After the Second World War, one major trend seemed consistent and assured in the United States: suburbanization. In droves, Americans left cities for less-dense communities across the country for the promise of more room to raise their families. And in many cases, corporate workplaces followed. As office work became more common, major corporations built large campuses in smaller towns, where real estate was cheaper, there was room to expand, and parking was plentiful.

However, recent trends seem to indicate that cities are making a roaring comeback. As the very definition of cities has shifted from industrial centers to rich clusters of service-based businesses, young workers seem to be craving density and its benefits. And with talented entrepreneurs, tech workers, and creatives flocking to urban areas, some corporations have begun to take note and build their headquarters in highly desirable cities, surrounded by restaurants, nightlife, and culture.

Perhaps the most notable—and massive—among these city headquarters is Amazon’s Seattle complex, currently under construction. While the Seattle area is known for being the home to a number of high-profile corporations—including Microsoft, Boeing, and Nintendo—those complexes are tucked away in nearby suburban areas like Everett and Redmond. Amazon, however, is looking to build workspaces for its rapidly growing workforce right in the middle of Seattle—as part of one of the biggest development projects in the history of the city.

Well-known for industry disruption and making its own rules, Amazon is seeking to grow a sizeable presence in Seattle’s downtown. The centerpiece for this expansion is a 3.3 million square foot project over three city blocks of the Denny Triangle neighborhood. Designed by Seattle-based firm NBBJ, the project includes three 38-story buildings, two midrise buildings, and a large meeting center that holds 1,800 people—presumably to hold product launches as Amazon branches into the consumer electronics market.

However, the Amazon headquarters is not simply about slapping down a conventional corporate campus in an urban location. Rather than creating a monolithic presence, Amazon is striving to integrate its offices with its surroundings in a meaningful way—in a sense engineering its own neighborhood from scratch. And so, in a neighborhood dominated by street-level parking lots, Amazon’s ground floor space will house retail tenants and include a public dog park to encourage community involvement and interest.

For the most part, the buildings look relatively conventional, especially when compared with the space-age plans for Apple and Facebook’s headquarters. Instead of focusing on flashy architectural features, Amazon’s goal for the project follows its corporate philosophy of usability and efficiency. NBBJ is known for computational design, an approach that uses simulations to predict how building’s occupants will interact with their space and mapping their paths through the environment.

However, one eye-catching feature has captured the imaginations of those following the project: a biodome made up of three 95-foot glass spheres. Simulating a park-like environment, the area is meant to reduce stress and fatigue through biophilia. The orbs will house a flex workspace and a large atrium for collaboration and respite.

One of the major reasons for an urban campus is energy efficiency and conservation. Many of Amazon’s employees will be able to walk, bike, or take public transportation to work. Plans are already underway for an Amazon-subsidized light rail line through the district. The campus itself is also rich with its own sustainability features, including a two-way cycle track and separate entrances for bicyclists. The campus will also harvest heat generated from a nearby data center to warm the buildings via water pumped by underground pipes.

The initial phase of the headquarters project is slated to be completed this year, but Amazon’s not done expanding. They’ve already purchased an adjacent city block and plan to build two more buildings—one 24-story and one 8-story—to expand the complex. With more than 150,000 employees around the world, Amazon is projected to have 70,000 working in Seattle by 2019. The surge has had a notable effect on the city’s economy, where real estate prices have spiked in response to such high demand.

This kind of rapid, city-changing expansion has made some observers nervous—and exposes one downside of urban headquarters. A crash for the company would mean more than an abandoned suburban campus. Unless development is diverse and sustainable, we could be building a new Detroit—and Amazon’s biodome will look more like a giant, ironic bubble.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / MARCH 2015 – Amazing Buildings