The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's philanthropy is literally reshaping Seattle, from the new headquarters opening across from Seattle Center to the burgeoning corridor of biotech and health institutes in nearby South Lake Union.

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In 2006, a team from Seattle’s NBBJ architecture firm met with Melinda Gates to review drawings of buildings for a new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters the architects had created according to her specifications. Melinda Gates had taken the lead in planning the $500 million campus. For inspiration, she toured a host of notable buildings, from the Wellcome Trust charity in London to biotech giant Genzyme in Cambridge, Mass., and the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

She envisioned the new headquarters as a model of durability, green design and workplace efficiency. But when NBBJ’s plans for a set of unassuming rectangular buildings were unveiled, Gates thanked the team for delivering what she had asked for. Then she sent them back to the drawing board.

“The first one kind of looked like a traditional office building,” Gates said, recalling her reaction. “It was kind of a yawner. Even the neighbors kind of went, ‘Well, that’s it?’ “

The space Gates once envisioned as “humble and mindful” needed to be bold. It needed to make a statement reflective of the foundation’s own expansive ambitions.

Its goals include eradicating age-old scourges such as malaria and polio, producing the first HIV vaccine and preparing every student in the U.S. to graduate from high school ready for college and a career.

The new campus, which will be showcased in a series of opening events in early June, has two dramatic, glass-walled structures that curve like boomerangs, with arms stretching out in different directions.

“I wanted something that’s rooted in the Northwest,” Gates said. But it also needed “to be iconic and represent the work we do. And the work we do is global; it reaches out to the world.”

From family to global

The foundation has made a dramatic transition from a small family philanthropy run from Bill Gates Sr.’s basement into the world’s largest charitable foundation. With its own $37 billion endowment and a long-term gift pledged by investor Warren Buffett, its coffers have grown to more than $60 billion — more than the market value of Boeing. Now its philanthropy is literally reshaping Seattle, from the brand-new headquarters across from Seattle Center to the burgeoning corridor of biotech and health institutes in nearby South Lake Union.

Part of nearly $3 billion the foundation gives away each year has fed the growth of more than a dozen local institutes devoted to researching malaria, HIV and tuberculosis and developing vaccines. About 30 percent of the grants goes toward U.S. programs, including education and addressing homelessness in the Pacific Northwest.

But most of the funded work ultimately takes place far from Seattle, aimed at diseases and conditions that affect poor people in South Asia and Africa. Gates said the new campus is her personal project, a kind of coming-out party to show the foundation’s global mission is not remote from the local community.

Low-profile history

Over the past 10 years the foundation has been operating from a nondescript office building in Eastlake without any sign of its name outside, later expanding into four other generic-looking buildings nearby.

As the organization grew, it took on some of the fortresslike corporate culture and heavy public-relations messaging of its founders’ Microsoft roots, which grantees and others say can be difficult to penetrate.

At the same time, the foundation has just three trustees, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, and no board of directors. Instead, it operates advisory panels with a handful of outside experts for each of its three main programs — global health, global development and U.S. education — but the meetings and reports are not made public. Despite its humanitarian intentions, its power to influence policy without a public process has raised concern.

The Gates Foundation says it’s trying to be more transparent, posting more information about its work on its website and using blogs and social media.

Center-stage location

That change of mindset is reflected in the new headquarters. Melinda Gates said she chose a location in the heart of the city to be more visible and to help connect the campus with the surrounding neighborhood. Some foundation events, including its annual meeting, will be held across the street at Seattle Center.

The campus entrance along Fifth Avenue includes nearby benches, bike racks, an outdoor screen for video art and a viewing pavilion for the public to look in on the inner campus. “We really wanted the foundation to feel transparent to people when they came here,” Gates said. “The idea was to have a place where people could understand our work but also understand what they could do.”

A museum-style visitor’s center will open this year with hands-on exhibits about clean water and other global issues, a kind of tourist destination for do-gooders. Visitors will get a chance to lift two buckets and experience what it’s like for millions of women and children in the developing world to carry water.

Talk about a contrast

From the Space Needle, the building invites comparison with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum, just up the street, said Knute Berger, a local writer and editor-at-large of Seattle Magazine.

“If you ever wanted to get a quick contrast between Bill Gates and Paul Allen, look down at this thing that looks like a crushed Coke can,” he said. “It’s such a contrast with the clean, sharp lines of the Gates paper-clip place across the way. One is very button-down. One is very rock and roll.”

Almost 50 years after the Seattle World’s Fair marked the jet age and the dawn of other new technology, the campus echoes the scientific initiative the fair embodied, Berger said.

Between the Space Needle and the biotech hub of South Lake Union, “the Gates Foundation is an actualization of those aspirations,” he said.

Gold-plated charity?

Some have questioned whether it’s right for the foundation to spend $500 million on office space for 1,500 workers when the 3 billion people the foundation aims to serve live on less than $2 a day.

Adding a visitor’s center, striving to achieve environmentally sustainable design, and cleaning up the site, formerly a bus-refueling station, contributed to the higher cost, Gates said.

The city of Seattle sold the property to the foundation for about $54 million and helped pay for some of the cleanup, add a new parking garage and relocate some facilities, finally netting about $32 million.

The Gateses gave $350 million more of their own money to the foundation in 2009 to cover most of the building cost. They have contributed $28 billion to the philanthropy so far. In the end, “Everything from the foundation is going back to the world,” Gates said. “You can imagine in some form that building will go back to the world.”

Built to last

While typical commercial buildings change hands every seven years, this one was built to last for a century, said NBBJ Managing Partner Steve McConnell.

The thick facade of natural Jura limestone, imported from Germany, even has marine fossils in it. The floors are only half as wide as in a typical downtown high-rise, placing employees no more than 30 feet from daylight and promoting face-to-face interaction.

A 1.2 million-gallon storage pool underneath the plaza holds enough rainwater to supply toilets and irrigate plants, reducing the foundation’s demand for city water by more than 70 percent. A 750,000-gallon tank chills water at night to cool the buildings during the day, cutting back on electricity use.

The upfront investment the foundation made in energy-efficient buildings will pay for itself in less than 30 years, according to Arup, the project’s lead engineering firm.

Center of global impact

The new campus opens at a time the Gates Foundation’s size, scope and influence are shaping global and national agendas. The largest private philanthropy in history, it is making a mark not only by mobilizing unprecedented assets but also by trying risky approaches and tracking results.

It’s shaping Seattle by meshing the region’s core of expertise in life sciences with its own mission and money. Local institutes funded by Gates are creating low-cost diagnostic devices and designing new vaccines.

Researchers at the nonprofit Seattle Biomed are testing one of the world’s first malaria-vaccine candidates on volunteers in Seattle.

Two blocks away, global-health nonprofit PATH expanded into a gleaming office tower after receiving $1.1 billion in Gates grants over the past decade to develop low-cost vaccines and other health solutions. Last year, it introduced a meningitis vaccine for children that reduced the cost from $50 a dose to 50 cents and offers better protection.

The Gates Foundation helped create a new Department of Global Health at the University of Washington to train students, and a UW Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation to analyze the effectiveness of funding.

Adding a philanthropy headquarters as a central part of the landscape makes a statement about Seattle’s identity, says McConnell, of NBBJ.

“For the foundation to become visible,” he said, “may awaken the public about the significance and the commitment behind these ambitious programs to create a better world.”

Gates said she hopes to help the foundation’s employees, who hail from 37 countries, do their best work.

“If having a space where people can collaborate better leads to that, then I think we’ve achieved our mission.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or