Architect Malcolm Wells, who made his mark by trying hard not to leave much of one on the environment, died on November 27 at his home in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He was 83.
Most conventionally constructed buildings, in Wells’ view, were intrusions on nature that hogged space, materials, sunlight, and other resources, and often included “toxic” landscaping. Wells regularly lamented this situation, but he also believed that it was possible to earn at least some measure of ecological redemption by designing buildings according to the precepts of what he called “gentle architecture” – the placement of buildings underground, with just enough of the exterior aboveground to allow convenient access and a comfortable level of sunlight in the interior.
“Every construction project causes environmental trauma; only underground architecture can heal its own earth wounds,” Wells said in a series of comments posted on the website www.malcolmwells.com, which is devoted to the promotion of earth-shelter construction and other types of eco-friendly and energy efficient design. “…A building should consume its own waste, maintain itself, match nature’s pace, provide wildlife habitat, moderate climate, and weather, and be beautiful. That’s a series of pass/fail evaluation criteria.”
Born in Camden, New Jersey, on March 11, 1926, Wells studied engineering at Georgia Tech and Drexel University after serving in the Marines, but he never did earn a degree. Instead he took on a series of draftsman jobs before apprenticing at a building design firm in New Jersey, where he eventually passed the state licensing exam for architects.
As noted in a New York Times obituary, Wells’ dismay over the level of waste and environmental damage that accompanies some building projects reached critical mass in the mid-1960s, when he was commissioned by RCA to design its pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair. He couldn’t reckon with the notion that the building would be torn down after the fair ended, and that many of his other building projects left severe scars on what had been pristine natural settings.
Wells’ underground-building concepts didn’t catch on in a big way, but his ideas influenced the work of many in his field.
“As a thinker, he was a hidden jewel,” William McDonough, a Virginia-based architect whose practice focuses on ecologically sound, sustainable design, told the Times. “In the world of what has become known as green building, Malcolm Wells was seminal, actually inspirational, for some people, me included.”
Wells was disarmingly self-effacing about his achievements. In an obit he wrote for himself (and which is featured on malcolmwells.com), Wells remarked that he spent his early years trying to match the level of accomplishment achieved by his older brother, Jack.
“My big brother … had been one of those guys who could do anything: pick up a musical instrument and play it almost by instinct. Artist, musician, cartoonist, gymnast – you name it. And there I was, his klutzy kid brother, standing by his drawing board, trying to absorb everything I saw. I was never able to do things quite right. So even though I fell into a life of good luck later on, it all came to me slowly, as I tried in vain to be Jack redux.”
More likely than not, the fruits of Wells’ “life of good luck” will continue to benefit everyone who cares about green building.