Pin It
nike_serena-williams-building_02 © Jeremy Bitterma
Jeremy Bitterman / Courtesy of Nike

The Serena Williams Building: inside Nike’s new temple to creativity

Dazed travels to Portland, Oregon to visit Nike’s new million-square-foot building, set amid newly-resorted, beaver-inhabited wetlands. Chief design officer John Hoke delves into its inspiration, innovation, and the future of the space

I’m standing on the fourth floor of Nike’s new Serena Williams Building, watching a beaver in the wetlands below swim upstream, presumably to or from its lovely little dam. I thought it was an alligator at first, not being familiar with Oregon’s fauna and flora, but was kindly corrected by a Nike employee, who did not laugh at my ignorance. The buildings’ location, in Beaverton, a part of Portland, Oregon, really should have been a clue.

This building, which covers one million square feet (the equivalent of 140 full-sized tennis courts) of Nike World Headquarters, is the brand’s new home of product creation or “temple of creativity”, to borrow the words of Nike’s chief design officer John Hoke. Where the similarly huge Lebron James building on the other side of the 12,000-employee campus is devoted to innovation, knowledge and research, this building is devoted to expression, imagination and creativity; turning all that function into form.

As much of the building is a temple to creativity, it is also a temple to its namesake, Serena Williams, AKA the greatest woman tennis player of all time. Tributes or “Easter eggs” to Williams are found throughout the building – some hidden and some in plain view. From art of the athlete that has been commissioned to populate the space, by a host of women artists including Jenny Sabin, Lady Pink, Jordan Moss, Kelly Anna; to the number of columns in the atrium which reflect the number of Grand Slam singles titles she’s won (a whopping 23). Even the seats in the theatre feature a number that is placed on an emblem shaped like a rose, her favourite flower and the traditional bouquet given to Wimbledon winners.

As indicated by the healthy population of large, semiaquatic rodents and the wetlands they abide in, which Nike restored, sustainability is at the heart of this building – both the structure itself and the products that will be created inside of it. The building sits on top of these wetlands, with bridges crossing over its wettest parts, and the trees nestling right up to the windows, allowing light and nature to infiltrate this space. There are even gardens within the complex; one, featuring mounds of earth, is modelled after the lush Pacific temperate rainforests of western North America, while another is filled with plants grown for dyes, encouraging the thousand-plus designers that will be working in the building to consider the journey from “soil to thread”. On top of that, it is fitted with rainwater harvesting systems and 648 solar panels.

When I talk to Seana Hannah, Nike’s vice president, NXT sustainable innovation, during my visit, she reiterates how sustainability is now at the heart of the brand. “It’s in everything that we do,” she says. “So it’s no surprise that the building that we’re in has the same approach that we have inside the building when we’re working and thinking about sustainability all the time. And we have very close relationships with the factory partners that we work with. They have set their own very aggressive targets, we work hand in hand with them. We all care about making better decisions, having less waste, and just driving our carbon footprint down.”

I did wonder how this works, when the main problem with fashion and sustainability is our addiction to consumption – our never-ending, ever-encouraged desire to buy more stuff. How do you help the planet while continuing to create products and encouraging people to consume them? Hannah said that they’re working in two ways: first, thinking about durability; and second, circularity – so the product lasting a long time, and then the pieces and parts it’s made from living on in a different form. “When someone’s done loving the product, can we repair it? Can we take it back, clean it up and sell it at a discount? How many lives can it have?” she says. “At then at some point, do we grind it up? Then it goes into a Space Hippie [which is a kind of trainer, for the trainer illiterate] or goes into a running track or a basketball court. We’re trying to figure out how to make the product last a long time, and then how to make its pieces and parts live on.” It’s a good answer. Our addiction to consumption isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but durability and circularity, particularly when adopted by a brand operating at Nike’s scale, are genuine, viable solutions.

