Unité d’habitation Marseille | Credit: Fred Romero / WikiCommons

I graduated from UCSB in 1955. Ten years later I came back to join the history department, where I served until 2001. So I have been a witness all those years to the university’s fumbling attempts to deal with student housing. The current proposal is by 97-year-old billionaire Charles Munger, to stack more than 4,000 students in an 11-story cube with few windows. This sounds like science fiction, but according to a UCSB spokesperson, it’s a done deal, provoking the resignation of a distinguished architect from the design committee in outrage.

Munger has previously donated multimillion-dollar student residences of his own design to the University of Michigan, Stanford, and UCSB’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, among others. They have been built and are occupied and seem more conventional, although Michigan’s shares the windowless principle with the present proposal. Evidently Munger’s offer of $200 million toward the cost was enough for Chancellor Henry Yang to call the project “inspired and revolutionary.” The whole cost is estimated at a whopping $2 billion: revolutionary but not inspiring.

In fact, Munger Hall seems to have been inspired by a similar folly by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Before WWII, Le Corbusier had been impressed by Soviet collectivist housing experiments. In post-war France, with life returning to normal, he persuaded the city fathers of Marseille to build what he called Unité d’habitation, a 12-story rectangular slab meant to house returning workers in stark, cramped rooms that would tempt inhabitants to escape to the communal areas to converse and exchange ideas — almost exactly Munger’s description of his present plan.

Le Corbusier also proposed building multiple apartment modules offsite that could be inserted into the building framework to lower costs, just like Munger’s plan. The Unité d’Habitation is said to have inspired the “Brutalist” syle of architecture.

Unfortunately for Le Corbusier, he was dealing with French people, not Russians, and despite all persuasion, local tradition claims he couldn’t get anyone to stay in Unité d’habitation for very long; the building is now partly a hotel and the rest greatly remodeled. The same fate is likely to befall Munger Hall unless the whole idea is rejected by common sense or, more probably, the Coastal Commission.

Forty-five years ago when I was still chair of the County Board of Supervisors, I was invited to a meeting at UCSB to discuss student population with other officials concerned about a looming water shortage. Four years earlier the Goleta Water District had declared a moratorium on new water meters. Water availabilty was a factor in virtually every county building decision and now the university had agreed to discuss a limit on student admissions. A smiling vice chancellor assured the assemblage that UCSB would be happy with an undergraduate population ceiling of 16,000.

Admissions remained fairly stable for years, but a drought in the early ’90s stampeded most of Santa Barbara County into voting to import State Water. Now we all had plenty of water––right? Why not bump the undergrads up to 24,000? What could go wrong?

The problem, as I see it, is not too little housing — it is too many students. State budget support  for every university in the UC system is primarily based on the number of bodies admitted each year. A body is a body, and it is a well-known secret that the thousands of bodies that flock to the university’s most popular majors pay for the prestigious programs that bear a high cost per student. Thus, more bodies every year, leading to embarrassing mismanagement like having to stow freshmen in motels. At least, subsiddizing motels is probably cheaper in the long run than an empty $2 billion concrete block built in the Brutalist style.


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