Credit: Courtesy

UC Santa Barbara’s public relations machine has kicked into high gear to defend the university’s proposed Munger Hall dormitory, issuing a statement Thursday that highlights the anticipated benefits of the controversial, hyper-dense building concept while at the same time acknowledging its small, windowless bedrooms “may not be right for everyone.” Designer and backer Charlie Munger also rebuffed intense criticism leveled at him by architects across the country, calling detractors “idiots” and claiming in an interview with Architectural Record this week that those who actually study his models “go ape-shit for them.” 

The drawbacks of living in a 10-foot-by-7-foot space without a window would be offset by an attraction to the dorm’s large rec rooms and study halls as well as on-site amenities, such as a market, bakery, and fitness center, Munger told the magazine, explaining, “It’s all about the happiness of the students. We want to keep the suicide rate low.” 

Charlie Munger has derided his critics as “idiots.” | Credit: Courtesy

Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s billionaire vice chair who is partially blind and has described architecture as “a kind of hobby,” said he simply doesn’t see the problem with windowless single-occupancy bedrooms. “It’s quite endurable, especially with good ventilation,” the 97-year-old insisted. “Nobody minds going into a basement restroom and peeing because there’s no window.” Munger is donating $200 million toward the estimated $1.5 billion project on the condition his plans are followed precisely. He worked with VTBS Architects out of Santa Monica to draft the blueprints. An opening date is tentatively scheduled for 2025.

UCSB’s statement, printed as a Q&A with former vice chancellor and project leader Gene Lucas, says Munger Hall ― which would house 4,500 undergraduates on a far edge of campus and at 1.68 million square feet would qualify as the largest dormitory in the world ― was envisioned “for those students who want the experience of communal and co-living, but also want the privacy of a single bedroom.” Those not enticed by the idea could live at the university’s other residence halls or in off-campus apartments, it reads. Critics point out, however, that many students will have no choice but to reside at Munger Hall, given the school’s acute housing shortage and the record-low availability of off-campus options in Isla Vista and other nearby communities.

The bedrooms without windows ― approximately 94 percent of the units ― would feature “virtual windows” with a “fully programmed circadian rhythm control system to substantially reflect the lighting levels and color temperature of natural light throughout the day,” the statement goes on. The concept was inspired by artificial portholes in the cabins of Disney cruise ships. Fresh air would be pumped in by a powerful ventilation system, and natural light would be available in common areas and kitchens. “We anticipate that when not in class, at the library, or participating in campus activities, students will spend most of their daylight hours in these common areas rather than in sleeping areas,” the Q&A says.

In response to initial descriptions by opponents that the 11-story building would have only two entrances and exits, UCSB clarified Munger Hall would in fact feature 15 smaller access points around its perimeter. “Exits and exit stairs are designed to meet and exceed fire, life, safety and building code requirements to ensure safe and quick egress from the building,” the university said. “Additionally, mass motion computer models of different emergency scenarios have been run to ensure exit times from the building during emergency exit conditions are acceptable.” 

Munger Hall attracted national attention this week ― inspiring articles and op-eds in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, VICE, Slate, and USA Today as well as news segments on NBC and CNN ― after the Santa Barbara Independent reported one of its consulting architects had resigned in protest over the dorm’s massive size, lack of windows, and extreme density. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New Yorker, called the plans “a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory.” 

In a separate interview with CBS MarketWatch, Munger again shrugged off the controversy, suggesting the pushback was based not on his design’s alleged shortcomings but on his vast wealth. “You’ve got to get used to the fact that billionaires aren’t the most popular people in our society,” he said. “I’d rather be a billionaire and not be loved by everybody than not have any money.” Munger previously donated $65 million to UCSB to develop a roomy residence hall for visiting physics scholars and gifted the university the 1,800-acre Las Varas Ranch. 

Each residential floor is divided by a single interior corridor branched by smaller hallways. | Credit: Courtesy

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Also this week, a group of six architecture history professors at UCSB created a petition to stop Munger Hall from moving forward. Like other experts who have spoken out, the group took exception with the dorm’s “small, windowless cells” and complained no research had been presented on the potential psychological effects such a “radical” design would have on its inhabitants. The petition ― which has garnered more than 1,700 signatures, including those of noted architecture historians throughout the U.S. ― also challenges favorable comparisons made by UCSB between the dormitory and another of Munger’s mostly windowless designs, the Munger Graduate Residences at the University of Michigan.

“The two buildings are very different,” the faculty group stated. “Munger Hall at Michigan is for graduate students, is less than one-quarter the size (380,000 sq. ft. versus 1,680,000 sq. ft.), and offers roughly one bathroom for every bedroom, whereas the behemoth planned for UCSB undergraduates offers just two bathrooms for every eight bedrooms. (And the artificial windows are just as unpopular at the Michigan dorm as one might expect.)”

In an interview, Richard Wittman ― one of the petition’s authors who studied at Yale and Columbia and is currently an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture ― said there might be some validity to certain details of Munger’s concept, at least in theory. “Maybe,“ he said. “But let’s test it first. Let’s see some data.” As it stands now, the project is essentially a $1.5 billion experiment without precedent. “If this was any other project, you’d be laughed out of the room for proposing something on this scale with no research,” he said. Wittman also called out UCSB’s public affairs department, which has lauded Munger’s “sweeping” and “stunning” vision, for sounding at times “like the official organ of a totalitarian state.”

Wittman and his colleagues were quick to note that their opposition to Munger Hall shouldn’t be interpreted as a denial of the severity of UCSB and Santa Barbara’s housing crisis. “That crisis, however, is in significant measure a result of UCSB’s own failure to fulfill the housing construction promises it made in its 2010 Long Range Development Plan,” they said. The proposal smacks of a “deus ex machina scheme that aims to accomplish in one building what the university has neglected to do over the previous 12 years.”

This Friday, the Santa Barbara chapter of The American Institute of Architects articulated its own opposition in a letter to Chancellor Henry Yang, who has similarly described Munger’s plans as “inspired and revolutionary.” “As architects,” the letter reads, “it is our responsibility to positively design the built environment in ways that support the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants, respect the natural environment, and enhance the community at large.” The chapter believes “unequivocally” that Munger Hall does not meet any of those standards and that there is “no justifiable reason to proceed with the project as proposed.”

Meanwhile, Tommy Young, a fourth-year UCSB undergrad double majoring in economics and geography, has created his own petition against the dorm that has attracted nearly 10,000 signatures. Young said he was inspired to do so when he learned Munger’s designs had already received UCSB’s stamp of approval but with no public review. “I really just want community voices to be heard on this,” he said. “Students, alumni, parents, prospective students ― they should all have a say. They should all have input.”

Young was especially disgusted by Munger’s deflection that critics are simply preoccupied with his wealth. “It’s disingenuous,” he said. “No, people aren’t mad because you’re rich. People are mad because you’re forcing a design down their throats they don’t agree with, and you’re not willing to budge.”

Young noted few ― if any ― people outside UCSB and Munger’s camp are in favor of the project. “You’re not seeing any petitions pushing for approval,” he said. He also questioned Munger’s prediction that tiny bedrooms would lure students into bigger common areas. Young’s own residence hall has small rooms, he said, and its communal spaces are still dead zones. “UCSB needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.” 

While UCSB has approved Munger’s plan, it must still be vetted by the California Coastal Commission and the UC Board of Regents, where there will be opportunities for public comment. “I hope the administration listens,” Young said. “But who knows.”

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