Malcolm Wells, architect of buildings that harmonized with their surroundings—by being literally embedded in their surroundings—died in November. Or as a friend put it, “he returned to the earth.”
Here’s a link to an article I wrote about Mac, his wife and their Underground Gallery for the Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine section some years ago.
Malcolm, or “Mac,” as he was known, illustrated my book, Liquid Gold. It would be the last of the 30 or so books he illustrated, as he suffered a couple more strokes that left him unable to write and draw as copiously as he did much of his life.
I met Mac on the annual Solar Homes Tour organized by NESEA in 2002, arriving in the evening to see his gallery tucked into the side of a hill. Entering the gallery’s sliding glass doors, I found a slight-built man in khakis and with wavy white hair—something between a druid and a skinny Charleton Heston’s Moses—leaning over a drafting table in his studio.
We soon figured out we both shared an interest in composting toilets, were born on the same day (but 39 years apart), and write books about green, leafy futures. Apologizing, he piled me up with copies of his many books on topics ranging from underground buildings and plant-covered infrastructure to baseball terminology, birdhouses, and sand castles. He shared his riches-to-rags story (he abandoned his lucrative conventional architecture practice when he was disgusted by the waste and ego embodied by modern architecture) and took me for a tour of the gallery’s roof, one of the few in the U.S. that needs only mowing for maintenance.
Mac invited me to dinner at his adjacent bungalow (a 1930s-era Sears catalog mail-order home) and his wife Karen soon arrived. She was unsurprised to find an unexpected dinner guest, explaining, “Happens all the time. I go off. Return home. And find a beautiful woman talking to Mac.”
Mac asked to illustrate Liquid Gold and refused payment for it, which was helpful because my budget was zero. I waited a little too long to put him to work and he suffered another stroke a few months later. However, Photoshop helped me correct some of shaky lines of the illustrations he ultimately produced, and the cover illustration turned out more memorable than I could have imagined.
Mac was renowned for his refusal to adopt computer technology. He wrote and designed everything by hand.
He was famous for writing same-day letters, often with little sketches in the margins to illustrate images from his day or little self-effacing quips. You’d write him a letter and he’d write back the same day he received your letter.
Mac’s wife, Karen North Wells, continues to teach and paint vibrant watercolors she shows throughout New England, as well as at her gallery in Brewster.
I’m inspired by Mac’s writing his own obituary (are you?) and might start my own.
I’ll post a few images from Mac’s letters and books in the future, especially from this one, InfraStructures.
With green roofs, green walls, and other planted infrastructure now the darling of green building conferences, Mac’s books and ideas seem way ahead of their time.