On Building

Creating from a Deeper Place
(Part 1 in a Series)

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

On the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, when most people struggled with turkey-induced lethargy, architect Malcolm Wells wrote me a two-page letter of considerable intensity. In the upper-right corner, he noted the time: 7:43 a.m.

Malcolm Wells, several decades ago. Wells is now 81.

“Nuclear and chemical wastes continue to pile up out of control,” he wrote. After lambasting pesticides, he mentioned “the crisis right before our eyes—green land destruction,” then assailed architects, engineers, planners and contractors for their complicity in this disaster. Having spent decades advocating underground architecture, Wells subsequently made the case for earth-sheltered buildings: “energy efficiency, silence, fire resistance, permanence, ease of maintenance, bright and dry interiors, and best of all, the ability to heal the wounds of their own construction.”

Such ferocity of purpose at 7:43 a.m, an hour when many of us can hardly bear to glance at the newspaper and all its bad tidings. The author of 15 books on environmental problems and solutions, Wells clearly feels that blocking out certain truths is not an option.

Sometimes I’ve wondered whether he misses the forest for the toxins. To arrive at the state in which he wrote that letter, does he absorb different information than the rest of us? Or does he notice the same things but draw different conclusions?

While visiting his home in Brewster, Massachusetts, I had the perfect opportunity to ask. On a gorgeous autumn day, we drove down winding roads, passing golden leaves on far too many trees to count. I thought things seemed right with the world.

The Underground Art Gallery in Brewster, Mass., illustrates Wells’s beliefs about the
benefits of underground architecture. He built this gallery for himself and for his wife,
Karen North Wells, a landscape painter.

But Wells had a different reaction. “To me, there’s an overall sadness about all this,” he said, “because it’s third- or fourth-growth. This was a huge forest of trees of 4- and 5-foot diameter. And there were elk, bears, moose, eagles and mountain lions here.” With a swooshing sound, he imitated a massive wiping out and said, “We came in and destroyed it. And it grew up, and we cut it down again for another purpose. And now we’re on the third or fourth forest, and it keeps coming back as well as it can. It’s just scrubby, straggly stuff that remains of a vast forest.”

“When you’re outside,” I said, “do you continuously see things that are wrong with the world? What percentage of the time are you aware of such things?”

“I’m always slightly aware of it. Just yesterday I noticed that they’ve bulldozed an entire hillside of forest that goes way back and way up. It must be 1,000 feet. Totally cleared. I’m sure it’s just so somebody can build his house at the top and be able to see the bay. In these times, it’s so wrong to do that. And yet I’m sure the owner and builder just say, ‘It’s a good investment and a great view.’”

“When you’re driving by that place, what does that feel like? What emotions?”

“Anger,” he said emphatically. “You know the Monkey Wrench Gang from 30 years ago? People who started eco-sabotage—wrecking bulldozers and pulling up surveyors’ stakes? Well, when I see land destruction, I feel a little spike of eco-destruction.” He laughed. “Then I calm down and think about other things. It’s just the way the world is now. And you can’t blame those people if they don’t know there’s an alternative.”

“The anger stays with you five minutes? Ten days?”

“A brief time. Then I pass that site again the next day and …” He inhaled sharply with an angry hiss. “But it’s silly to worry about futile, futile things.”

“You consider that futile?”

“There’s nothing to be done,” he said. “When the door is locked, the horse is stolen. How does that go?”

“The barn is unlocked?” I said uncertainly.

“It’s over the dam. Gone. Forget it. You move on to the next,” said Wells, his figures of speech back in working order.

“Do you prod yourself to feel outraged? Can you work if you’re not outraged?”

“I guess I feel mild outrage all the time, half at myself for not being able to do more and half at the people who are perpetrating all this crap.”

“What’s it like to live with mild outrage all the time?”

“I think we need something to drive us. And maybe all creative people are needled by something. I guess moral outrage is a nice thing for an architect to have.”

From The Earth-Sheltered House, © Malcolm Wells, with permission of Chelsea Green Publishing
Concept for a house at Raven Rocks, a cooperative Ohio community for which Wells has
designed a complex of solar underground buildings. Work on some of these structures
has gone on for decades, because residents do the construction themselves.

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 6 of this series.