On Building

The Vision Becomes a Reality:
Part 5 in the Outsiders Series

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

If you had the world’s greatest idea, but it remained unrealized, what would you have truly proven? It’s a key question for visionaries.

As we saw in this column two months ago, New Jersey architect Malcolm Wells had an epiphany in 1964 about how building underground would benefit the planet. Last month we saw how the vision took over his mind and his life.

In 1970, he had another epiphany; he couldn’t merely revel in his idea. Rather, he needed to prove that it could work.

Determined to show that underground buildings could be beautiful and serene, the cash-strapped Wells spent $6,000 on a small lot in Cherry Hill and set out to create an office for his firm. Passionate about his experiment, he laid the bricks himself.

Wedged between busy Route 70 and Dale Avenue, the site wasn’t appealing, but Wells blunted the highway noise by building the structure one story below ground level. A sunny pebbled courtyard around much of the perimeter enabled daylight to slant down through windows, creating a cheerful environment.

People took notice, including the New York Times in both 1973 and 1976. One Times photograph captured Wells in the office, with arms outstretched under a skylight bubble. He looked like a man receiving life’s bounty.

Clients expressed great interest in his way of building. Members of a cooperative Ohio community had him design a complex of solar underground houses. Before decade’s end, clients in several mid-Atlantic states built Wells’s earth-sheltered designs for houses, arboretum facilities and warehouses. (I said “earth-sheltered,” not “underground,” because some buildings were bermed but bore conventional roofs.)

Even as the word spread, he refused to wait around for others to discover his ideas. Instead, he published reams of articles, such as “Why I Went Underground” and “An Ecologically Sound Architecture Is Possible.” In a weekly environmental column for the Philadelphia Bulletin, he lambasted polluters, irresponsible developers and politicians.

And in 1977, he self-published Underground Designs. This handwritten, stapled book of plans sold more than 100,000 copies, partly because the energy crisis sparked interest in super-efficient homes. The profitability of this book enabled Wells to change his life yet again.

Malcolm Wells on the construction site of his earth-sheltered
house in Brewster, Massachusetts, 1979.

He and his wife fled the increasingly horrid New Jersey suburbs for Cape Cod, where Wells built a bermed house on a large, woodsy property. Completed in 1980, the house received ample television, magazine and newspaper coverage, also appearing in many books by Wells and others. Photographs showed greenery climbing from the ground onto the roof, enticingly hiding the building. A skylight ran the length of the house, bringing in bountiful light. Windows at ceiling height made the place even sunnier. And rustic trusses lent rooms a charming earthiness.

The completed house in Brewster.
Plants help the building blend
into the landscape.

Three years after moving in, the couple parted ways. A builder-developer “Cape-Coddified” the house (in Wells’s words) by tearing out the central skylight and shingling over that part of the roof.

When Wells remarried in 1984, he and his bride bought a sizable lot with a small above-ground house. He hoped to burrow underground again immediately. Lacking funds to build another house (because the divorce had wiped him out), he decided on an underground art gallery for his landscape painter wife, Karen North Wells, with an office for himself at one end. (He hoped to add a residential wing, but the money has never become available.)

Malcolm Wells and Karen North Wells
on their October 27, 1984, wedding day.

Construction began in 1987. On the fairly level site, he excavated a large central area. Instead of carting away the soil, he mounded it to the side. In these ways, he made a small hill where there wasn’t one before. The dug-out space became a graveled parking lot. The rectilinear gallery sits under the new hill, with a wall of windows facing the parking lot to the south. Sun streams in through those windows, making the gallery bright and cheery. Ten knotted pine trunks from the site now serve as interior columns, adding further appeal.

Atop the roof lies a thick field of trees and grasses. Some of the plants drape down over the structure, as if providing a bit of modesty.

Beyond proving that underground buildings can be warm and inviting, the gallery realizes Wells’s inside-out vision of how architecture should be. That is, the exterior makes a humble statement, rather than dominating the Earth, while the impressive architecture lies indoors.

The Underground Art Gallery, November 2003.

(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 4 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)