Is Amazon Consuming Our Cities?

Amazon unveiled designs for a modern corporate headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, in early February. Several generic glass office towers are grouped around a spire dubbed “the Helix,” an enclosed complex that will tower 350 feet over Northern Virginia like that of a massive, twisting strand of DNA, according to early renderings. Amazon is offering the Helix as a complementary system to “the Circles,” the Seattle headquarters’ enclosed gardens. The Helix, on the other side, resembles classic geometry in terms of consumption and leisure. It’s a colossal, glass-encased, tree-studded bauble.

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The press release announcing its construction is riddled with many of current architecture’s rhetorical bells and whistles: The structure was created to promote neighbourhood involvement while still being environmentally friendly, with “lush gardens and flowering trees native to the city” infusing “nature into the urban landscape.”

The Helix Is Not A Public Park

The Helix, like the Spheres, is not a public park, despite Amazon’s assertions that it integrates nature and culture. Since entry is exclusively and privately regulated, it is not really a public area in the traditional context. It will only be available to the public for organised visits on select weekends for Amazon workers.

The Helix represents much of the cynicism of both public relations and design in this regard. It’s a closed-off, segregated, and policed “landmark”—an architectural monument to corporate influence. The Vessel, a honeycomb building at the heart of Manhattan’s luxurious megadevelopment Hudson Yards, hides the full takeover of a swath of the city and its commons behind an enticing trinket whose true purpose is to operate as a place of Instagram consumption and free advertisements, similar to the Vessel.

The main idea is “privately run public space,” which is an ancient one. New York City gave developers more square feet in exchange for agreeing to make open land available to the public in 1961, and “privately held public spaces” sprang up all over the city. They now have everything from walkways and atria to parks.

Public But Not Public

Developers also also vowed to provide public land in glitzy developments like Hudson Yards and Sunnyside Yard in Queens, New York, in an effort to win neighbourhood support. Any of the promised green areas turned out to be heavily policed. Visitors to the Vessel, for example, had to sign waivers agreeing that they might be checked or recorded whilst they were there.

The odd, hazy distinction between residential and public venues has become a feature of tech campuses. To support the city surrounding its Willow Campus in Menlo Park, California, Facebook has vowed to develop a grocery store and pharmacy, a restaurant, and a “town square” with cycle lanes and a dog park. Sidewalk Toronto, Alphabet’s (thankfully unsuccessful) renovation scheme, would have featured gardens, plazas, green fields, and a remodelled riverfront.

After the public heard that the firm planned to film and analyse traffic flow through what amounted to a huge, Orwellian data-collection scheme, the idea was shelved.) Google’s expansion efforts in other cities have since progressed, particularly in New York, where the software company is redeveloping Pier 57 with a market place, science centre, and rooftop garden.

Is It Just A Ploy For State Funding?

Amazon, for its part, would seek up to $750 million in state funding, claiming that it would create thousands of jobs and a facility that would benefit the surrounding community. However, with the exception of 2.5 acres of outdoor green space (a unusual compromise by Amazon’s corporate overlords), the majority of the campus would remain safe.

The reality is that Amazon’s aim is to manage the commons and the ground it stands on, not to be a part of it. The Helix is a useful diversion, masking the reality that Amazon and its vast distribution empire, which emits CO2, are anything but environmentally friendly. Because although Amazon is renowned for the horrendous conditions in its unending, soulless warehouses, whose inaccessible architectural design is so dissimilar from the shimmering spire of the Helix, and yet, far more vital to Jeff Bezos’s world-conquering ambition, it appears to exist simply to say “we are a good company.”

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