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Architecture Art & Design Journal People

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.


Categories
Art & Design Blogging Journal Poetry Writing

Raindrops

Japonica Rain
Raindrops on a Japonica leaf in my garden, Tokyo, Japan, April 2004

Fast becoming one of my favorite blogs Journal of a Writing Man, there is something disarming and undeniably charming about Old Grey Poet’s daily stories. The fact that he focuses on the details of his daily life, peppering the anecdotes with bytes of such treasures as an annoyance with the residue left over on the back of a notebook after peeling away the price sticker, or the joy of riding a bicycle again after years of neglect, or the wonder of watching a water spout, brings me back for more every day.

I can relate to what he is writing and can fit inside the boundaries of such a world. It has made me think hard about what I want to write here, and though my last post was the usual weltschmertz griping, I intend to focus more, from now on, on this little ring of influence that I can manage by myself. The blog will undergo some changes, including new blogging software (WordPress), a facelift, and some added and rearranged categories. It will take a little while, but I hope it will streamline the site and focus the voice here.

It’s been a harrowing month, what with having been cheated in my payment for the spring hotel brochure design project (the cover of the main brochure is to the left. The colors are definitely not right online… the reddish brown on top is actually a lot deeper brown and the blue below is actually more violet) and having to deal with it all in some very convoluted Japanese negotiations (my Japanese is very good, but I just can’t keep up in such jargon-rich sparring, especially when there are two Japanese, thirty-year design veterans against one of me… and believe me, the Japanese know how to be convoluted and vague… their whole language revolves around saying things through innuendo! And no, I never was able to rectify my losses) without resources, without anyone to turn to for professional advice. It’s left me discouraged and not a little angry. I don’t think I will ever do design work in Japan again. This is the main reason I haven’t been blogging for quite some time.

Keio Plaza Hotel Main CoverBut on the bright side, it’s become clear that design work is not my cup of tea (after having been cheated five times already… you’d think I would have learned by now!). Now, with all other possible career roads taken eliminated, like salt evaporated out of the bucket, I have no more excuses not to put all my effort into making it as a writer. I’ve tried every combination of vocation (except working as a field biologist) that I’ve ever imagined myself doing, and one by one eliminated them. Only writing holds fast and only writing fulfills all the criteria I’ve asked of my life. It’s hard, lonely, low paying work and I can get cheated in this field, too, but at least it’s in my language and at least I have resources and people to turn to. And most important, at least I love doing it as I do it, even when I’m struggling.

So here goes!

Categories
Art & Design Graphic Design Humor Journal Musings

Copy that?

It is 3:00 in the morning, my brain has oozed into the consistency of refried beans, and surely my eyeballs must have loosened in their sockets… Here I am attempting to write copy for the hotel’s restaurant brochure. It’s been a slog of hours now and, by Jove, the words have turned off the Muzak and taken to dancing on the table. What d’ya think, as an introduction to a major offering of victuals:

“The world reeks of flavors. All kinds. And the flavors come with food. All kinds, too. There’re hot flavors, cold flavors, Japanese flavors, French flavors, Korean flavors, and even Karaoke flavors. And they’re all good. Really good. Nothing bad. All really, really good. Cooked by good cooks who can cook good. No really, no one bad. Well, at least not where you can see them. And the seats are straight and the tables don’t wobble. No really. Sturdy as Gigantor. The restaurants are good. You can enjoy food. Come and eat.”

So what do you think? Simple, straight, to the point. Can’t be anything wrong with that! Ugh, gotta get back to the notebook…

Sleep a wink for me, ye Ramblers of the Land of Dreams…

Categories
Art & Design Graphic Design Journal

Mind Wrap

 

Evening view of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao

Last winter view of Mt. Fuji from Mount Takao, before the spring haze sets in.

I want to apologize to everyone for not being around for such a long time. I mean to write every day, but recently I got involved with a huge project designing the international brochure for Keio Plaza Hotel. For those of you who don’t know what the Keio Plaza Hotel is, just try picturing yourself doing the brochure for the entire chain of the Ritz… and then having it be the first time to do such a big project. While it is exciting and certainly a lot of fun to be given basically free rein to come up with a completely new concept for the hotel (it’s hard imagining that I will be responsible in part for the image that the hotel projects to all international visitors who come to Tokyo and stay at the hotel!), and that I basically have a budget to make most graphic designers drool, I must say that the pressure is enough to whiten a few more areas of my goatee.

