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Malcolm Wells: Dreamer of an Underground Utopian Architecture

Regarding Malcolm Wells [1]The Earth-Sheltered House: An Architect’s Sketchbook [2]: what looks at first blush like a collection of fanciful schematics turns out to be a bittersweet album of unrealized dreams, or maybe a hopeful blueprint of a future that might be. That’s according to chronicle.com [3].

There’s more:

The careers of architects are littered with buildings that never found a client or a budget and never emerged from the ground. Those buildings exist merely as dreams of what could have been — and dreams of the world they might have helped create.

Dream buildings sometimes leave architects amused, sometimes bitter. Rarely are they as entertaining and as poignant as Malcolm Wells, the pioneer of underground architecture. The Earth-Sheltered House, which has just been reissued by Chelsea Green Publishing, [4] serves as both a manifesto for underground building and a review of Mr. Wells’s career, as recalled by the architect himself. Of course, underground building has not (yet) taken off as a popular architectural form, so the designs in the book are mostly unrealized — the clients did not accept the design, or ran out of money, or simply disappeared. The book feels very personal, very intimate. The text is written out in longhand, so Mr. Wells’s disappointment at failed projects, his confessions about faulty designs, and his zeal for sustainable architecture all reach out from the page to grab the reader. The tone is often one of self-deprecating humor, but also one of sadness at the unsustainable state of architecture and (from Mr. Wells’s perspective) at the fact that the world has missed its chance for a revolution in underground building.

Well, so far, anyway. Mr. Wells’s designs may remind readers of fashions in 1970s architecture and at the same time evoke visions of a sustainable utopian future — one of buildings constructed by a society that has both embraced advanced technology and returned to live among the trees.

Even though the book is called The Earth-Sheltered House, many of the featured designs were commissioned by colleges, like this dormitory that Mr. Wells designed for “a Catholic university in Minnesota” around 1978. (Given its fondness for good architecture, St. John’s University could well have been the mystery institution.) The building featured a solar greenhouse at one end, but “the great cross was not done consciously,” he writes.

Read the whole article here. [5]