Wells: The Garden State’s Most Iconic Architects

April 10, 2013


Malcolm Wells, FAIA

Malcolm Wells was born in Camden, N.J., raised in Haddonfield, N.J., and lived for some time in Cherry Hill, N.J. Often regarded as the father of modern earth-sheltered architecture, Wells advocated environmentally responsible design and promoted the idea of building structures at least partly underground.

Wells, who died in 2009, started his career working for RCA, where he drew designs for portable radios, remodeled showrooms and eventually designed the RCA Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, N.Y. With the realization that the pavilion would be torn down after two years, he abruptly changed course to develop his theory of gentle architecture, something that would, as he put it, “leave the land no worse than you found it.”

His designs incorporated the land, often burrowing into hillsides with layers of earth on the roofs that were suitable for gardens or other vegetation. Although Wells never saw his ideas materialize, his ideas influenced the architects who followed him. Wells also practiced what he preached, building underground homes and offices for himself — first in New Jersey and later on Cape Cod.

Wells, who was interested in energy efficiency, aesthetics, land preservation and restoration, was also a writer, illustrator, draftsman, lecturer, cartoonist, columnist and solar consultant.

He 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 1980s.

Here’s a fitting quote attributed to U.S. Army General Omar Bradley that is printed on the original concrete wall outside of Wells’ earth-sheltered office in Cherry Hill, off Cuthbert Boulevard.

“If we are not careful we shall leave our children a legacy of billion-dollar roads leading nowhere except to other congested places like those they left behind.”

wellsofficecolorbigWells Building Drawing 1Wells Building 2Wells Building 1

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