The Helix: Amazon’s new HQ draws comparisons to Iraq's Great Mosque of Samarra

The e-commerce company has said the design is inspired by the double helix, but it also has an ancient architectural twin

This artist rendering provided by Amazon shows the next phase of the company's headquarters redevelopment. AP
This artist rendering provided by Amazon shows the next phase of the company's headquarters redevelopment. AP

This week, Amazon unveiled the design for its second US headquarters in Virginia – a 100-metre-tall spiralling glass tower named The Helix.

In a statement, the company explained that the building’s design is drawn from the double helix, a term often used to describe the structure of DNA molecules.

“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.”

On social media, comparisons have been made between The Helix and an ice cream swirl, but the building also has an architectural twin that goes back to ancient times.

"The Helix is unique as an office building but its form owes much to ancient buildings like the 9th century spiral Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, as well as the more recent Gherkin tower in London designed by Norman Foster," Peter Murray, curator-in-chief of forum New London Architecture, told Sky News, while social media users also noted the resemblance.

Built in the 9th century, the Great Mosque of Samarra bears the recognisable spiral cone minaret known as Al Malwiya or snail shell. It is 52 metres tall, and was used for 1,000 years as the site for the call to prayer.

The Spiral Minaret of the Great Mosque is pictured in Samarra, March 15, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)
The Spiral Minaret of the Great Mosque is pictured in Samarra in 2015. Reuters

The mosque was built under the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al Mutawakkil, who had a keen interest in architecture and commissioned the construction of 20 palaces throughout the city. When it was finished, the Great Mosque of Samarra was the largest in the world.

Situated in Samarra Archaeological City, a Unesco World Heritage Site spanning more than 15,000 hectares, the mosque and its minaret was a significant symbol for the city and the caliphate.

Visitors were able to walk up the twisting sandstone minaret, and Al Mutawakkil is said to have ridden a donkey up the staircase.

In comparison, the coils of The Helix will serve as hiking paths, filled with fauna from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. There are also plans to open the trail to the public on certain weekends.

Amazon’s second headquarters will include three buildings as office spaces, as well as a hectare of public space, with The Helix to act as an alternative workspace for employees. The e-commerce company announced in 2019 that it was opening its second headquarters in Arlington, while its first remains in Seattle.

The building and its surrounding area will include uplifting features such as outdoor market spaces, amphitheatres, retail areas and paths for dog runs. It’s a far cry from the tragic fate of Al Malwiya.

In 2005, US troops turned the tower into a lookout and a sniper post as they fought insurgents. The structure was riddled with bullets from the fighting. Insurgents eventually bombed the monument after US troops pulled out of the site, leaving its top section damaged.

Nonetheless, Al Malwiya has inspired architects in the past, including Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Philip Johnson, who mimicked the spiral design for the Chapel of Thanksgiving, built in 1976 in Dallas, Texas.

Updated: February 9, 2021 03:47 PM

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