Over the past couple of years, the sheer number of new HQs built by new media and tech companies, from Twitter to Google, has fueled and filled several architecture blogs – Dezeen even devoted a full-on Pinterest attack to the new hubs of power. Most of these impressive design homages to their respective corporate spirit, however, are still located on the outskirts of cities, often covering hundreds of acres of green. One of the major exceptions to this trend is Amazon: The company not only bought eleven existing buildings in the downtown Seattle neighborhood of South Lake Union, but also obtained a permit to develop an adjacent three-city-block area to erect its new headquarters.

The proposed design by NBBJ encompasses three distinctive biodomes (large glass balls that look like greenhouses), several high- or mid-rise office buildings, as well as publicly accessible retail and recreation space including a dog park, a multi-purpose meeting center, and several cafés. At the same time, Amazon did not want another corporate campus. Rather, and in keeping with its “community-focused culture,” the company sought “to build a neighborhood,” a “vibrant mixed-use” space. To this end, Amazon picked a rather overlooked part of Seattle’s downtown and actively tried to “elevate the urban environment” by getting involved in the district’s social engineering and urban planning process. Instead of claiming the usual tax breaks, the company now pours money into local infrastructure measures like new sidewalks, bike lanes, public art projects, and even a streetcar service to improve public transport.

What makes this rhetoric so interesting is its timing – and timelessness: This is no brand new social awareness or 21st century private intervention in public policy, but rather reminiscent of late 19th century industrialist reforms based on company towns and model villages like those established by author and textile producer William Morris or chocolate manufacturer George Cadbury, both of whom championed the necessary “elevation” of their workers’ living standards. They wanted to liberate their factory workforce from the slums of industrialized cities like Birmingham and provide them with decent housing and a ‘nice’ environment. And while there are examples of this practice all over the western world, one of the best known remains Bournville, Cadbury’s model village and “factory in a garden” established in the late 19th century. The notion of privately-funded social reform was at the heart of this project: Cadbury envisaged a balanced community with affordable housing for all income levels. With this in mind, he provided money for community buildings – shops, public spaces, etc. –, yet established the Bournville Village Trust to administer the development and keep it separate from the company.

At the same time, this benign public policy intervention and model village approach can also prove problematic, considering the far-reaching influence of the community’s main paymaster. In the 19th century, and exerted by socialist utopians like Cadbury, this influence was slight, but noticeable: Even today, the city of Bournville does not grant liquor licenses and there is no pub or bar on the estate. Drunkenness had no part in Cadbury’s concept. But what happens when idealized living in a corporate town is governed by very specific and private interests – take the commodification of “community” in towns like Celebration, Florida? Established in 1994 by the Disney Company and developed as a brand according to Walt Disney’s own ideal of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), Celebration is a paragon of planning. All communal and public aspects were plotted by the corporation and the town’s Main Street is a picture-perfect representation of 1950s Americana, including a retro-style movie theater. In 2004 Disney decided to share a little bit of its Celebration dream and sold the central part of town to an investment company that now runs the shops, restaurants and a few apartments on Main Street. But Disney’s power still extends far beyond that of any other private institution into the public space of Celebration in that the company owns power, telecommunications, water and sanitation, as well as determining the school system of the area. The legislative power of Disney goes even further as Celebration lies in a specifically designated portion of Florida, which is completely owned by the company – including the governmental right to determine zoning, tax-exemptions and building permits.

While Amazon does not receive similar far-reaching powers in Seattle, it nevertheless remains to be seen whether the encompassing complex will not become a de facto city-within-a-city, with all its political implications. Where Disney is sole ruler of its own company town, Amazon and Seattle will enter into a common-law marriage of sorts since there will be no practical way to separate the company’s huge HQ from the surrounding area. Rents have already started to skyrocket in adjacent neighborhoods, while public infrastructure like water, power, sewers, parking, and transportation will need to keep up with and out of the way of the multi-million dollar corporation’s plans – not to mention the expected and ensuing boom of retailers, restaurants, and apartment complexes. What follows are demographic considerations like the need for new schools, more police, and better fire department coverage. Who, for example, will police the complex’s publicly accessible spaces, bike lanes, and walkways? Who will maintain the new streetcar service – and who will determine its schedule? How far will Amazon’s reach extend into the policies and social engineering of “its” neighborhood? The city of Seattle and its Department of Planning and Development will have to make these calls and curtail the company’s plans – if necessary – to ensure the separation of public and private sectors and the entire city’s welfare. A stance demonstrated by the city’s critique of the original NBBJ plans, prompting the architectural firm to incorporate more public access and retail into their designs to ensure that this huge HQ and social experiment benefits both Amazon’s employees – and the city itself.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: Amazon’s new Seattle headquarters, © NBBJ / Amazon