Four years ago, on the Fourth of July, Charlie Munger, the billionaire who is vice chair of Warren Buffet’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, sat down with Lars Bildsten, UCSB’s theoretical physics director. The meeting went well.
Munger offered to donate $65 million for a residence building at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. “It’s the main visiting physics program in the whole damn world,” Munger, 92, said this week in a telephone interview. “It’s a huge feather in the cap of UC Santa Barbara. Physicists are important. If we had lost the war against Hitler, which we very easily could have if he hadn’t attacked Russia, the physicists would have won it for us.”
Hundreds of top scientists, half from out of the country, are accepted every year into the institute’s programs and stay in Santa Barbara. Now they will have a fine place to stay. Early next year, the visiting scholars will reside in the new spectacular building on El Colegio Road.
“Architecture is the queen of the arts,” said Munger, who lives part-time in Montecito and has a grandson who attended UCSB. “[Winston] Churchill said we shape our buildings and then they shape us. The architecture impacts the human outcome.”
Too many architects, he said, want to be sculptors without caring about the engineering. “That’s grievous. It’s like a doctor that didn’t want to learn anatomy,” he said, adding, “It’s kind of a hobby.”
Munger invoked this thinking to hone the details of the three-story, ivory-white house made up of 61 units. Built by The Towbes Group, the structure stands apart from most of the haphazard infrastructure on the Santa Barbara campus. High ceilings and 10-foot-wide corridors make the interior feel spacious. Airy dining areas face wetlands and offer a mountain view. The window frames are made of steel. Nearly everything — down to the exact width of décor on the doors — “was all Charlie,” said Bildsten.
Likewise, Munger insisted more than 50 international flags line the hallways. Two-dozen chalkboards are scattered inside and out. “I can guess these blackboards will be filled with equations immediately,” Bildsten said. Munger initially wanted whiteboards, but Bildsten convinced him chalkboards are a longstanding tradition in the field.
In the basement — a rare feature in California, also at Munger’s instruction — is room for Ping-Pong tables, surfboards, musical instruments, and bike storage, which makes it feel more like an underground fraternity. The patios have several barbecues. One purpose is to encourage intellectual bonding after hours among scientists with different specialties. In all, it is utterly magnificent. “Well, that’s the idea,” Munger said.
Earlier this year, Munger showed up unannounced at a UC Regents meeting and unveiled he would donate $200 million to UCSB for new, highly unconventional dorms. The project is expected to cost $1.4 billion, and the plans have remained largely hush-hush.
Not only was the proposed building believed to be much higher than customary on the coast, but there were also no windows planned for the bedrooms, only for the common areas. Munger said at the Regents meeting the design is like Disney cruise ships’ artificial portholes where “starfish come in and wink at your children … No one can tell it is not a window.” He designed a similar eight-story building at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, and he recently finished a project at Stanford.
Munger said the dorm room he lived in is still there 70 years later. “It was horrible when I was there. Two beds, two desks, bath down the hall. That is a really stupid system. And yet it was the norm. It’s not that much better [now].” Even so, he said, it did not impact his studies. “I am a self-motivated person,” he said.
“He can make a donation that is so serious that he can also make certain decisions,” said Monica Curry, a former UCSB housing coordinator who worked closely with Munger on the Kavli center project. “He will allow himself to be persuaded, [but] you have to persuade him.”
Asked if the California Coastal Commission would raise objections to the dorm proposal, Munger expressed confidence. “It is a tiny bit of frontage,” he said. “The university is perfectly willing to put low-density housing on other parts of the frontage in exchange for a little [more] density here. It shouldn’t be controversial.”
He explained the project is still in the design stage, and they are about to create a “model.” He acknowledged it is “very complicated” and “ambitious.” It will be an “utter transformation of UCSB for the better,” he promised.
Munger said he did not get to know Chancellor Henry Yang until working with him on the Kavli center project, but he was thoroughly impressed, calling him “the most successful chancellor in the history of the University of California.” How so? Yang keeps learning, he said, and “he started smart. I think the world of him.”