Century 21, better known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, promised a glimpse into a utopian future. Sadly, it was a vision that was all too fleeting. After the fair moved on, the district it transformed fell into decline, leaving a legacy – the UFO-inspired Space Needle and a monorail – that verged on sci-fi kitsch. In recent years, efforts have been made to breathe life into the area, starting in 2004 with Frank Gehry’s Musical Experience Project. Its latest architectural shot in the arm is the new headquarters for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which completed last year. Designed by architects NBBJ, it is a hugely significant project for the city and the foundation itself.
The foundation’s aims are to improve health and education across the world, and it has some weighty goals, including the global eradication of polio and the search for an AIDS vaccine. It grew from a philanthropic idea hatched at the Gates’s dining table into the world’s wealthiest charity, with $34bn in the coffers and 950 staff. Though a strong testament to righteousness of the cause, the swelling ranks were isolated in five separate offices across the city. In 2004, it decided to build a more formal headquarters – one that encouraged collaboration rather than stifled it.
Although the foundation has projects in 100 countries, a profound loyalty to Seattle underpins its worldwide outlook. To realise this double-edged brief Melinda Gates, the prime mover behind the project, turned to NBBJ – an architectural practice with a global reach that mirrored the foundation’s own, but crucially also had roots in the city.
“At first it confused me. I mean, how many people does it take to give away money?” says Christian Carlson, NBBJ principal. “But I realised they were taking a very rigorous approach to researching what they wanted to invest in.” Following early design meetings with Melinda Gates, Carlson soon realised that the onus was on a building that would herald their arrival on the world stage. “It was subtle, but they seemed to be saying, ‘let’s not just build an office where we can be in the same place, let’s build something that comes to represent us,’” he says.
In response, Carlson and his team conjured three gigantic boomerang-shaped buildings swooping round a central plaza. Conceptually, these represented arms reaching out to the world, while in practice they created the look and feel of an institutional campus. The sheer size of the sprawling five-hectare site allowed NBBJ to draft in landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which crafted beautifully landscaped plazas featuring ponds, wooden walkways and greenery. “There is a sense of community that single office building does not always provide,” says Carlson. “With a campus, there are places where you might bump into someone you might not ordinarily bump into. Also, you have to go outside to move from one place to the other so you are engaged with the atmosphere of the central plaza.”
The largest boomerang, prosaically named Office Wing A, is propped on a plinth-like conference centre running parallel to 5th Avenue North. This low-lying structure forms a connection to the wider city grid while the voluminous office it supports tracks the street north, before horseshoeing energetically back into the heart of the complex and terminating in a vast glass atrium.
A’s stubbier cousin, the equally snappy Office Wing B, possesses a similar symmetry and nestles alongside the top floor of a five-storey green-roofed car park, the first four floors of which are concealed underground. The third wing currently only exists as a ghostly white render, but has full planning permission. “We are just waiting for them to pull the trigger,” Carlson reveals.
To boost the buildings’ credentials as a cultural institution, NBBJ dressed all the street-facing facades in limestone, playing on the material’s association with civic architecture. Like a shirt that is too big for the wearer, the stone sleeve extends past the offices themselves to form cantilevers at one tip of each wing. “It was about the reaching towards the furthest distances of the world, where their work is,” Carlson explains. The architects adorned the inside of the stone sleeves and reception pavilion in unpretentious copper cladding: “It will age subtly, turning dark or green like a penny. We were trying to convey a naturalism, that there was nothing fake about this.” The inside curve of each office is covered floor-to-ceiling in glass, increasing daylight and fostering a connection with the building opposite.
At first glance, site appears porous. The main (and only) entrance sits almost in the middle of the campus and the landscaping does a fine job of meshing the premises into the city at large. This is an illusion. For security reasons, the campus is virtually impenetrable, an understandable move given the importance of visiting dignitaries, Nelson Mandela for example, but a slightly disappointing sign of our guarded times.
The reception provides information about the foundation’s work as well as the building’s environmental credentials. “All lives have equal value” goes the charity’s motto, and so, despite the lengthy purse strings, it was imperative to strike a note of humility with the interiors. The reception sets the tone, with an embroidered front desk and soft felt seating, both made by local artisans; as if in tribute, the team then added a small felt tower, which looks like an improbably high stack of colourful towels.
“Felt is used in cultures across the world. It is a very practical material, but it is also about the craft. People feel the hand of other people, not the machinery,” explains Rysia Suchecka, NBBJ interior design partner. “It pulls the whole thing together.” Continuing in this vein, the walls, floors, ceilings, cabinetry and furniture are made from locally sourced, fast-growing alder (regarded by Pacific Northwest craftsmen as a weed), referencing Seattle’s origins as a booming timber town.
NBBJ worked with workplace consultants Alexi Marmot Associates to create a versatile office. In its short history, the foundation had developed a heads-down work ethic that was felt to be too intense, so space that encouraged staff to share ideas-in-progress topped the wish list. The architects plumped for an uneven 60/40 split in favour of open-plan workspace and configured 20-25 person “neighbourhoods” to break down otherwise intimidating, elongated floor plates. Built with Teknion demountable partitions, the offices will shrink and expand with the ebb and flow of staff. Because the foundation is young, it had few entrenched ideas about ways of working, leaving NBBJ with a relatively free hand: “It was unusual and refreshing because you help form the culture,” says Suchecka. “You leave the space for interpretation as they grow.”
Clusters of formal meeting rooms, the foundation’s bread and butter, define the tip of both the buildings’ wings. Complementing these is a myriad of casual space, touchdown areas and small conference rooms, arranged in an orderly way around each neighbourhood. The building is intentionally narrow (20 metres wide) so that staff are always near a window.
At the apex of each boomerang are the main social hubs, connected by curved staircases. Here staff can grab a coffee, pick up mail and photocopies or sink into B&B Italia wingback sofas and have a chinwag. “If one group is focused on dealing with malaria and another is concentrating on water development in a different part of the world, this campus is an opportunity for those people to connect,” says Kelly Griffin, a NBBJ senior associate. Threading all these beads together are long corridors that curve uninterrupted along each boomerang’s inside perimeter – “the breezeways”. These draw people towards the social hub and ensure that researchers in the reading rooms opposite are left in peace. The view of the Space Needle from the cantilevered end of the breezeway is inspiring, but the crown jewel is the four-storey atrium, a multi-tasking mega-space with automated blackout and solar shades that works as dining room, conference centre and, when Bono drops in, a music venue. In the advent of summer (the city has famously inclement weather), huge doors open onto the central plaza where staff can work ad hoc on the benches and tables. In place of corporate branding, artworks and photos from the countries in which the foundation is active are displayed. “The work is the branding,” explains Sucheka.
The building won a LEED Platinum rating last October (see right) but surprisingly, the foundation was initially indifferent to proposed environmental measures. “The sentiment appeared to be, ‘we focus on our core business and we don’t screw around with a little of this or that,’” says Carlson. Thankfully, it reconsidered its position. A building that turned out to be an energy-guzzling, rainforest-wrecking monster would be like the head of Greenpeace cruising around in a Hummer.
So, how has the campus been received? Pretty well, as it turns out. Criticism that the foundation has built a crystal palace to itself does not hold water given this is private, not public money. Architecturally, it is understated and serious rather than conceited, and makes a concerted effort to fit in with city around it, particularly when compared to the silly cacophony of Gehry’s nearby Musical Experience Project. Though appearing a little austere, the workplace design is purely 21st century and certainly contains enough joyful moments to inspire and delight the foundation’s impassioned workforce.