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Somewhere Underground

Malcolm Wells
Malcolm Wells

There have been only a handful of people in my life whose words and examples made such an impression that my inner and outer life changed course in a way I could not have seen, let alone understood, until I was already well along the path in the new direction. I was, perhaps, very lucky to have been blessed with parents who were aware, different, and courageous enough to step out of the boundaries of their communities and go see the world, and so, ever since I can recall, new ideas, new people, a cavalcade of cultures, religions, senses of humor, languages, art, literature, even food, all swept through my life like a river, inviting me to take a breath and dive in. People with ideas flowered around me like a garden and learning was fun and sustaining. I was ripe for mentors.[1. Photo by Jay_Elliott]

This my parents prepared me for, enthusiastically, almost pushing me along. And certain people, people I read or met or heard from others speaking about, caught on like burrs and wouldn’t let go. People like Miss Patricia Burke, my high school English teacher, who nurtured a love of writing when my painfully shy personality held me back from releasing anything I wrote into public. Or Professor Don Taylor of the University of Oregon’s Creative Writing Program, who took me under his wing and encouraged me with my stories in spite of my lack of confidence. Or Professor Ken O’Connell of the U of O Art Department, who listened to my pleading with him to let me into his animation program and let me become his apprentice for the next two years. Or writers like Barry Lopez and Gretel Ehrlich and Edward Abbey whose books radically changed the way I saw the potential of weaving the exciting amalgamation of nature and science into a new kind of spiritual dialogue with the Earth, one both practical and meaningful. Or poet Mary Oliver who was the voice of nature itself, describing in spare, unpretentious vocabulary what we all feel and long for as living things. Or Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomintroll series of children’s books, whose magic continues to enthrall me 39 years later, something that few other writers have done.

And then there was Malcolm Wells, the “Father of Underground Architecture”. During my architectural studies I discovered his work while browsing, in the University of Oregon Architecture Department’s library, a copy of the magazine Progressive Architecture. A photograph of a building barely visible under a carpet of grasses and wildflowers caught my eye. His buildings lived underground, in the soil, like moles and Hobbits. After the inundation of all the sterile modern designs, the overly heavy and narcissistic classic 19th century fare that people traveled thousands of miles to see, and the complete shunning of Asian architectural design, with this new form of architecture, which attempted to erase its presence and bow to the exuberance of living things, I felt I had finally found my niche in architecture and could sally forth with a renewed sense of the appropriateness of this profession which, until then, seemed to me to do so much to scar the very world I revered so much.

I read everything I could find on Wells, searching the archives for articles on his designs, seeking anything he had written and said. I discovered an outspoken, but gentle-hearted man, whose love for the natural world outweighed his love for architecture and who spent his life trying to convince the world that the way we were going about building our homes and towns and cities was both destructive and deeply disrespectful of the planet we were sharing with other living things, if not downright stupid. His writing reminded me in a way of a good-natured nay-sayer who didn’t mind brushing the fur the wrong way at a dinner party, proposing preposterous ideas that most at the party would roll their eyes at, without properly stopping to consider just how wise and effectual the ideas were. Wells seemed to me an Edward Abbey of the architecture world, and when I first saw his photo I realized I wasn’t far wrong; he even looked like Abbey.

Out of my hundreds of books one of my greatest treasures is Wells’, “Gentle Architecture”, a book I have read dozens of times and still garner wisdom from. Not only does it propose new ways of building and inhabiting cities,… that thirty years later would probably still seem radical to most people today… it suggests a completely different way of looking at nature and what our buildings are supposed to mean to us and the land. He offers a way for us to regain our spirituality in the very act of building our settlements and dwellings, one that reveres all life and the very reason for our births into the world. Here is the list of goals he proposed should be the building blocks for creating places to live:

Malcom Wells Office
Malcolm Wells office

[2. Photo courtesy of MalcolmWells.com]

1) Creates pure air.
2) Creatures pure water.
3) Stores rainwater.
4) Produces its own food.
5) Creates rich soil.
6) Uses solar energy.
7) Stores solar energy.
8) Creates silence.
9) Consumes its own waste.
10) Maintains itself.
11) Matches nature’s pace.
12) Provides wildlife habitat.
13) Provides human habitat.
14) Moderates climate and weather.
15) …and is beautiful.[3. Quoted from “Gentle Architecture”, by Malcolm Wells, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982, ISBN 0-07-069344-0]

When I moved to Boston to try to work as an architect I contacted him to talk about his design theories and ask if he might know of any leads. We corresponded, talking a few times on the phone and more often through handwritten letters. He apologized to me for not being able to hire me, but expressed a wish to follow my career. He encouraged me to get my architectural license, in spite of the objectionable methodology and philosophy it represented, telling me, “If you want to be taken seriously and make a difference it is important to go through the hurdles that the profession requires.” He asked me not to give up in spite of the obstacles. “It is worth it if you love the Earth,” he said.

That was 19 years ago. My life took a long curve out of the way. I initially returned to Japan to find work as a green architect, but with Japan’s bubble bursting just as I arrived, no firms were hiring non-Japanese architects. Needing to survive I eventually gave up and took work as an English teacher. With almost no exposure to the kind of architecture my heart was in my passion waned. I lost touch with Wells and with what was happening in the architectural world. But I never forgot his words and his warm encouragement.

Malcolm Wells Home
Malcolm Wells Home

Three days ago I learned that Wells had died last November, a day after my 49th birthday. The world seemed to drop away as I read the words, as if a huge chunk of my own history had suddenly sunken into the waves. It was one of those track switching moments in your life when everything seems to shunt forward and what you had attempted to hide away in the closets comes tumbling out, stark and naked. I fell back in my chair and wept, for the passing of a man who possessed one of those bright souls that had seen the wonder of the world, loved it with all his heart, and wanted nothing but to protect it, and for myself, for having let him down and for my own lack of courage. I realized how much he had meant to me and what a big influence he had had on my life and soul.[4. Photo courtesy of MalcolmWells.com]

But Wells was not a morbid man (his self-written obituary) and such moping would surely not have gone over well with him. Even though his ideas never caught on, he never gave up, perhaps because of his faith in the slow process of nature itself. If nothing else, he changed at least one person in the world. Think how difficult that is to do.

Please read more about him HERE.