On Building

Going to Extremes:
Part 4 in the Outsiders Series

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

Passion and balance seldom go hand in hand. And on the path to realizing an extraordinary vision, an architect can easily go to extremes. Frank Lloyd Wright was hardly balanced, and neither was Malcolm Wells in 1964. As we saw last month, that’s when this highly successful architect (then 38) realized that above-ground buildings kill all the land under their foundations.

Horrified to think that he had paved over 50 acres, Wells decided to dedicate himself to underground architecture. The gamble eventually paid off; in ensuing decades, he became known as a pioneer in that field. He has spoken at nearly every architecture school in the nation and has published 15 books on environmental problems and solutions. But early on, his about-face may not have seemed sane.

From Recovering America:
A More Gentle Way to Build

by Malcolm Wells (1999)
For nearly 45 years, Wells has recoiled at the way we’ve paved over
the planet. To document the severity of the problem, he flew around
the country, taking photos from helicopters and publishing them in
Recovering America (1999). A case in point: the massive Pentagon,
with its acres and acres of parking lots.

Soon after his awakening, he informed his sizable staff that they’d be designing only earth-covered buildings. And he urged his main client, RCA, to put their factories underground. His contacts there laughed, knowing they couldn’t sell their bosses on the idea. Although RCA tossed him a few above-ground bones (which he took), the work dried up, and the relationship ended. Wells had made his first strides toward freedom.

As he began forging a vision of how humans should build, the ideas came in a feverish rush. He would later write about this heightened state: “Within days I had designed underground cities, underground highways, underground shopping centers.”

He imagined “a world made green again not in spite of the built environment, but because of it.” In this fantasy, buildings would fit their leafy contexts so well that one wouldn’t know “where the land ends and the buildings begin.” Such structures would encourage reverence for the Earth, not a sense of domination.

He could see his vision from every angle—from the high-up philosophical plane down to the subterranean space where engineering and waterproofing would be critical. He figured, “All I needed to do was let the world know about it and a new architecture would be born.”

From Recovering America:
A More Gentle Way to Build

by Malcolm Wells (1999)
The Pentagon as Wells reenvisions it, giving the land back to the deer.
Would people in a gentler environment behave in gentler ways?

Endowed with the “truth,” he says he spoke out “with complete authority on all my new discoveries. Little escaped my wrath…. I had found the way.” In 1965, Progressive Architecture printed Wells’s “polemic against everything that had ever been built on the surface of the Earth.”

Determined to put ideas into action, he formed the group Rebels in Search of Beauty, crusading against billboards, litter and overhead wires. But as he soon realized, “None of that stuff meant anything environmentally. It was just a froth of an expression of the real problems.”

On a personal level, too, he cleaned house. He stopped smoking. Instead of driving, he started walking four miles to the office, where he padded around barefoot. He grew a beard and minimized personal hygiene. He recalls, “I had a lot of nutty theories about never washing my hair because the natural oils would wash it, the way they do with animal fur.” Laughing hard, he says, “Pretty soon I had a big stinky mess of dandruff and horrible oil in my hair.”

After converting to vegetarianism, Wells took his three kids to a slaughterhouse to witness the killing, skinning and processing of cattle.

He nixed Thanksgiving celebrations in the household, as well as Christmas trees and Christmas lights. Furthermore, he decided to compost the town’s used Christmas trees and had them delivered to his yard. They sat in a pile as large as a house, barely decomposing.

His kids enjoyed playing in the aromatic pile but were less pleased when Wells swam nude in their presence. He’d been reading A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, a nonfiction account of an English boarding school that gave children complete freedom. Inspired to dispense with inhibitions, Wells took his kids to a swimming hole and peeled off his clothes. The kids yelled, “Oh, Dad, no!!!”

Laughing at the memory, Wells says, “You just can’t change too much, too quickly.”

His relatives, friends, and clients certainly believed that, telling him to slow down. His wife particularly encouraged him not to push underground architecture so hard.

But he disagreed. To her horror, the aptly named Wells dug a hole in the backyard to create his first underground space. He recalls, “I was just so fired up!”

(To be continued!)


Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 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)