The Chronicle of Higher Education
Buildings & Grounds
June 11, 2009, 12:35 PM ET
Malcolm Wells: Dreamer of an Underground Utopian Architecture
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, 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.
In 1979, the University of Michigan contacted Mr. Wells to design an “environmental interpretation center” for a campus in Dearborn, on the site of Henry Ford’s home. The building was to have natural plantings, solar heat, and even an organic vegetable garden. Here are the main entrance and a road leading in:
The interior of the building would have been framed in giant timbers. The passage that explains why also sums up Mr. Wells’s attitudes about sustainability:
Everyone loves wood. Wood suggests the idea of renewable resources. And the huge columns would perhaps remind those who saw, and touched, them of the living treasures we so casually condemn each time we specify the use of wood…. These columns were not to be West Coast imports, however, but rather the trunks of local trees cleared away to make room for the ever-spreading scourge of surface construction. If underground architecture ever gets to the stage at which it could be called ever-spreading, it would be hard to call it a scourge as well.
But it was not to be, Mr. Wells writes: “Ah, ‘twas a lovely dream that slowly faded, as did so many of the rest, as funds dried up and the controllers of the money bags turned to what they saw as more pressing needs.”
Successful architects are good salesmen, first and foremost, and salesmen have an attitude of inevitability. (How many times did Frank Lloyd Wright simply inform clients that he was going to design something for them, rather than ask permission?) Maybe some of the traits that make The Earth-Sheltered House so appealing — Mr. Wells’s humility and his willingness to poke fun at himself — just don’t appeal to clients accustomed to being enchanted, intimidated, and even bullied by famous architects.
In 1983, Mr. Wells was a visiting instructor at Harvard University, where he taught an environmental-design course. His account of the experience says a lot about a gulf in the design world, which might be an indication of our troubles in the built environment:
Eight students signed up and I soon found that they knew a lot more about everything than I did. After spending all those years in high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school, they’d become a different species of animal to me. We worked out of different sides of our brains, or something. In any case, I was known as a flop. One of our projects was to redesign a rather ordinary intersection. I did the predictable thing; the students produced some esoteric mumbo-jumbo and almost no drawings. I couldn’t talk architecture. They could.