Notes From Underground

Architect Malcolm Wells digs dirt.

By Harold Henderson

Like many people, Malcolm Wells cringes when he sees a vast asphalt parking lot. It’s so featureless, so lonely, so–dead. Unlike most people, he feels the same way when he sees a landscape of roofs. He wants to bring both surfaces back to life.

Wells once designed conventional factories, offices, churches, libraries, and laboratories. “In the 1950s I was a typical successful suburban architect,” says the 74-year-old, who earlier this month left his Cape Cod home and office to speak at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, on West Burton Place. “I called myself a conservationist architect, but it was pure baloney. I made a lot of money and never thought a thought.”

Then came the 1960s. His father died, Pope John XXIII died, Kennedy was killed. Somehow all the upheaval led him to have a thought that guaranteed him a future as an obscure environmental prophet. It came down to this: shouldn’t all his buildings have been covered with dirt?

Of course Wells doesn’t like the way malls and subdivisions sprawl across the countryside. But his solution isn’t to outlaw them. Instead he wants us, whenever we build something new, including parking lots, to construct low-rise buildings that are strong enough and waterproofed well enough to support a foot or two of soil and vegetation on top of them. (He often uses the word “underground,” but he doesn’t actually advocate digging down into the earth.) These buildings would quickly grow a pleasant green covering, so that instead of a bungalow or a parking lot, you’d see a gentle hill with plants and shrubs and plenty of windows and doors peeking out of it on two or three sides. On at least one side, the soil would slope from the top of the building to meet the surrounding land. Wells says the smallest lot he’s done this on was 60 feet

by 90 feet.

He believes that it’s long past time to start building this way. Not only do earth-sheltered buildings offer “silence, permanence, protection from the weather, and of course amazingly low heating and cooling bills,” but they restore a sterile site to life. “We could have a world that’s a park everywhere.”

Over the past 35 years he’s constructed more than 200 earth-covered buildings. But the movement he has long hoped to start has yet to, well, get off the ground. “In spite of my having lectured at almost every U.S. architectural school, been on network TV, and written 15 or 20 books on the subject, underground architecture is still virtually unknown.”

Why should this be so? It can’t be the price tag. Earth-sheltered buildings cost only about 10 percent more to build than conventional ones, they cost much less to maintain, and they’re “just as good in 100 years as today.” The problem, Wells suspects, is that “people want their own building to show. And ‘underground’ is a terrible word. It makes us think of subways and basements and tombs.”

He remains serenely confident that “time is running out for land-killing projects,” so he doesn’t give a lot of thought to why they remain the standard. He expects that Americans will soon be devoting their wealth and ingenuity to putting back “all the lovely forests and prairies we removed during the second half of the 20th century. How? Like this: the same way we removed them, one by one, as the opportunities came along.”

One opportunity passed us by in the 1970s, when underground buildings enjoyed a brief vogue among back-to-the-land types. Wells recalls those days with some distaste, because many of the underground structures built then leaked, were inadequately ventilated, or otherwise gave his good idea a bad name. (“There has never been a leak in any of my buildings in 30 years.”) Another opportunity may be appearing now that Mayor Daley has installed a rooftop garden on City Hall, though Wells thinks it’s more important to construct earth-sheltered buildings out in the neighborhoods. He was pleased to learn that an earth-sheltered home will be built this spring in the eco-friendly Tryon Farm subdivision in Michigan City, Indiana.

Wells stands a bit taller than average, with a shock of curly white hair and a Vandyke beard. But he’s far more diffident, even wry, than you’d expect an architect on a crusade to be. He doesn’t rage against his fellow architects or the construction industry or the oblivious American public, because he remembers when he thought as they do. At most he’s gently reproachful. “Can you picture a TV producer looking at her studio as she approaches it in the morning, thinking, ‘This is killing a forest and all of its inhabitants’? No.”

In the fall of 1997, Wells traveled around the country, hiring helicopters to view architecture as he says it should be seen to appreciate its destructiveness. From above, it’s more obvious that “the act of construction kills land for generations.” With a grant from the Graham Foundation to defray his costs, he flew over and photographed Disneyland, the Pentagon, the New Orleans Superdome, and the world’s largest building (a Boeing assembly plant near Seattle). Then, using watercolors, he deftly rendered each structure as it might appear if redesigned according to his principles. The result is the slide show and talk he gave on October 11, plus a strangely charming book, Recovering America: A More Gentle Way to Build, that reads just as if Wells were talking to you. He tells his travel tales, tells stories on himself, and boils his message down to a four-step logical sequence: (1) People can’t draw energy directly from sunlight. (2) Plants can. (3) Plants can’t live underground. (4) We can.

At the Pentagon his helicopter pilot had to make sure they received official permission to fly over its mammoth parking lots unmolested. “I knew we wouldn’t be shot down,” writes Wells, “but I couldn’t help wondering, if we were, if the obituary would mention the advantages of underground architecture.”

After the talk was over I waited on the platform at the Van Buren Street commuter rail station, staring idly across the tracks at the evening sky. Something was waving from the roof gutter above the opposite platform, and for a moment I wondered if Wells had had his way with that roof. But it was only a sprig of grass growing out of the gutter and catching the lake breeze.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.