On Feb. 2, Amazon announced that the focal point of its second headquarters in Arlington County — or HQ2 — would be a double-helix-shaped building in Pentagon City, rising some 350 feet, clad in glass and girdled with trees. The Helix, as it has been dubbed, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but what kind of duck is this? Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, explained: “The natural beauty of a double helix can be seen throughout our world, from the geometry of our own DNA to the elemental form of galaxies, weather patterns, pine cones, and seashells.”
DNA is the salient point. The double-helix-shaped molecule is fundamental to all known organisms, just as Amazon is fundamental to all known commerce. It is the root of everything, just as Amazon sells everything.
Ducks don’t get a lot of respect in the architecture world, and there was, perhaps, a bit of a collective eye-roll when renderings of the Helix, designed by the global firm NBBJ, were unveiled. Sited near the dispiriting, boxy and functional architecture of Crystal City, home to trade associations with bland names and innumerable defense contractors, the Helix looks flashy. Renderings show the spiraling form, which includes two external pathways meant to re-create the experience of a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains (according to the official Amazon announcement), gleaming in the midday sun or seen in the distance, glowing with warm, golden hues at sunrise or sunset. Renderings like this are similar to the tail fins and hood ornament on a vintage car: They capture one’s fancy without revealing much about what’s under the hood.
The Helix won’t be an office building. Rather, it will be a space for employees in the surrounding Amazon complex to unwind, relax or meet informally with colleagues. Its guiding design principle is biophilia, the belief (well-substantiated by research) that access to nature — including light, air, plants and trees — is healthy for workers and increases productivity. Inside and out, the Helix will expose Amazon workers to a cultivated facsimile of what they might find outdoors if they had time to be outdoors.
Structurally, it is built around a central core that will contain the main mechanical elements of the building, with the helix-shaped envelope supported by arced, fin-like girders anchored into this large, inner column. Floor plates will extend from the center to the outside perimeter in various configurations, offering what looks to be a warren of green zones and sitting areas, as well as handicap access to the exterior of the building. One exterior path will mimic a mountain climb, while the other will provide access to more contemplative outdoor spaces, for reading, chilling or checking email.
The Helix, the cost of which hasn’t been revealed by Amazon, will function as an informal “front door” for a collection of buildings that are intentionally decentralized, a non-campus campus of some 5.4 million square feet of space dispersed over two main sites and rental properties in Arlington County and the north tip of Alexandria.
The Helix is a communal space within the larger Amazon complex, and the company says it will be open to the public on select weekends by reservation. But it is also clearly intended to send a larger communal message, to the Washington area and beyond, about the company it represents.
It will be both high-tech and green, built to the highest prevailing environmental standard — LEED Platinum — and powered by a solar farm in Pittsylvania County, Va., more than 200 miles south of Arlington. It very intentionally does not look like anything else in Pentagon City or Crystal City, or anywhere else in the region. The style, a populist, jazzy take on high-tech modernism, isn’t aimed at architecture critics, but at the public, which shows remarkable forbearance to the predations of large corporations so long as they have a reputation for being innovative and forward thinking.
So, it is a flag of sorts, waving at the north tip of a development Amazon has dubbed PenPlace. It will be a prominent visual icon on Interstate 395, likely more striking as you leave Washington than when you enter it.
Other buildings in D.C. function like entry points, including the fortresslike 2008 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, designed by Moshe Safdie, which greets arrivals from New York Avenue with a blast of Bush-era security paranoia, and the 1961 RFK Stadium, a crumbling reminder of a more optimistic, collective age, that ushers traffic along East Capitol into the city. The Helix, however, isn’t so much an entry point as a flamboyant exit sign, a glitzy welcome to the Trans-Potomac, the anti-Washington, the magical possibilities of untrammeled capitalism one might enjoy if only regulation and oversight were permanently in the rearview mirror.
But it also is a distraction. The larger story is the spread of greater Amazonia, the millions of square feet of new space that is the subaquatic iceberg floating under the Helix’s crystal tip. These buildings are every bit as buttoned down as the Helix is theatrical. And that seems the point. Unlike corporate behemoths of an earlier age, Amazon doesn’t want an enormous corporate campus, with a security perimeter, designated entrances and a lush landscape of meticulously curated grassy desolation and green despair.
So, the other PenPlace buildings — three large, traditional office towers that will start going up in 2022 — are designed with terraces and surrounding green space. An effort has been made to break down the massing of yet more Amazon buildings in a development at nearby Metropolitan Park, so they fit a bit more politely into the neighborhood. The company stresses that accompanying amenities across the campuses will be available to everyone, regardless of Amazon employment: dog runs, street-level shops, parks, performance and presentation spaces, an amphitheater and gathering spots.
“Part of a neighborhood, not a campus,” reads the title of a slide Amazon prepared to introduce the public to its Metropolitan Park development, about a five-minute walk south of the PenPlace buildings. But Amazon will also take over maintenance and security at Metropolitan Park, which raises First Amendment issues, especially if people want to protest Amazon. The company stressed that it will control this space consistent with local regulations, but policing is subjective, discretionary and subject to context. It also raises concerns for the homeless and anyone who doesn’t conform to Amazon’s expected norms of park usage.
The goal of the Helix and other Amazon office buildings is “agency, giving people choices, giving people as much control over their environment as possible,” says architect Dale Alberda, a principal at NBBJ, which was also responsible for a similar structure, called the Spheres, at Amazon’s main campus in Seattle.
In an interview, Alberda and John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, stressed the integration of Amazon facilities into the neighborhood, its connection to transit, its bicycle and pedestrian friendly streetscape, and something about giving away free bananas, which is apparently a thing Amazon does in Seattle.
The opposite of a duck, according to Venturi and Scott Brown, was a “decorated shed,” a basic, functional building with a sign on it. Amazon doesn’t intend to put signs on its office buildings in Arlington, thus completing a fascinating dance of “now you see me, now you don’t.” The Helix, the big duck of the development, is the sign, while the decorated sheds around it are meant to sink into the background as unobtrusive good neighbors. Don’t mind us, we’re hardly here at all.
The problem, of course, isn’t the architecture — it’s the economy, and it’s clear that the influx of highly paid Amazon workers is going to have an enormous impact on housing values and costs not just in Crystal City and Arlington County, but throughout the Washington region. The company has promised a $2 billion housing equity fund to help prevent a massive loss of affordable housing at its hubs in Seattle, Nashville and Arlington, but the initial portion dedicated to the HQ2 area is just $382 million, mostly in below-market loans to create or preserve 1,300 affordable homes in Crystal House, a building in Crystal City.
Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University, says that is a substantial figure compared with what other companies and many municipalities have promised, but greatly inadequate compared to the need.
“The affordable crisis didn’t happen because of Amazon,” Hyra says. But the amount promised, he adds, “is a drop in the bucket of the affordable housing needs of the area.” Those needs will greatly intensify as Amazon’s highly paid workers flood into the area, and they will be felt most acutely by those with the lowest incomes.
The company knows that. We know that. Everyone knows that the people who can least afford to be driven out of Arlington and surrounding areas are the people who will find it most difficult to stay here. It’s too distressing to think about it.
So let’s go see our duck, our big beautiful duck bursting with green things and stretching up to the sky like a great glassy stupa. Are you hungry? There’s a restaurant down at street level. Are you bored? Let’s go listen to the band play on the plaza. Do you need anything? Let’s go shopping. Still not happy? Have a banana.