After hearing from Washington’s governor, Seattle’s mayor and others, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos turned to a voice he truly recognizes on Monday for help in opening the Spheres, the plant-filled glass and steel domes in the heart of the tech-giant’s downtown Seattle campus.
“I brought a special friend with me today to help do the grand opening of the Spheres,” Bezos told a crowd of Amazon employees, family members, political officials and special guests assembled in a gathering space at the top of one of the orbs. “And so if you would join me in directing your attention up above your heads for a moment. … Alexa, open the Spheres.”
The ubiquitous voice assistant, usually found in much smaller connected devices, then replied, “OK, Jeff.”
A large blue ring illuminated at the top of the Spheres, much like it would on an Amazon Echo or Dot. Hanging globe lights also turned on and misters began to spray from a green wall behind Bezos. And with that, an architectural wonder constructed for Amazon employees so that they could get up close with nature in the middle of an urban setting, was officially open.
Bezos thanked John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, and his team for pulling off “this incredibly complex project.”
“Get a chance to walk around and enjoy yourselves,” Bezos said. “This is a remarkable environment.”
And the Amazon founder did just that, as he was joined by his wife and other family members for a guided tour of the facility that was five years in the making.
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Ron Gagliardo, the senior manager of horticultural services, whose team has been responsible for caring for and planting the 40,000 plants in the Spheres, served as the guide for his boss. Starting at the top, they looked over railings from various vantage points, checking out the four-story living wall and the top of Rubi, a 55-foot-tall ficus tree.
Bezos walked a bridge connecting the center of the structure to a workspace called the “bird’s nest.” And down on the main floor he got a closer look at one of the paludariums featuring terrestrial and aquatic plants as well as small fish.
The look-but-don’t-touch policy was certainly relaxed for the guy whose idea it was to build the Spheres in the first place. Bezos was particularly interested in the feel of small ferns in the 4,000-square-foot living wall. Ben Eiben, the horticulturalist in charge of that dramatic feature, showed Bezos’ family members the fabric backing used to hold all of the plants in place.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee played to the crowd by saying it was Day 1 for Amazon, the Spheres and Seattle.
“People think of the Space Needle for the iconic symbol of Washington,” Inslee said. “I think of the big R for Rainier beer.”
Inslee and others, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, praised Amazon on a variety of measures, from its attention to environmental issues to its help with Mary’s Place, which provides shelter and services to homeless women and families.
Others wandering the facility looking up at the glass or down at the plants included students from the Environmental and Adventure School (EAS) that is part of the Lake Washington School District. Those kids previously got a chance to help out in the Woodinville, Wash., greenhouse where Amazon raised many of the plants in the Spheres.
Gardening expert and Seattle media personality Ciscoe Morris was also checking things out, smiling and laughing and pointing. He called the Spheres the coolest thing he’s ever seen as he chatted with Gagliardo and others.
Dale Alberda, a principal at NBBJ, was lead designer for the project. He was posted in an open-air conference room in the Spheres along with John Savo, principal in charge for NBBJ. The two discussed the ongoing project that will feature additional buildings in the three blocks and 3.3 million square feet that make up Amazon’s Denny Triangle campus.
“The Spheres was intended to be the iconic center of the three-block project,” Savo added. But he said there would be a “significant sculpture” as well as an arbor, or green walkway, that connects from Eighth Avenue up to Seventh. The intention was also to build a neighborhood, not a campus.
Alberda said that the Spheres serve as a distinct symbol for Amazon and in many ways as a symbol of Seattle moving forward into the future.
“I hope it does speak to a new era for Seattle,” Alberda said. “I hope it speaks to maybe an attitude that has been here for a while but maybe hasn’t been as prominent lately and that’s the sense of adventure, pushing for something new.”
Both men said that while there would never be any intention to replicate the look of the Spheres elsewhere, they hoped that the idea — of reimagining the work environment — would propagate.
“That’s what to me is so exciting about this project,” Alberda said. “It was intended to be a place for people, it’s not just a conservatory. Certainly the plant collection is important, but the intersection of human connectivity and the plant collection is what makes this place unlike anything else in the world.”
After 45 minutes or so of touring the facility, Bezos finally declared that it was time for him to get back to work. He shook Gagliardo’s hand and said congratulations.