Amazon Towers, Paul Allen’s Geek Zone Cursed by Dullness

Three glass domes set to rise like cartoon idea bubbles can’t save Inc.’s new Seattle headquarters from terminal dullness.

The e-commerce giant is building the city’s largest commercial development, a 3.3-million-square-foot complex called Rufus 2.0 after a dog owned by two early employees.

The bubbles are the shiny centerpiece for what John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, calls an “urban campus.” It’s tailored to a young workforce that rejects both the sterile self-importance of corporate downtown towers and the grinding commute and isolation of suburban office parks.

Besides the domes, the campus comprises three 38-story glass towers that rise from three city blocks north of downtown Seattle. Amazon wants the towers to fade into the downtown-edge background, but they are so lacking in character that they stick out embarrassingly.

Local architect NBBJ has devised hivelike “centers for energy” within the towers that unite multiple floors with stairways so that employees can’t help encountering each other and sharing ideas. The uniformly skinned towers reflect none of that internal vitality.

The campus “is not insular,” Schoettler says. Landscaped passages wander through each block, inviting the public to share greenery, a playing field and a dog park.

Green Lifestyles

The amenities are aimed at the sought-after young professionals, who want green urban lifestyles and are adept at spinning ideas into growth.

Too bad only the five-story greenhouse bubble building, which will entwine meeting and dining spaces with tall indoor trees and draping vines, attracts attention. Its 1960s sci-fi look is at least distinctive.

Amazon’s headquarters complex takes its cues from the rapidly growing South Lake Union neighborhood, which hosts a mix that is hot in urban development now: technology businesses, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a constellation of related medical companies.

Amazon and its neighborhood stir together every hip urban ingredient. Bike lanes? Check. Decorative trolley line? Check. Car-sharing? Check. Sidewalk cafes featuring artisanal-sounding sandwiches? Check.

Already 20 sites in South Lake Union have been renovated or built new in more than two dozen blocks that had languished for decades as a sorry blend of parking lots, warehouses and crumbling wooden houses.

Imagination Deficit

Imagination on the part of the architects (NBBJ, Callison LLC, and LMN Architects) failed to make the checklist, however, and so the result, as with Amazon’s towers, is leaden.

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, through his Vulcan Real Estate, is the dominant figure in South Lake Union’s renaissance. Amazon is the chief tenant.

The buildings vary only in trivial details, like whether the rectangular windows are oriented vertically or horizontally. The brick-and-metal exteriors fail to evoke the authentic grit and variety of the slickly remodeled warehouse districts they imitate.

Instead of sculpting buildings to grab Seattle’s dim daylight and stunning views, the dumb exteriors face other dumb exteriors across narrow alleys.

Amazon’s canopied and landscaped passages are derived from those found winding through the blocks of South Lake Union. Dotted with trees, cafe tables and forgettable artwork, they are listless.

It Matters

Does this mediocrity matter? It’s the norm in commercial development, after all.

Yes, I fumed as I walked these blocks. Seattle is a creative-class capital, where innovation and steely resolve have nurtured leading companies from Boeing Co. to Microsoft Corp., Nordstrom Inc. to Starbucks Corp.

Why must architecture go missing?

In terms of sustaining cities, boring buildings are death. Seattle has been on a roll since the emergence of Microsoft in the 1980s, and it has largely forgotten how it recovered from a precipitous decline in the 1970s by nurturing the neighborhoods that had a rich history of architecture and real amenity.

The Amazon campus and South Lake Union gall because their urban ingredients could make such a rich mix. In the hands of insightful designers, these streets could wondrously reinvent formulaic downtown and suburban commercial monocultures.

Hope Bubbles

Amazon’s bubble domes are cause for hope. They replace one of the low boxy buildings of an earlier design, after local design-review officials belatedly recognized that some uniqueness or expression of innovation was called for.

And NBBJ has breathed more life into them in a late-August plan-review submission. Now the glass panels are framed by struts and spokes that resemble sports-car wheels nested together.

This injection of engineering bling fits the jet-age technological optimism embodied by the nearby Space Needle and monorail train. It hints at the energy that could jolt the entire complex to life.

I hope it means Amazon now recognizes that dullness can be a curse.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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