cedar siding on a $500 million complex.

The ideals successfully expressed here are pretty substantial: a stimulating and unusually humane workplace, a lot of attention to eco-friendly and sustainable design, and powerful ambitions to do something more valuable for humanity than making a few people rich. If NBBJ had managed to do more than that, we’d be copying it for the next 2,000 years.

Editor’s note: Crosscut has received grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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