On Building

Waiting for the World to Wake Up:
Part 6 in the Outsiders Series

This article appeared in the July 2008 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

If you pour your heart into advocating a vision that the world hasn’t accepted, how do you stick with it for 40 years? How do you keep believing that your efforts will come to something? The story of architect Malcolm Wells yields insights into these issues.

Born in 1926, he ceased to be an architect-for-hire in the 1980s, instead taking a higher-level approach to his profession. Rather than doing detailed designs and construction documents for clients, he focused on creating conceptual drawings. Thanks to his 1964 epiphany (discussed in Part 3), these almost exclusively featured underground buildings. As we saw (Part 5), he built several examples of underground architecture in the 1970s and 1980s, demonstrating that such buildings can be light, airy and a joy to inhabit. He has also written prolifically, producing 15 message-driven books (many chock-full of underground designs), plus dozens of articles.

These efforts have gone to advance one idea—that underground architecture enables us to build in a way that doesn’t kill land, something on which our planetary survival depends.

Despite all his achievements, one can’t help noticing that underground architecture hasn’t taken off in this country, or any other. An unavoidable question arises: How effective has Wells been?

He has long enjoyed a solid reputation in his niche. He has lectured at most major American architecture schools, and people as far away as Ecuador, Japan, Scotland, the Czech Republic and Australia have solicited his underground designs. He notes, “Almost everyone in the English-speaking world who has built or planned to build an underground house has heard of me.”

San Francisco architect Henrik Bull sees a wider effect: “All responsible architects have heard of Wells’ work,” he says, attributing the spread of green roofs and porous paving to Wells’ efforts.

And Wells wouldn’t have gotten this far if he weren’t a master of rhetoric and persuasion. Eschewing the vinegar that often laces environmentalists’ entreaties to sacrifice and conserve, he uses honey. Cartoons and jokey asides fill his books, though he doesn’t shy away from a grave tone when alerting us to the plight we’ll face if we don’t mend our ways.

With a flair for writing inspirationally, he infuses people with the desire not only to do the right thing but also to do so for the right reasons. “Be sure of your motives when you build,” he wrote in Designing Your Natural House. He told me, “Almost all who design underground buildings do it primarily for energy-saving reasons (meaning, money-saving reasons). A few do it to show off (novelty).”

Despite his higher purposes, he remains keenly attuned to aesthetics. He said to me, “If the proper motive is not there, then I think the architecture will not be as good. It will look forced or out of place.”

It seems that society still isn’t ready for the vision of a man who’s clearly ahead of his time. This doesn’t discourage Wells in the least. In Gentle Architecture (1981), he wrote, “Gentle architecture is so close to becoming an accepted part of the mainstream it won’t be ‘exceptional’ much longer.” Some 25 years later, I asked how he currently views that statement. To my surprise, he called himself “very optimistic,” explaining, “We’re not going as fast as I’d hoped. But people like to brag about having added solar panels—little environmental things that make them feel they are environmentalists. And that’s good, I believe.”

He says he likes to plant seeds and sow dreams, letting the future take care of itself. His optimistic vision of that future gives him persistence.

When something doesn’t pan out in his quest, he simply “moves onto the next.” He believes he’s always had a “rubber-ball” capacity to bounce back.

Wells bolsters himself with daily book orders from colleges and individuals, plus an ongoing flow of mail. His voice swelling with enthusiasm, he told me, “Boy, I get great letters! Some people really catch fire! About once a week, there’s a hot letter that comes in. Phew! It’s all worthwhile then.”

Like a prophet, he waits patiently. “All I have to do now is watch the world wake up and discover the gentle idea,” he told me. “There’s no way to tell how long it takes things to germinate.”

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Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 7 of this series.
Go to Part 8 of this series.
Go to Part 9 of this series.
Go to Part 10 of this series.

For my other writing about Malcolm Wells:

Oct. 2006: “Turning Frustrations into Creative Freedom” (Featuring Wells and others)

Dec. 2006: “Old and New Intertwined” (Only a brief mention of Wells)

Feb. 2007: “Tiny and Transparent” (Only a brief mention of Wells)

June 2007: “Creating from a Deeper Place” (A full article about Wells)