Take a stroll through South Lake Union and it won’t be long before you stumble upon an intriguing piece of art incorporated into the neighborhood. With Vulcan Real Estate’s development and Amazon’s corporate headquarters expansion, South Lake Union is now an outdoor art gallery—with nearly 30 commissioned works of art on display by Vulcan alone. What’s even more special is that many of these installations are thoughtfully created by local artists, specifically for each location, and often times reflect the theme of a building or bits and pieces of Seattle’s history.

Art plays a major role in the design of Amazon buildings. Sometimes, the interiors and exteriors take their cue from a single specific theme—or rather, an inspiration—the case for Block 44 and 52. In other scenarios, such as Block 45, the public artwork may not be consistent with the interior theme, but instead is designed in response to location and sense of place. Despite their varied sources of inspiration, the pieces have one thing in common: artist, owner, contractor, and architect work together to bring it to life—collaborating on materials, constructability, feasibility, color, and location.

Spencer Finch's "There is Another Sky" glass canopy at Vulcan Block 44 [Amazon Nessie + Bigfoot]

Vulcan’s Block 44 [2014], home to Amazon’s Bigfoot and Nessie buildings, showcases a glass canopy by Spencer Finch titled “There is Another Sky.” The work invokes a forest canopy in perfect alignment with the building’s Pacific Northwest theme and overlooks a public landscaped plaza with heated seating and 100 LED “fireflies” that come to life at dusk. It is Vulcan’s 18th commissioned work of art, and sets the stage for what to expect once you enter the building.

Block 45 [Amazon’s Brazil] just opened its doors to employees and features a large public plaza. To create a multi-dimensional space that draws people in without the construction of a wall-to-wall canopy, artist Dan Corson created “Nebulous”, two massive cloud-like shapes made of more than 350 circular glass discs that float above the courtyard. The clouds not only portray Seattle’s weather and existence of an invisible technology “cloud”, but they also provide a sense of shelter, encouraging employees and passersby to gather.

“It’s easy to get lost in the bustle of the city where we just need to get from point A to point B. When there’s something to catch our interest and make us stop, look and enjoy, it adds a much appreciated break, giving us time to notice the beauty all around, even outside of the art piece.”

| South Lake Union passerby

Regrade Recreation

While the larger pieces for each of Vulcan’s buildings are planned well in advance, ideas for the smaller touches evolve throughout the design phases and sometimes well into construction. This was the case for Block 52 [Amazon’s Apollo] completed in July 2015.

If you take a step back and look at the building as a whole, you’ll notice that the tower nearly sits on top of a lift—a distinct separation between the tower and podium. Why? Wanting to incorporate local history into the design, shell and core architect Graphite found inspiration in the early 1900s regrading of Seattle. This series of regrades reshaped Seattle’s topography in an effort to increase land value by making it easier to build on. The Denny Regrade, a significant piece of Seattle’s development [and somewhat controversial at the time], is referenced in the structure of B52, both inside and out.

The separation between tower and podium represents cribbing, a method used to preserve homes during the Denny Regrade. As dirt washed away from the bottom, a cribbing of blocks was built under the structure until it was left standing in the air. Later, the cribbing was removed, lowering the structure to the new flat sea-level elevation.

Further exploration of the building reveals other regrade features including:

  • Elevation markings on the main entrance canopy showing the land’s original elevation.
  • “Unearthed” by Kim Krech frames today’s City view through artistic folded reflective panels on the north side of the building. Spectators’ reflections are warped and joined with ghost images of the dramatically unreal street life of yesteryear.
  • Lead Pencil Studio’s south side artwork, “Restack,” evokes the ghost of the old city, resembling the crumbling facades of the old storefronts that used to line the street.
  • In the building lobby, stacked timber symbolizes the cribbing techniques used to lower buildings during the regrade.
  • A historic photo of Denny Regrade, courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry, has pride of place in the second-floor café.

Block 52 view facing North.

"Unearthed" by Kim Krech.

"Restack" by Lead Pencil Studio

Denny regrade cribbing photo [MOHAI].

Open to Collaboration

Integrating artwork into Vulcan’s buildings is a dynamic process that evolves throughout design and construction and frequently incorporates ideas from the project team members. When it came time to review the artwork ideas for Block 52’s south through-block, GLY Senior Project Engineer Adam Cisler approached Graphite’s Kim Krech, the Architect involved with finishes and overall look, to see if the team was open to collaboration on the artwork still in need for the space.

Adam’s passion for learning and playing with technology combined with creative intuition [he’s also a painter, illustrator and photographer] contributed to developing 50+/- thumbnail sketches. After consolidating that number to 30, he presented the ideas to Kim and the two artists thoughtfully talked over each possibility – narrowing in on those that best captured the criteria and theme for the art. They unanimously chose four final intriguing concepts pieces that

  • Reflect the site regrading and topography.
  • Could be backlit by two light boxes to infuse the space with colored light.
  • Complement the surrounding wall panels.

This collaborative process—far from a competitive win/lose situation between the two—resulted in a presentation to Vulcan featuring the strongest options for the art, a perfect example of how art isn’t always a solo effort. Adam is quick to emphasize the importance of the group effort saying “The final art wouldn’t have turned out the same if I hadn’t used the input from Kim and Vulcan to refine the original concept. Their expertise with public art and design were instrumental in the final composition.”

Elevation markings on Block 52 canopy showing the land's original elevation.


Vulcan’s final selection, which Adam titled “Toporithm,” is a further abstraction of the building’s theme: past and present viewed through changing topography. “Toporithm” conceptualizes a ghost topography which exists above South Lake Union and the Denny Regrade, and through abstraction, imposes the idea of history existing as memory permeating the current experience of the area.

Adam passionately explains, “the whole thing creates a 3D algorithmic effect like those produced through parametric design—which in itself, is a contemporary evolution of modeling capabilities.” “-rithm” speaks to the hills, valleys and the “rhythm” of the pre-existing landscape—and more specifically, if you can wrap your head around it, the algorithms as each dip and valley appear to form.

Adam and Kim discussed every aspect of the art, from color to method of production. He presented both hand drawn and 3D modeled versions, but they ultimately decided that a combination of the two iterations was the most contemporary and relevant to the theme and juxtaposition of the past as filtered through present and future.

Love it or hate it, art always provokes an emotional response. Public art enhances the pedestrian experience, invites people to stop and linger and encourages conversation. It is a great responsibility and one that Vulcan embraces. It’s also exhilarating to be building a community where the future is taking shape.

Some of our most rewarding moments involved collaborating with Vulcan, the architects and artists to wrap these exciting pieces into the building structures and plazas. We are particularly proud that one of our own has been recognized not just for technical excellence but for his creative contribution to this vibrant Seattle neighborhood that embodies the spirit of innovation and social connectivity. This is only the beginning. With more development on the horizon in South Lake Union, as well as the opening of Vulcan’s Pivot Art + Culture space at the Allen Institute building, there will always be something for everyone to appreciate.

GLY Senior Project Engineer Adam Cisler + his art piece, "Toporithm" at Vulcan's Block 52 [Amazon's Apollo]

“The use of 3D modeling by GLY engineers—and the industry in general—has formed a new way of thinking about how we build and deliver projects. Toporithm is an abstract reflection of this.”

| adam cisler, project engineer, GLY