Nike does seem committed to bettering the future of the planet, and the future of sport and sportswear. Spending a day in its universe, I was bombarded with Nikeisms, such as “it’s OK to fail,” “temporary is good” (the idea that you should always keep innovating), and “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” – the latter of which was a comfort to this terminally unsporty writer. Even their language around sport – it being “an invitation” and “a universal language” – made you think of it in less of a literal, PE kind of way, and more as an inextricably part of human expression, which obviously it is.

Here, as the Serena Williams building finally opens its doors, John Hoke discusses his vision for it and some of the ways Nike is working towards creating a better world.

What was the vision of this building?

John Hoke: It was to create a world-class, future-of-product creation centre, really highly centred on developing and growing that muscle of imagination for the company… You’re sitting in a million square feet of sustainable design. From the get-go, it’s super ambitious.

Obviously, our muse was Serena Williams, the namesake of the building. She had an active role in helping create a highly collaborative, highly creative space, which is what I think we’ve done. We’ve taken a million square feet and broken it down into a series of neighbourhoods. I talk about interior urbanism: each space is different, and right now it’s a vessel minus the people; when people come, they will build the culture in the community.

This building is built for the next 50 years; it’s built to be a catalyst for the best we can do, the best creativity.

This may sound like an obvious question, but why Serena?

John Hoke: She’s an amazing human being and she’s one of our favourite athletes because of her drive, her passion, her interests, her ambitions. She’s a provocateur and a change agency, and this building represents a change agency – for sports. Think about the boundaries she’s broken down; think about the way she’s changed the game of tennis, permanently; the impact she’s had on countless young girls thinking about how to participate in sports, regardless of their background. Her journey is a repeatable, inspirational journey for many.

What did her involvement look like, on a practical level?

John Hoke: She came to her to design reviews, looked at the models and the drawings. I recalled a couple of different times being with her on a golf cart, driving through the woods, through the carcass of the building, to give her a sense of the scale of the building. It was a bit overwhelming for her and emotional to see it coming to life.

We’ve hidden things in the building, which became the Easter egg thing. ’So where’s this part of her journey? What’s this part of her life story that can inspire more?’ That became quite fun to do with her, too. There are countless things hidden throughout the building.

You’ve said this building is a temple to creativity, but it does also feel like a temple to her.

John Hoke: It’s a tribute to her, yeah. An edifice to her progression and the progression of sports, the change agency that she has had on and off the tennis court. And that, in many ways, is the tribute.

How did she respond when she saw all this?

John Hoke: I think she was taken aback, overwhelmed, emotionally, because I think it’s a true reflection of her impact on our company and the way she has worked with us as an athlete, clearly, but also as an artist in her own right and an advocate for change. So I think that caught up with her and she’s incredibly proud. But like any great human, I think she just wants to have an impact. She wants to do more, to impact more people’s lives. And that is what we love about her.

How does all this relate to your vision for the future of sports?

John Hoke: Well, I think sports continues. Sports and athleticism are a fundamental part of the human experience and human condition; moving our bodies, feeling our heartbeat, our sweat. And sports offers that unique vehicle to find your personal best, to push yourself, to relate to other people, and to work as a team. All that will continue as we invite more and more people on the planet to know the power and potential of sports through their own movement and their own personal bests.

What are some of the most exciting spaces you’re innovating in, for you personally?

John Hoke: One is moving the company towards circularity, which is beginning to think through how materials are recollected and reimagined. In the future single-use materials will be abhorrent, right, we’re able to kind of capture them and reinvigorate them, so that we’re more focussed on restoring the world around us. And using that notion of regenerating materials as a cornerstone of the future of our product. I think that’s inevitable. And I think that’s not a compromise to the product – it’s the opposite. It’s a catalyst for better design and better change.

So that, plus the emergent technologies that we’re seeing in the digital world – 3D and 4D development, computational design, artificial intelligence – these things working together in a quantum creative way, will be really cool for us to find new physical expressions, new performance, new opportunities, new vocabularies. And that notion of no latency: designers become creators, not waiting to work through a daisy chain of events. I think these things are going to be catalytic jumpstarts to making the world better through the power of design.