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Amazon’s new campus: stiff architecture that stints on the fun

Seattle artist Ann Gardner's glass-tile mosaic, "Convergence," is on a facade of the NBBJ-designged building on the Amazon complex. Credit: Lawrence W. Cheek

So how do we build “fun” into a conglomeration of gigantic corporate buildings? The usual way, a sprinkling of commissioned sculptures, long ago became cliché and it barely works anyway. The expensive way, hiring Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid to design the buildings, is, well, very expensive and also yields uncertain results.

Amazon’s way, now appearing on its sprawling new South Lake Union campus, is to celebrate its fabled cheapness with finishes, furnishings, and art that essentially poke fun at itself. For example, there are light fixtures fabricated out of the metal bands used for wrapping pallets, and hallway “art” consisting of graffiti on biodegrading plywood salvaged from the old buildings that previously occupied the site.

Such decorations indeed help lighten the mood of the ponderous, sober boxes committed by three of Seattle’s largest design firms, Callison Architecture, LMN Architects, and NBBJ. But not nearly enough. If you test the message of the architecture against Amazon’s corporate slogan, “Work hard. Have fun. Make history,” you see that the buildings suggest no end of hard work, but not much fun, and they fail at suggesting that anything historically momentous might be happening inside.

The campus occupies 4½ full city blocks stretching from Mercer to John Street along Terry Avenue, 10 buildings so far, rising five to 12 stories, accommodating what Amazon will say only is “thousands” of employees. For a corporate behemoth now reporting more revenue than any Northwest company except Costco and Microsoft, the campus is remarkably anonymous. None of the buildings actually wears a sign saying “Amazon.” The aesthetic of the buildings is in perfect concert with the rest of Paul Allen’s South Lake Union portfolio: sleek, stiff, anonymous modern boxes, impeccably executed, with rarely a whiff of whimsy or personality.

The one mildly interesting component here is NBBJ’s small centerpiece building at 426 Terry, which incorporates a piece of the 1915 Van Vorst Building, a brick warehouse with a vaguely Mission Revival parapet facing Boren Avenue. The eroded, uneven masonry façade smudges the corporate complex with a trace of humanity, and on the opposite Terry Avenue side, a convex concrete wall provides the lone interruption of the relentless straight lines composing the rest of the campus. There’s an energetic glass-tile mosaic swoosh by Seattle artist Ann Gardner decorating the wall. For architectural “fun,” this is about it.

The buildings were developed and are owned by Vulcan Real Estate, Allen’s South Lake Union venture. Vulcan and Amazon deserve some credit for not turning the complex into an inward-focused campus, such as the Gates Foundation, and therefore helping to create a busy streetlife. Using three different architecture firms perhaps produced a bit more variety and urban texture.

Also commendable is Vulcan’s willingness to carve out some public space among the buildings. Three plazas facing Terry Avenue interpose the buildings, each landscaped differently, and all welcome public use (pending good behavior) alongside the Amazonian throngs. None is spectacular, although the southernmost one, designed by Callison Architecture, benefits from the spatial interest of two levels and the texture of another historic brick building on one edge of it.

It’s hard to say this without sounding like a fossilized reactionary, but juxtapositions like this — where blandly competent contemporary buildings jostle against and tower over a survivor from early in the past century — serve to illustrate why so many people feel alienated by modern architecture. The scale of the modern buildings is outlandish, and there’s often no element in the architecture that a human can relate to. By contrast, a brick — the fundamental molecule of the two old buildings in the Amazon complex — is sized to fit a human hand, its structural function is something we all instinctively comprehend, and it ages gracefully.

It just might be that the problem with modern architecture is essentially a matter of scale, not so much of form or style. (Which, competing retailers might say, parallels precisely the problem with Amazon itself.)

Well, what about the non-public spaces, where those Amazon thousands are working hard and making history?

It was difficult to visit any of them. Crosscut’s requests were first ignored, then discouraged, and finally accommodated, after some pestering, with a friendly though abbreviated escorted tour. First impression in the “reception” room at 440 Terry Avenue is of a company that doesn’t much care to receive anyone. It’s a concrete cavern with rubber floor mats, a few ugly olive-green vinyl chairs, foil-wrapped A/C ducts, and a pair of receptionists’ desks that look very much like the legendary “door desks” championed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The employees’ work spaces seem a little more inviting. Some of the cubicle farms enjoy fragmentary views of Lake Union, and like the vastly more expensive (and vastly better-designed) new Gates Foundation headquarters, there’s a generous selection of getaway work spaces, from intimate “cabanas” decorated with old record album covers to roof terraces. Windows, or at least portions of windows, actually open to the outside world. Whiteboards encouraging informal scribbling are everywhere — elevators, even — and the smaller conference rooms conspicuously lack modern electronic wizardry: no PowerPoint enabling, happily. The colors are atrocious — greenish and brownish carpet tiles seem to predominate. Overall, the effect is either cheapness or frugality; the beholder can choose which.

These interiors are actually less off-putting than they sound. They’re considerably closer to Seattle’s ruggedly informal, improvisatory soul than would be a typical expensively furnished suburban corporate park transplanted to the center city. Still, except for the public plazas, Bellevue business suits are exactly what the complex shows to the outside. And that’s not a great step forward for South Lake Union’s vitality.

Some time ago — seems like eons distant, now — there was chatter that South Lake Union would become Seattle’s counterpart to Portland’s celebrated Pearl District. Not going to happen, at least not with any help from the architecture. Too bad, because the perfect spiritual inspiration stands right there in the neighborhood, six blocks away from Amazon. The REI store, designed by Mithun and built 15 years ago, was and still is the region’s best example of a hard-working, fun, and totally likable Northwestern modernism. Imagine if the whole neighborhood were like it.

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