Sprouting Subtext—Understory at Amazon Spheres

Seattle has gained a dramatic new example of iconic architecture in Amazon’s “Spheres.” The new cluster of buildings house a remarkable and biodiverse collection of plants—expressly to inspire Amazon employees. The public excitement around the Spheres, however, spurred the creation of an exhibit-rich visitor center below.


The Spheres

The Spheres is the latest addition to Amazon’s Seattle campus, offering employees a way to commune with nature among plants sourced from all over the world in a rainforest-like work environment. According to Amazon, “The Spheres are a result of innovative thinking about the character of a workplace and an extended conversation about what is typically missing from urban offices—a direct link to nature. The Spheres are home to more than 40,000 plants from the cloud forest regions of over 30 countries.”

Despite the Spheres not being open to the public, the groundbreaking idea, flora and striking architecture have captured the curiosity of many. Ultimately, the attention convinced the Amazon team to set out to establish a free, public visitor center at the Spheres to help demonstrate and explain the organization’s goals, the building’s engineering and their commitment to the Seattle community.



As the Amazon horticultural team was filling the vaulted upper stories of the space with greenery, an impressive “dream team” of Seattle firms was assembling to tackle the challenge presented by the space below, starting with Graham Baba Architects. Studio Matthews, Jill Randerson Exhibit Management and Belle & Wissell, Co. followed shortly thereafter. Their primary point of contact, client group and Amazon collaborators, were a team in charge of real estate and campus expansion.

They had nine short months working in tandem to turn the industrial-looking duct and column-filled space into an attractive interpretive center that offers a sense of the drama and beauty of the Spheres. The space is not temperature, moisture and light-controlled like the Spheres above, so bringing in live plants or trees was not a feasible option. The client requested that all exhibitions be modular so as to clear the space for various types of event programming. Additionally, everything brought in or out would need to fit through a standard-width doorway.

As they embarked on the project, the team worked closely with Amazon, NBBJ Architects, botanists and other stakeholders to workshop, compile, categorize, write, photograph and film all the necessary pieces for the exhibition’s content. “It was a very unique project for Amazon, it’s not the kind of thing they typically do, so they were really excited about it,” says Kristine Matthews, owner and principal of Studio Matthews, who led the exhibition design process. “They were very inspired by the opportunity to tell this unique brand story.”

The visitor center project was dubbed “Understory,” referring to both the lush habitat between forest floor and canopy and the fact that the interpretive space is underneath. The concept for the floorplan was two open concentric circles; an immersive digital experience focusing on the plant life story at the center would be surrounded by a series of modular exhibits that tell the story of Amazon in Seattle, the Spheres building design, the plant collection and the corporate commitments to sustainability and the community.


Spheres Immersion

The Belle & Wissell team took the lead on the digital components of the project, starting with the central media installation, “Spheres Immersion.” The experience is meant to be the anchor that ties Understory to the Spheres in an emotional way through a different kind of immersion than the green space above.

This inner circle of the exhibition is a 360-degree experience comprised of an enormous curving main LED screen and a series of 11 narrow screens that continue the canvas, where visitors can see the plants of the Spheres up close. All of the screens save for the large one (which shields restroom entrances), are modular and plug into utilities in the floor. On the reverse of the modular LED panels are etched panels displaying sumptuously detailed illustrations of plant life.

In the Spheres Immersion experience, macro 4K footage of selected plants in the collection move in slow, intentionally soothing motion across the video panorama, complemented by a rich generative soundscape created by composer Jesse Solomon Clarke and software engineer Scott Thiessen.

As each plant sequence is introduced, the name and part of the world it is from is displayed. Simultaneously, in several areas, interpretive zones appear as pools of light—they are cues for visitors to step into, where a sensor triggers an ultrasonic speaker to deliver voice descriptions of the plants on view.

We found that the plant story content was so interesting that we really needed to find a way to showcase it,” recounts Gabe Kean, founder and principal of Belle & Wissell, Co. “The media had to function in multiple ways—passively and for groups—so we had to find something that could deliver additional content concurrently and the light pools were a surprisingly intuitive solution.”

The special speakers use ultrasonic waves, having the effect to a user of someone whispering in their ear. The design team chose them specifically for the “experiential feel.” The Immersion experience includes four plant film sequences and a tour sequence totaling over 40 minutes of content but is edited to feel meaningful no matter the viewing time.


