Malcolm Wells: Nature's architect

An architect who loved the earth

The way modern architectural reputations are formed confounds me.

—Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus in 1919, was so feeble an architect (he constantly complained to his mother that he couldn't draw!) that he enlisted a secret partner, Adolf Meyer, to do the heavy lifting.

—Mies van der Rohe designed more than one icon that was uninhabitable. More of less!

—Philip C. Johnson was guilty of touting Gropius and Mies endlessly in his quest to set architectural standards for New York's Museum of Modern Art. He excitedly phoned Alfred Barr, Jr. from Dessau in 1926 to say he had just seen the greatest Modernist building: the new Gropius headquarters for the Bauhaus. (No one is quite sure how much of the credit belonged to Gropius, backed up as he was by Meyer and Ernst Neufurt, the construction boss.) Johnson should have consulted the Bauhaus professors and students, who found the excessive glass sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. But the Bauhaus HQ looked great in black-and-white publicity photos.

Meanwhile really great architects like Peter Behrens, Albert Kahn, Max Berg and Timothy Pflueger remain known only to a few specialists.

And take the instructive history of the Cherry Hill visionary Malcolm Wells, who died November 27 at the age of 83. "Mac," as he was called, never took a degree; instead he built a new architectural vision from engineering courses he took in the Marine Corps and later.

Outraged that the RCA Pavilion he designed for the New York World's Fair in 1964 was demolished two years after he built it, Wells vowed never again to build aboveground. Joining the environment defenders' movement inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Wells advocated a "gentle architecture" that left the land unpoisoned. When Progressive Architecture touted him in 1965, readers flooded the magazine with putdowns to the effect that he was crazy.

To soften architecture's impact on the land, Wells decided to embed his buildings in Nature. Bury the structure and give it a planted roof, to be cooled by Nature. As design critic Inga Saffron observed in her obit (Inquirer, December 8), "Rather than the designs being cavelike, strategic skylights made them light and airy."

Read Mac's own charming obit on his own website: There he records his epiphany that buildings cause environmental damage: "I woke up one day to the fact that the earth's surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants."

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