On the same day that Amazon founder and erstwhile wealthiest human on earth Jeff Bezos gave notice that he is stepping down as chief executive, the company revealed another big twist: plans for a 350-foot-tall tower shaped like a conch shell that will serve as the spiraling centerpiece of its HQ2 office complex.
Dubbed the Helix and designed by architecture firm NBBJ, the gleaming glass structure will anchor the e-commerce giant's second headquarters in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. The Helix stands on an 11-acre development within the broader campus in Arlington, Virginia, that Amazon is rebranding as National Landing.
Inside, the building will feature meeting spaces and indoor gardens; on the outside, exterior pathways converge at the top of the spire, offering employees and weekend visitors the opportunity to scale a simulated Blue Ridge peak. While the "biophilic" double-helix design is striking, in the context of the ongoing economic fallout of the pandemic, the mere fact that the company is launching an office development of this scale makes it an epic undertaking.
"The Helix is a very special building that represents Amazon's commitment long-term," says Dale Alberda, architect and principal at NBBJ.
Years before it's due to open, the Helix already reads like a holdover from the pre-pandemic world. Renderings of the tree-encrusted glass skyscraper, which online critics have already compared to a soft-serve ice-cream cone or the poop emoji, seem to glow with the techno-futurist optimism that has held sway in architecture for years, in The Before Time. Tech has the power to transform cities, and Amazon has not been shy about exerting its will over the communities that host it: The Helix serves as a kind of sequel to the Spheres, the glass orbs that NBBJ designed for the company's flagship headquarters in Seattle in 2018. That feature — a terrarium-cum-corporate-meeting-space — became a signature Seattle attraction and the go-to symbol of the company's vast sway over the region. Echoing it so closely in Arlington suggests a transcontinental design strategy to build a megalopolis, a corporate context bigger than the city.
But the pandemic has upset this dynamic, giving a different meaning to HQ2 and the Helix. While Amazon's prospects have never looked so golden, the same can't be said for cities, where the convergence of the novel coronavirus, rising inequality and climate change threaten to disrupt living and working patterns for the foreseeable future. With so much uncertainty, the techno-triumphalist Helix could be seen not as rising with the city, but escaping from it.
The context for the Helix is global, not local, rooted in the universal vocabulary of geometry. Just like the sphere, the spiral is an elementary natural form, seen in plants, seashells, DNA, even the Milky Way Galaxy. The steel scaffolding that will support the 370,000-square-foot tower has the same cellular appearance, although it is not quite as elaborate as the pentagonal modules that architects at NBBJ and structural engineers at Magnusson Klemencic Associates developed for the Spheres. (That system was inspired by the work of a Belgian mathematician, according to the architects; the Helix is a rough riff on the Fibonacci sequence.) For the Seattle project, the architects set out to build space for a horticultural experience, which guided the overall design approach.
"Most office buildings enclose the floor area. You want to get as much square footage as you can to accommodate as many people as you can, which turns into flat floors and long square floor-plates typically," Alberda says. "For the Spheres, it wasn't about enclosing floors but enclosing volume for plants and trees" — about 40,000 of them, drawn from cloud forests on five continents.
Alberda adds, "At the Helix, it's the same idea. We really looked back to nature for inspiration. We were encouraged by Amazon to think about the double helix geometry."
For its outdoor environment at National Landing, NBBJ tapped SCAPE, a design studio founded by Kate Orff, who is the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship and the author of a monograph on urban ecology. For the Helix, her firm will curate the maples, beeches and other trees and plants that will help to bring an Appalachian hillside to Arlington's downtown. That's another vintage twist to the whole Amazon project: Instead of the suburban office park, which was a corporate vision of the pastoral at a car-friendly remove from the city, Amazon aims to deliver an urban sublime experience. Bjarke Ingels Group had the same idea with a waste-to-energy power plant that doubled as a ski slope for Copenhagen. Tomorrow's HQ2 workers will be getting a Metro-accessible and Starbucks-adjacent escape to a woodsy mountainside.
As with the Spheres, the Helix is a visual spectacle that overshadows a much larger and more conventional project. The PenPlace development — which is only the beginning for HQ2 — will include some 2.8 million square feet of office space. This is where some of the 25,000 jobs that the company has promised will actually be done, assuming that Amazon can successfully reel back the Covid-era remote-work trend. The pandemic's mark can be seen, however, in the emphasis on fresh air and outdoor access. Early designs for three new office buildings at PenPlace show mid-rise towers marked by wedge-shaped cut-outs that reveal garden terraces. These landscaped lobbies fall on transfer floors, where all the elevators stop, offering a portal to nature partway up the building. For office workers, the complex's most revolutionary feature might be mechanical: All buildings will have operable windows. (How? "Our mechanical engineers are very good," Alberda says.)
By the time the Helix is finished in 2025, such 2020-flavored ventilation features may still be relevant. Or, like the otherworldly tower at the heart of this corporate campus, they could stick out as offerings from another age. The technocratic exuberance that has given design its fantastical edge in recent years looks increasingly fragile and exposed. As much as Apple or Tesla, Amazon is responsible for pushing the primacy of tech in design and planning — perhaps Amazon even more so. This was, after all, the company that launched a national contest to pit cities against each other for the right to host HQ2.
Now, America's faith in its urban centers is being tested. Whatever else it is, the Helix is a testament to that conviction — in the power of cities to change people's lives and the power of tech to change cities.