Somewhere Underground

posted in: Art & Design, Journal, People | 9

Malcolm WellsThere 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:

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 HomeThree 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.


9 Responses

  1. Hi Miguel, I’m very sorry to hear about the death of someone so important to you, but very happy to read about him. I went to the obituary and some other sites too. Wells must have been a friend of a friend of mine, the architect Don Metz who built many passive solar homes in Vermont; their work appears together in several books, it seems. I’m with you in admiring this kind of building tremendously, and it was a delight to be in these passive solar structures(I was fortunate to live in one of Don’s houses as a tenant for a while, but it was above-ground.) One measure of a life well-lived is certainly the positive influence on others that you speak of here. I’m glad you knew him and glad you shared him with us; your words are a beautiful tribute to him.

  2. Thank you very much, Beth, and so good to hear from you again. I’ve been away from blogging, like, forever! I guess I needed the time to process and get past all the awful stuff from last year. I just never found the words I needed to write something.

    It’s amazing how people resist the ideas that make the most sense (and I’m not saying that I’m immune to the foolishness!). Perhaps it’s the lack of rootedness and never having had my own home that keeps me open to unconventional ways of creating a dwelling. I’ve always found it fascinating and adventurous to try things in new ways. And since the natural world forms the basis of so much of what I experience and feel about the world, Well’s designs just feel right. There’s something primordial about it.

  3. Fred and I very much enjoyed reading about the many wonderful influences in your life, especially your parents, and of course this fascinating man! Though we don’t remember the name, we have probably seen his work in various books for we’ve long had a deep interest in alternative architecture (as you know, having been in our house, which of course is nowhere as advanced as Wells’ design). Our condolences on your loss, what a shock this has been for you. You have indeed been blessed in your life to have such wonderful mentors like him! Perhaps the good memories will sustain and inspire you on in your future endeavours, perhaps even to one day build a place along Malcolm Wells’ designs! Be well, Miguel.

  4. So much in this to think about. I’d never heard of Wells and his work and ideas; thanks for bringing him to my attention. While I haven’t yet explored his work, the idea of this kind of architecture seems wonderfully full of unexpectedness and possibility — things that appeal greatly to me.

    I’m sorry you’ve lost the ability to communicate directly with him, but in a broader sense he’s still with you, still part of your life. Now, thanks to your post, and albeit in a less substantial way, he’s part of mine, too. Thanks, Miguel.

  5. Beth, thanks for still being around and dropping by. I’m sure that a lot of the green architects in the States know each other. The community isn’t very big. They tend be an interesting assortment of people, often sharing opinions and ideas amidst the equally independent nature writers and artists.

    Marja-Leena and Fred, I didn’t say much when I visited your house, but I was quite dazzled by what you both had managed to put together. Mika was dazzled, too, and we both spent a lot of time talking about the amazing patience and diligence it took to continue building something for so many years. The result is almost breathlessly beautiful.

    Pete, Wells would definitely have been a man after your own heart. His ideas, the way he tried to live, what he felt was important… all of these things follow your outlook on the world. There is one passage in his book “Gentle Architecture” when he describes taking a night walk amidst the bogs and fields near his home and coming suddenly upon a bare electric light bulb in the distance that shatters the darkness. I’ve been acutely aware of how invasive artificial light actually is ever since I read that.

  6. Hi Miguel,

    So sorry about your loss of a man who very important to you. I
    didn’t about Wells but he sounds like a kindred spirit. Thanks for bringing him to my attention. I’m happy that you’re writing again.

  7. Dondo, it’s great to have you here! Thanks for the sentiments. Ever since I read that you had spent a year living in the woods in emulation of Thoreau I’ve grown in respect for your way of seeing the natural world. That and your own blog on backpacking surely connects you to someone like Malcolm Wells.

    I lived in Boston and spent a lot of time walking around the area and swimming in Walden Pond. I spent a lot of time, too, in nearby Great Meadows, which actually is closer to the world that Thoreau knew than Walden itself, which is way over-developed and far too visited. Have you visited Thoreau’s grave back in town? The first time I saw it I was quite surprised: it’s so small! But entirely appropriate. A friend of mine who also loves Thoreau lives in the area and we used to go on very long walks and all the while discuss Thoreau’s history, his ideas, his way of life. A courageous and amazing man.

  8. Miguel, thanks for your kind words. Yes, that year spent in the woods changed how I see everything. It’s true that Thoreau’s grave isn’t much but the effect of his writing on so many of us is immense.

    I had to smile at your imagining of Wells’ “brushing the fur the wrong way at a dinner party…” Think of Cactus Ed and Henry himself joining up with Malcolm at the same dinner part and turning it on it’s head like the Marx brothers would. Gary Snyder would argue that it’s all is line with the greater flow.

  9. Sorry, Dondo, for taking so long to reply to you. I’ve been literally spending weeks on working out design and logistics issues with the blog and at times just wanted to throw the whole thing in the garbage bin. Finally got things worked out and I can blog in peace!

    Your year in the woods reminds me of my 6-month long bicycle journey around Europe back in 1995. My wife and I spent the entire time outside, staying out hotels only three times during the whole trip, so that it was as if the sky had become out roof. I was surprised by just how strong my body became. When we returned to Japan and stayed at my parents-in-law’s house, neither of us could sleep with the windows closed during those winter months. The rooms felt too hot and claustrophobic. Perhaps more than anything else what changed for me was my perception of time and just how little people need to live on. I will never be able to look at the world the same way again. I’m sure your experience did the same for you, no?

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