Recovering America

The late Malcolm Wells was a writer, artist and architect who was a vocal advocate of underground building since the early 70’s, having written nearly twenty books on the topic. He wrote in a humorous, personal, eloquent and inspiring style. His books are completely written by hand in pen and ink, and are liberally illustrated with both photographs and watercolor sketches.

Two of his books that I found most intriguing are titled “Recovering America: A More Gentle Way to Build” and “Infra Structures: Life Support for the Nation’s Circulatory Systems.” The first one is based on a trip he took across America with camera in hand to document the extent to which our country has been covered with concrete and asphalt, killing the wildness of nature that is always attempting to erupt. The other book documents how the roads, bridges, ports, airports, etc. are all disintegrating, and in need of more than repair: they need to be re-conceptualized. Malcolm’s solution to these dilemmas is to put it all underground!

In response to these books, I wrote to Malcolm, “I have been wrestling with the whole question of how to remediate the architectural and infrastructural atrocities that have been committed in the name of progress, prosperity and domination over nature. Your vision of putting it all underground certainly has its appeal, but to me it brings up a slew of other concerns. Could we afford the enormous acceleration in the release of carbon dioxide? (They say that the manufacture of every ton of cement releases another ton of this gas into the atmosphere) The embodied energy in your suggested remake of America is truly staggering: fuel to make all that concrete and steel, dig up the earth, make the supporting structure and then cover it all back over with soil. The structures themselves would have to be extraordinarily massive to sustain the loads you envision. I know it is possible, but would it be worth it? Would the resulting increase in vegetation absorb enough carbon dioxide to make the proposition a net gain for life on earth? Is there enough fossil fuel left to do this?”

“Another concern is aesthetic, and is not directed at you personally, but at the whole direction of western architecture over the last century or so. If you look at most of your lovely drawings of how it will look after the whole mess is put underground, it is instantly obvious where the man made stuff is. It is obvious because it is comprised of straight lines. Most of the designs are based on rectilinear concepts. If we are to emulate the works of nature, shouldn’t there be more curves? I know that Mother Nature delights us with an occasional linear sunbeam, watery horizon, or tall tree, but these elements are used sparingly. Most of nature is elegantly curved.”

“Thank you so much for getting me thinking about what should be the next step for humanity, and can we make it lightly enough to take the next one after that? I don’t think anybody really has the answer to this question, but at least we are beginning to ask it. Your thinking is decades ahead of its time. Thank you for pointing the way.”

Malcolm wrote back to me: “As to whether underground architecture has a net positive or negative effect upon the world environment, (a) It’s such a miniscule movement it won’t have any effect for decades, and (b) If you factor-in its centuries-long prospects for survival, you can perhaps make a case for each building’s positive total.”

“In spite of all the touted benefits of underground architecture (permanence, thermal efficiency, fire resistance, silence and ease of maintenance,) I have never really cared about any feature other than the building’s ability to restore life to the land on which it was built. The green “footprint”–the restoration of a native landscape, on and around it, is what I aim for.”

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