Gates Global Aims Played Down in Design of $500 Million Campus

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The boomerang-shaped buildings of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in this view looking southwest in Seattle. Seattle architect NBBJ designed the $500 million, 900,000-square-foot campus as the headquarters for the organization's worldwide work. Photographer: Timothy Hursley/NBBJ Architects via Bloomberg

An aerodynamically curved building wing zooms over the entrance court at the new $500 million campus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. Such future-focused imagery suggests an aggressive corporation on the move.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. founder, and his wife, Melinda, pursue their philanthropic goals with the same impatient fervor that he brought to achieving world domination by Windows. With $33.5 billion in assets (which is growing quickly through gifts from Warren Buffett), the foundation aims to transform global health, agriculture and education.

By contrast, the 900,000-square-foot campus located near the foot of the Space Needle north of downtown seems designed to play down the urgency and breadth of that mission. The Seattle-based architecture firm on NBBJ supplies a generic glass-and-metal corporate niceness with comforting wood floors and neutral carpeting. From the street, it looks like a standard-spec office building.

The lofty glassy lobby overlooks an alluring plaza that unites two six-story boomerang-shaped buildings with lush plantings heavy on native ferns and ponds spanned by wooden bridges. The ponds, designed by landscape architect Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., store rain runoff to water plants in dry months. Cool underground water storage reduces power demand for air-conditioning.

Sharing Ideas

I strolled down sun-filled corridors that run along the tightly curved inside face of the buildings. Lined by small meeting spaces and lounges, these hallways subtly encourage people to stop and share ideas. Coffee and snack areas are organized around spacious stairways showered in daylight at the apex of the boomerangs, so that people trying to end AIDS will cross paths with education reformers.

Most people work near a window because the buildings’ profiles are narrow, and the light quality is superb compared to your average cubicle farm. Gates people call this “daylight equity.” It also saves lighting energy.

From a high balcony I gazed into a huge space that serves as a cafeteria and “civic room,” as NBBJ managing partner Steve McConnell calls it, because it also hosts large meetings of grantees and other global partners. Receptions spill outside to the lush plaza. In addition, there’s a large conference center.

The planned and informal socializing aspires to lead to eureka moments. Too bad they feel ticked off a checklist rather than exuding engagement with the necessary passion and urgency.

Default to Blandness

Artifacts from many countries hang on the wall and strategically placed screens play videos of work being done, but they are background ambience, not front and center. The place is almost aggressively impersonal, as if any meaningful architectural gesture might offend someone or be read as colonialist bullying.

A visitor center will open next year, but it’s conceived as a museum, and may feel like a defense against interested citizens rather than an invitation to them.

The default to blandness is a lost opportunity.

It put me in mind of Livestrong, Lance Armstrong Foundation, whose recently built home in Austin I had toured not long ago.

Founded by the bicycling champion, the organization supports people with cancer. The San Antonio architecture firm Lake/Flato remodeled an old metal warehouse, and bathed its cavernous interior with daylight from bands of windows built into the roof. Informally arranged cubicles flow around boxlike wooden structures enclosing conference spaces.

Joy of Giving

Touching testimonials from grateful partners and supporters -- heavily bicycle-themed -- clutter the place. The joy of giving and the connection to people served is palpable.

Livestrong offers conference space free to nonprofits around the city. In this way it builds community connections not only through its core mission but by mingling with other charitable organizations.

At 30,000 square feet, Livestrong is tiny compared to Gates, with a simpler mission focused on people in deep distress. Rather than fence off emotion, the foundation and its architecture invite it in, with the result that the place has a cheerful energy utterly invisible at the posh, sober Gates.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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