The first night after I met with the hotel public relations team and descended from the dizzying heights of the Imperial Suite (the hotel is one of the biggest and tallest buildings in Japan) down into the restaurants, passing some 1,450 rooms and 27 restaurants, my brain was so frazzled by the sheer complexity and numerousness of services and facilities that I went into a panic. I lay in bed awash with too many images and sensory overload, and with the looming tower of the hotel glaring down at me, demanding to know how I, this little blip of a graphic designer, would dare to presume to grasp the concept of such a giant entity. Somewhere around 3:00 in the morning I thought my sense of self was going to go nova, and I entertained the thought of just giving up, no matter the shame, embarrassment, and inconvenience I would cause to those I was working with.

But then it occurred to me, damn, this is just a silly little pamphlet, not the actual planning of the hotel itself! And then I thought, it is only a hotel, not some baby whose life was in my hands. Just a hotel.

And that’s when, for the first time in my life when facing what I imagined was a truly big personal crisis, I consciously seemed to wrap my mind around a concept that seemed bigger than I could grasp. I realized that that’s how ideas work and how a single mind could handle seemingly overwhelming situations if the mind itself is given enough leeway. I conjured up the image of my hand wrapping around the hotel and squeezing it down to size. And it worked! The moment the hotel became this little idea and the strength of the idea of simplicity stepped in, suddenly my whole body let go of the tension and I could feel myself breathing easier. Within ten minutes I was fast asleep, the exploratory half of my mind free to roam the cosmos of invention.

I hope I can learn a lesson from what happened and use it for how I deal with my life in general. Perhaps until now I’ve always imagined my life is being somehow much bigger than my spirit, but I wonder if what I can imagine and what my trail though the years actually is are not actually the same thing. It is certainly something to ponder.

Categories
Art & Design Art of Living Musings

Tracks

Wall of Clouds
Wall of clouds to the south, Shizuoka, Japan, 1995

It’s one of those momentous times in life when all the strings of the doily of life converge. Big decisions have to be made, whether I want to or not, and while I stand here in the clearing all the snow around looks fresh and untouched. Whichever way I go there will be new tracks. I love being the one to stamp into the new snow, but all the same it’s not a little scary. And not without its sorrow.

Since I was a boy beyond memory two main themes always reiterated themselves into the architecture of my thoughts and feelings: nature and art. The earliest light of my consciousness recurs with images of leaves and insects and the smell of soil. Most of my happiest memories occurred in places surrounded by trees or hills or living things. The sounds of wind and water infused the music in my mind, like a green concert hall, the orchestra still warming up. Whenever I wavered, when the fragility and uncertainty and cruelty of human interaction shook my connection to this ephemeral and ever-changing boat that I call myself I could always step outside and go for a walk. There was a reciprocative duality there that felt like one; the world and me. There was never any doubt in it.

Art has always done the same for me. Writing and books; painting and drawing; photography; singing, writing lyrics, playing guitar and violin, and listening to all the world’s musicians, from crickets to Peter Gabriel and Kiri Te Kanawa; movies and animation; cooking; gardening; pottery; architecture and interior design… Somehow all these activities defined the passage of time and effort for me.

Merely acting out the steps necessary for survival, without appreciation for the merit in every aspect of the things around you or of what you actually do, never seemed to quite fulfill the promise of waking each morning. People who tell me they get bored confound me… how can you get bored if you have imagination? Isn’t it the mind that defines the color of perception? And isn’t that just what art is, the painting in of the details? Art, for me, polishes the roughness in the old block. It is with imagination that you learn to see and by seeing you unfurl the wings within your daily grind.

I have the opportunity to once and for all combine the these two guides to my life. To not shunt onto another track out of self-doubt and fear. Writing, drawing, photography, wildlife, conservation, a lifestyle as close to nature as I can hope to make it. But I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Do I stay here in Japan? Try Australia or New Zealand? Go back to Europe? Or the States or Canada? Do I teach? Do I go back to university (perhaps to study biogeography or wildlife management or some such)?

The first step has already been taken. I finished writing a book two years ago, but it has yet to find a publisher. It was the first major accomplishment of the promises I made to myself when I was younger: to live according to the right vibrations.

A lot of this seems shrouded in clouds these days; I am not as sure of who I am as I was long ago, but I know what I miss most, and missing something that you love for too long requires the sacrifices and determination of a lover. And I want to be a lover of life.