On Building

The Great Shakeup:
Part 3 in the Outsiders Series

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

In his mid-30s, the highly successful architect Malcolm Wells overhauled his professional and personal life. He intentionally became an outsider in his field—an advocate of underground architecture. Even the idea of such a change must have shocked others, because Wells appeared to have everything.

Malcolm Wells, Cape Cod, November 2003.

In 1948, at age 22, he had built a house in New Jersey for himself and his bride. This striking modern structure landed on the cover of House Beautiful—twice!

After a six-year architectural apprenticeship, Wells started his own firm. His first job, a church, won an AIA award. With RCA as his major client, he soon earned enough to construct an office for his sizable staff. Wells was just 29. Some architects never achieve these milestones in a lifetime.

At 36, Wells reached even greater heights with an invitation to design the RCA Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. For two years he poured his talents into this project. As he would write in his book Gentle Architecture, when opening day came, he felt sure that he’d “given the world something as near architectural perfection as man could devise …; great cantilevered roofs, reflecting pools, Wrightian ramps, a single repeating geometric theme, and lovely gardens with big trees.”

But Wells had changed since he began working on the building, partly because 1963 had brought a cluster of deaths. His father, John Wells, had died suddenly. Two weeks later, so did John F. Kennedy. Soon afterward, Pope John XXIII (who had seemed poised to unite people of all religions) died of natural causes. The deaths of the three Johns shook Wells’s equilibrium.

Coincidentally, on the day his father died, Wells met Laurie Virr, then an architecture student and now a top architect in Australia. Wells hired him. Eight years younger, Virr nevertheless reshaped his boss’s thinking. Wells recalls, “I might say something about taking the kids to the zoo. And he would say, ‘Oh, it’s animal slavery! You don’t want to do that. It’s horrible!’ And I’d never, never thought about that before—how it might be from animals’ point of view.” Because of Virr, Wells rejected religion and began reading Thoreau and other writers.

In 1963, Wells also developed appendicitis and spent days in the hospital. “The world looked different to me after staring at those green, painted walls,” he says. “Out there was a whole new world that I’d never seen before. I guess that’s when I started to think about underground architecture.”

The “onion” house Wells designed in 1964.

Earlier influences had already planted the seeds of that idea. On a 1959 visit to Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona compound), Wells had stepped into an underground theater and realized that buildings nestled into the earth could provide respite from scorching heat. As he came to understand, this doesn’t mean that underground buildings are cold. Instead, because of the earth’s relatively constant underground temperature, subterranean buildings barely reflect extreme outside temperatures.

A few years later, when Time magazine published drawings of free-form, earthy, underground houses by French architect Jacques Couelle, Wells was so impressed that he arranged for their publication in Progressive Architecture. He then designed an underground house that sprouted from the earth like an onion. In 1965, Progressive Architecture published this design—Wells’s first underground house to appear in print.

The interior of the “onion” house.

The budding environmental consciousness of the 1960s also seeped into his mind. As he worked on his World’s Fair contribution, he felt mounting shame that after the fair, the building would be demolished, sending $2 or $3 million worth of copper, steel and other materials to the dump. All the magnificent structures built for the occasion would meet the same fate. Dismayed by the “acres of phony, throw-away architecture,” as he wrote in Gentle Architecture, Wells wondered at what cost those buildings existed.

Furthermore, he considered how their very existence damaged the environment: “Every one of them … shed torrents of precious rainwater. For the first time in my life I asked, and was told, where all the sewage was going. It was bad news, all of it…. Wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted years, wasted land!”

He then cast a critical eye on the factories, offices, and churches that had brought him fame and fortune. As he concluded, “I’d already paved to death over 50 acres of the American land. Those 50 acres had been wiped out in order to provide a single species with shelter.”

(To be continued!)


Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 4 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)