Spheres Discovery Stations

Positioned around Spheres Immersion are five clustered modular displays designed in small, easy-to-move pieces that are joined by hidden magnets. Each “Spheres Discovery Station” offers insight into an aspect of the Amazon Spheres story.

In addition to being “on brand,” the Discovery Stations are delightfully hands-on; they are equipped with both physical and touchscreen interactives appropriate for all ages. “We wanted to engage visitors in a more meaningful and playful way, instead of presenting things that say, ‘don’t touch,’” remembers Matthews. “We also tried to celebrate the material by using rebar, for example, to help illustrate the structure underneath the seemingly bubble-like exterior.”

The Studio Matthews and Belle & Wissell teams collaborated on the enhanced touchscreen interactives, which are connected via a central CMS that Amazon updates regularly, along with the several living plants featured. Each has a completely different software and content yet feels a part of a continuous narrative.

Two of the five stations discuss Amazon’s objectives inside the building and the community. “Spheres: Origins” describes the corporation’s conceptual goals for the Spheres as a biophilic workspace. “Amazon: Here” explains how Amazon has worked to integrate their global headquarters into the heart of Seattle and gives visitors the opportunity to try their hand at urban planning by installing transit and bike lanes, green roofs and the occasional house perched on a skyscraper.

The next two stations elucidate what has gone into the extraordinary Spheres structure. “A Living Building” educates visitors on the engineering challenges of creating a perfectly climate-controlled and ideally lit space for plants to thrive, to include a living wall that holds 25,000 plants. “Inspired Design” explores the design of the Spheres’ structure, from the inspiration found in nature and historic conservatories to NBBJ’s process. A puzzling physical hands-on at this station invites visitors to build a Catalan solid.

Finally, at “Spheres: Plants,” visitors can trace the journey of the 55-foot-tall, 36,000-pound rusty fig tree—nicknamed Rubi— that was painstakingly brought from California and lowered in by crane to take center stage in the Spheres.


From A to Z

For the design team, the highly collaborative project was a valuable experience in many ways. “It was a very upbeat and collaborative project atmosphere working with a large yet tight-knit team that was able to turn around excellent work quickly,” says Matthews. “I was also impressed with the Amazon team’s work ethic and positivity.”

“We were tasked to create an immersive experience that gives people a virtual version of what’s above, but we wanted to go a step further and give people an experience that you couldn’t even have upstairs by using content creation techniques,” remarks Kean. “Overall, it was a surprising, rewarding experience that helped remind us that more focused, simpler solutions can be the most effective.”

Both Kean and Matthews agree it would be ideal to experience Understory and the Spheres together, something that might be possible at some point in the future. As of right now, the public can tour the Spheres two Saturdays a month by reservation and Understory is open seven days a week.

Understory has been open only a few months, but have been very successful, with hundreds of visitors a day. The Spheres and Understory have been a hit with the press as well; the project has been featured by CBS News, USA Today, U.S. News, Bloomberg Technology and The New York Times, in addition to local Seattle and design news outlets.



Project Name: Understory at Amazon Spheres
Client: Amazon
Location: Seattle
Open Date: Jan 30, 2018
Architect: NBBJ (building), Graham Baba (interior architecture)
Exhibition Design: Studio Matthews
Interactive Experience Design: Belle & Wissell—Gabe Kean (principal), Sarah Trueblood (studio production), Edward Tang (technology lead), Eric Harvey (art director), Edrea Lita (senior designer), Natalie Karbelnig (content development manager), Scott Thiessen (senior developer), Siarhei Bokach (quality assurance engineer)
Fabrication/Digital Integration: Dillon Works (fabrication), Whitlock (A/V integration), Arup (engineering), YCD Multimedia (media engine partner)
Collaborators: Jill Randerson Exhibit Management (project and content management), Niteo (lighting design), Olivia Knapp (illustration), Jesse Solomon Clarke (music composition)
Photography: Ben Benschneider, Belle & Wissell
Cinematography: The Radisch Co. (film production), John Jeffcoat (director and editor), Lisa Farnham (producer), Doug Hostetter (director of photography), Kelsey Graves (film production manager)

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