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Over 2,500 panes of glass and 560 tonnes of steel were used to construct the Spheres, part of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

Are Amazon’s Spheres biodomes, designed by international firm NBBJ in downtown Seattle, yet another step on the path toward simulated reality?

One fascinating aspect of the digital revolution is how it affects the physical qualities of the built environment. The rise of online shopping, for instance, is changing the retail landscape of cities as many brick-and-mortar stores struggle to adapt. Since shopping activity is such a vital component of vibrant municipalities, this transformation is a real threat to urbanism as we know it.

At the same time, the growing workforces of companies such as Amazon have created an increasing demand for office space. In that company’s hometown of Seattle, it has been building a three-tower complex (the third is still under construction) at the heart of its urban campus, where more than 40,000 employees work in over 30 buildings. The dramatic growth is helping drive a general construction boom throughout the city.

But Amazon’s presence in central Seattle distinguishes the company from other technology behemoths, among which the norm has been to locate in suburban settings. Apple and Facebook, for example, aren’t based in San Francisco, but in Cupertino and Menlo Park respectively. Amazon, it seems, believes in the idea and possibilities of the city.

Linked via a canopy to the second of the complex’s three towers, the Spheres contain numerous sitting and meeting spots.

But what version of urbanity does the firm embrace? At the centre of its new campus, in Seattle’s Denny Regrade district, sit the Spheres, a conservatory and workspace hybrid designed and executed by global firm NBBJ. Consisting of three interconnected domes, the complex houses around 40,000 plants. The largest sphere, in the centre, is 27 metres tall. Among the exotic flora is a series of floor plates containing a coffee shop and a variety of sitting and gathering spaces. In essence, it’s a privatized interior park (the public will have only limited access, mainly through pre-arranged tours) infused with the informal notion of work that the tech industry, at least mythologically, finds so appealing.

Think T-shirt-wearing employees sipping coffee while conceptualizing new software with colleagues, all under an umbrella of tropical ferns protected from Seattle’s chilly, rainy clime.

Without a doubt, it’s a remarkable and unprecedented corporate space. But it is also somewhat familiar, echoing the landscaping of other ambitious office-building atriums, such as the Ford Foundation’s in New York City. It is also impossible not to think of Buckminster Fuller and his messianic advocacy of geodesic domes for all manner of purposes. In 1960, Fuller proposed a dome that would cover the entirety of midtown Manhattan to regulate weather and air pollution. The impulse to create controlled, exterior-like interiors has a deep modern history that extends from the arcades of Paris to the ski slopes of Dubai.

The benefits of these types of spaces are obvious – ski in the desert, enjoy the tropics in Edmonton. In some ways, they have similarities with the digital technologies that simulate our world. They might even be thought of as markers on a spectrum of virtual reality. For me, the most interesting part of visiting the Spheres was seeing the sometimes-curious integration of the systems required to support the interior nature, such as the ventilating fans hidden in ceramic tree trunks among the ferns.

Such moments are powerful reminders that simulations are never total.

This story was taken from the June 2018 issue of Azure. Buy a copy of the issue here, or subscribe here.

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