Malcolm Wells, Champion of ‘Gentle Architecture,’ Dies at 83

“To leave the land no worse than you found it” is the manifesto of Gentle Architecture, a concept coined by Architect Malcolm Wells, who recently died.

He made an impression on the green movement of the 1970’s and his work is getting attention with the new green building movement we are currently having.

There are many ways to say it. Here at Eco Brooklyn we call it Built It Forward. Malcolm called it Gentle Architecture. Some Native Americans called it Seven Generations.

Whatever you call it, the basic premise is the same: Yo Retard, Don’t screw up the planet!

Each generation says it in the context of the time. With Build It Forward there is a sense of urgency that the others may not have had. With our generation we’ve already screwed up. It’s done. So Build It Forward is not so much about not screwing up the planet and more about, “How do we clean up this mess?!”

Build It Forward is not about slowing the carnage but about reversing it. Reducing the carbon footprint is like dying more slowly. Build It Forward is about REVERSING the carnage. That is like cleaning up a brownfield.

For some, slowing down the damage is a great step. But if you can, and we think green contractors in Brooklyn like Eco Brooklyn have the resources to do this, it is better to keep higher standards and actually DO GOOD instead of merely DOING LESS BAD.

With Build It Forward we ask how do we green renovate a Brooklyn brownstone so that the process REVERSES the flow of garbage to the landfill? How can the green brownstone CREATE energy instead of consume it.

These concepts draw from and are part of Malcolm Wells’ Gentle Architecture movement. Malcolm, you da man!

Malcolm Wells, Champion of ‘Gentle Architecture,’ Dies at 83
Published: December 5, 2009 [NYT]

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., on Cape Cod. 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 Architectural Digest 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, perhaps 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 never saw his ideas take root, so to speak, and catalyze the vast
change in building standards that he advocated, but his ideas influenced
architects that came after him, especially in the 1970s, 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,” Mr. McDonough
added, “Malcolm Wells was seminal, actually inspirational, for some people,
me included.”

Malcolm Bramley Wells was born in Camden, N.J., on March 11, 1926, 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 he never received a

Mr. Wells earned a living as a draftsman and went to work for RCA, starting
by 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.

It was at this point that he abruptly changed course. 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, Jacque Couëlle.

Mr. Wells, who wrote a number of books, including “Gentle Architecture”
(1981), “Infra Structures” (1994) and “Recovering America” (1999), taught
environmental design at Harvard in the mid-1970s and lectured at other
architecture schools through the ’80s.

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.

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

“I’m a lucky man,” Mr. Wells, in declining health, wrote in 2006 in an
attempt at his own obituary. He added: “I am an atheist,
a Democrat, a skinny old bearded guy, and an owner, with Karen, of the
Underground Art Gallery at 673 Satucket Road in Brewster. My former wife,
Shirley, down in Cherry Hill, N.J., remained and is a better person and
better sport than I would have been if she’d left me. (My luck continues.)”

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

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