UCSB, Munger Respond to Avalanche of Backlash over Dormzilla

This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.

By Tyler Hayden of The Independent

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 TimesThe Los Angeles TimesVICESlate, 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

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.”

Find all of our Munger Dorm stories at independent.com/munger-dorm.

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Written by Tyler Hayden

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  1. This Munger guy sounds to be a narcissist. Narcissist care nothing for others. Only for themselves and their ‘reputation.’ It would be sad to see so many lives at stake and quality of life negatively impacted all because one narcissist has given some money and told everyone how to design his building with no changes. What an arrogance, self centered, very concerning stance and I am shocked the rest of the university is allowing this very sick situation to go forward. Deeply, deeply concerning and wrong. What is wrong with them?

  2. Search “Disney Magical Porthole”. Plenty of videos showing what it actually looks like, and how it can be programmed. Pretty impressive considering it also offer “live views” exactly like you would get from a closed window, which already is pretty standard in most climate-controlled buildings. Few hotels offer windows that still open. This is not an off the wall feature after all – but it is in fact very creative response to the ongoing needs for additional student housing. . Housing 5000 students on campus, basically from a free gift needs more consideration; not instant mocking dismissal. After seeing how these “Magical Window” look and feel, I will say thank you Mr Munger. You touch a hot button- from those who loudly demand free things, but only on their terms. And no, students will not be forced to watch Dumbo fly by or even the Littlest Mermaid wink at them. Even though this makes Magical Windows a big hit on Disney ships. I can only imagine how thrilled those who choose to stay in Antarctica for the long winter nights would react, if a gift of Magical Windows were made to them.

  3. What a fine example of greed and being out of touch as a function of that greed. My guess is that since he’s so wealthy he has never had to live in his Stanford Prison Experiment type quarters.
    The fact that UCSB is even considering this should be evidence enough that they are the educational equivalent of a puppy mill. Garbage in, garbage out.
    I have said it for years growing up in this area, the UC system and its standards and protocols are the guiding light into a land known as idiocracy. The product they produce is becoming more and more suspect every year. Their standards have become antiquated and their ethics are now questionable.
    If this hellish psychology experiment is allowed to go through it will only be proof that the “round them up, herd them in, fleece them , spit them out” model is the standard they go by.
    This is a BAD project designed by a HORRIBLE individual to cater a FAILING system. Nip it in the bud, put an end to this nightmare. California Coastal Commission, if you allow this monstrosity to go through it will only serve as proof the UC system has you in their pocket.

  4. Any mention of what these Munger Hall rooms would cost students per month? UC Davis is putting in a similar large student housing complex – 4000 students in private or semiprivate ensuite rooms with one window. Various options for solo, 2-3-4 group apartments ranging around $1300 a month. Or share a bed (or put in bunk beds) in the same room and split the costs – around $700 a person. Pretty ugly buildings and rows of them, to reach their full 4000 capacity in former farm land across the highway from the campus, but with an enhanced bike path. Westside Village at UC Davis. But you do get a window. Whether it is operable or not is hard to tell from the schematics.

  5. UCSB has a legal obligation to build student housing our their dime. Munger added $20 million free dollars to this current public taxpayer obligation. Was there the same string of personal insults directed at Munger when he gave us Las Veras Ranch property “for free”. Or the Institute of Theoretical Physics residential structure “for free”? He introduced a novel concept and one that does have application in other quasi residential settings (cruise ship cabins). Let’s survey passengers and get their responses. I am a huge fan of fresh air and always want to open windows in hotel rooms. I hated an inside ship cabin once for 60 days, but since most of the time was spent sleeping or changing clothes, it was something that one adapted to in very short order. I think this was an earnest offer. Size bulk and scale is wholly out of proportion along with building style elements. But it is a creative response to the continual cries we have a “housing crisis” and we must exploit all available land in response and not allow the use of cars to get to requisite destination. Put all those demands into one box, and dormzilla is what you get. Demanding UCSB reduces enrollments to match carrying capacity is the other route to take; but since they can’t or won’t, then this was an inspired midpoint solution to put on the table. Call for all other design options that house 5000 students on campus is another worthy consideration, waiting to happen. Okay AIA, show us your best efforts – put 5000 students on campus with windows that open.

  6. Sorry to be Debby Downer, but such a building would be a prime terrorist target. Truck bomb in the entrance, jet aircraft in the side, toxic chem and smoke in the HVAC air intake, etc. 4,500 students in one building at 3am makes Oklahoma City look mild by comparison.

  7. These are not “living quarters” they are private sleeping quarters in a large student dormitory. building. Pretending they are full apartments with all amenities is the wrong starting premise. The “living quarters” are elsewhere in the building, with windows. Study areas are also provided. The design does force one to sort out what are reasonable and realistic student accommodation expectations when trying to respond to housing for 5000 students — at what price per student? That alone could make or break the eventual acceptance of this novel design approach. Will these “living space” compromises make these units cheaper than other student accommodations or market rentals? Surprised this cost point was not part of the presentation.

  8. “It’s all about the happiness of the students. We want to keep the suicide rate low.” – what about the introverts or people with anxiety who don’t like to or even find it extremely stressful to go out and mingle? Just ignore their mental heath and lock them up? Disgusting.

  9. SBTOWNIE – sure, individual rooms are great, if they have windows! I couldn’t imagine anything worse than feeling like you have to stay in your room and having no window to look out of. It’s just an awful, horrible design.

  10. PIT – it is not up to the architect/designer to tell young adults how to live their lives. If someone prefers relaxing/reading/being in their room, alone, who are you to force them to “mingle?” This isn’t a cruise ship, it’s “home” for a year for thousands of young adults, some of whom might not want to “mingle.” Stop forcing your beliefs on others.

  11. Sac, so they can continue to live 5 to a room in IV if the idea of a windowless room makes them suicidal. An energy efficient building concept that works in other places is not the worst thing in the world.
    I just remember what the climate change scientist said, that the level of sacrifice we will have to make to actually reverse climate change is unimaginable to most people. Definitely far beyond the imagination of most people here.

  12. The more I see the challenges faced housing 5000 students on campus and seeing ugly, sprawling responses on other UC Campuses, the more appealing this large dormitory building is looking. What will rooms be renting for?

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