Malcolm Wells, 83, advocate for ‘gentle architecture’

By Bruce Weber
New York Times / December 7, 2009

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NEW YORK - Malcolm Wells, an iconoclastic architect who tirelessly advocated environmentally responsible design and who promoted the idea of earth-sheltered architecture - that is, buildings at least partly underground - died Nov. 27 in Brewster, Mass. He was 83.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Sam said. Over the last decade his father had suffered a series of strokes, he said.

Bearded, affable, self-deprecating, and appalled by the destructive footprint that buildings, roads, and parking lots can leave on the earth, Mr. Wells was dedicated to what he called gentle architecture, something that would, as he put it, “leave the land no worse than you found it.’’

Writing in the magazine Progressive Architecture in 1971, he set forth 15 goals that he said all new buildings should strive to meet. Among them were to use and store solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful.

To that end, his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.

It was a philosophy he extended beyond buildings to infrastructure. In a 1994 article for the magazine The Futurist, he proposed - and sketched - underground airports, underground stadiums, even earth-covered bridges.

“The worst thing about a bridge, any bridge, is what it has in common with all man-made structures,’’ he wrote. “It is a land-killer, a dead footprint on land or water. To last for centuries, to provide a sheltered roadway, to serve all creatures and to present a living surface to the sky, a bridge must have a roof and a deep covering of earth.’’

Mr. Wells, who taught environmental design at Harvard University in the mid-1970s, never saw his ideas catalyze the vast change in building standards that he advocated, but they did influence other architects, especially in the ’70s, as the environmental movement gained traction. The New York Times estimated in 1979 that underground houses, virtually nonexistent at the start of the decade, would number as many as 2,000 by the end.

“As a thinker, he was a hidden jewel,’’ said William McDonough, an architect and the author, with Michael Braungart, of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,’’ an environmental-design manifesto.

“In the world of what has become known as green building,’’ McDonough added, “Malcolm Wells was seminal, actually inspirational, for some people, me included.’’

Malcolm Bramley Wells was born in Camden, N.J., and grew up in nearby Haddonfield. After high school, he joined the Marines and was sent for a time to Georgia Tech, where he studied engineering. He later took courses at Drexel Institute of Technology, now Drexel University, in Philadelphia, but never received a degree.

Mr. Wells earned a living as a draftsman and went to work for RCA, drawing designs for portable radios and eventually remodeling showrooms. He apprenticed at a small architectural firm in New Jersey until he passed the state exam, becoming an architect in 1953. He had commissions in the United States and abroad; eventually he designed the RCA pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.

With the realization that the pavilion would be torn down two years after it was completed and that all his other buildings, with their parking lots and concrete footprints, had destroyed whatever had lived there before them, he began to develop his theories of gentle architecture. He was influenced by the nascent environmental movement, by Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s low-slung desert house and studio in Scottsdale, Ariz., and by the work of a French architect, Jacques Couëlle.

Mr. Wells wrote a number of books, including “Gentle Architecture’’ (1981), “Infra Structures’’ (1994), and “Recovering America’’ (1999).

In addition to the courses he taught at Harvard, he lectured at other architecture schools through the 1980s.

He also lived his philosophy, building underground homes and offices for himself, first in New Jersey and later on Cape Cod. He bicycled to work.

The Underground Art Gallery in Brewster has 100 tons of earth on its roof, with floor-to-ceiling windows and wisteria cascading over the eaves. Because of the earth’s insulating effect, the building stays cool in the summer and pleasant in winter, with only two cords of wood needed to heat it year round.

“I’m just trying to undo the horrible damage I did as an office building designer,’’ Mr. Wells said in an article in the Boston Globe magazine in 2004. “I think a building should disappear into the landscape as animals do.’’

His first marriage, to Shirley Holmes, ended in divorce. In addition to his son Sam, of Petaluma, Calif., he leaves his wife, Karen North Wells; a daughter, Kappy Wells of Santa Fe; another son, John of Harleysville, Pa.; a stepson, Jonathan Kelly of Wellfleet; a stepdaughter, Kirsten Engstrom of Bedford, N.H., and seven grandchildren.