Billionaire Charlie Munger designed Munger Hall
courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara Billionaire Charlie Munger designed Munger Hall

Rarely does a single building proposal raise as many questions that go to the root of how architecture defines itself, as a discipline and a profession, as do the proposed plans for the 4,500-person mega-dorm “designed” by Charlie Munger—billionaire vice chairman of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway—for the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Do we need windows in all habitable rooms, as many architects assume? Do we, as humans, need those views? Should designers, whatever their qualifications, be as explicit in their social engineering as this dorm is, which justifies thousands of rooms without windows by arguing for forced socialization?

Should a building be this big—especially if it consumes nonrenewable resources—and should it be this big on prime real estate in California’s coastal area? Does something this big have to be ugly? Should we treat students as lowest-denominator clients or as prospective talent to attract?

Contrary to what some people have claimed, it meets all current codes (even the windowless bedrooms). Munger could hand this project in for his licensing exam and pass with flying colors. That in and of itself is scary.

Finally, should somebody with essentially unlimited money be allowed to circumvent the architecture licensing procedure de facto, if not in fact, and boast about his ability to do so?

I will leave the actual details of how and why the dorm’s design came about, and whether it will be built, to some of the reporters who have covered this story, including Fred Bernstein, whose excellent interview with the donor in Architectural Record has become the—often unacknowledged—basis of much other work.

In brief: Munger has offered UCSB more than $200 million to build this dorm to his designs, which will cost an estimated $1.2 billion. The structure is a giant block in which almost none of the rooms have windows. Despite fervent opposition, including the resignation of a consultant, the distinguished architect Dennis McFadden, FAIA, from UCSB’s own design review committee, the dorm has been fully approved through the university’s Long Range Development Plan and will start construction soon.

A single-occupancy bedroom in Munger Hall
courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara A single-occupancy bedroom in Munger Hall

First, there is nothing illogical or illegal about the building. Contrary to what some people have claimed, it meets all current codes (even the windowless bedrooms). Munger could hand this project in for his Architect Registration Examination and pass with flying colors. That in and of itself is scary: If somebody with no training can not only brag that he has bested Le Corbusier (as Munger does in the Bernstein interview) but can produce something that the profession, by its own standards, cannot find fault with, what does it say about the profession’s standards?

I think it says that architecture licensure is based on risk avoidance and service, and not on the pursuit of excellence or even the guarantee of a good building.

But, what about that design? Let’s start with the Munger dorm’s most salient characteristic: The lack of windows, disguised with electrically illuminated panels, made necessary either by the building's size and the drive for cost control or, as its donor-designer claims, by the desire to get students out of their rooms and into the equally windowless “living room” areas and, beyond that, engaged in campus life. Can people live without windows? Of course, we can—tens of thousands of prisoners do so every day. Moreover, many of us work in windowless spaces, and I suspect many UCSB students spend a fair amount of time in fluorescent-lit classrooms similarly devoid of natural light and views.

A suite in one of the dorm's 'houses'
courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara A suite in one of the dorm's 'houses'

Should a student live in such a manner if the bedroom is just a place to sleep? Certainly, many architects, including Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, have wondered why we do not reduce bedrooms to machines for sleeping and spend our resources on social spaces instead. But is this realistic? I don’t think so. It is exactly the ability to connect one’s most private sphere to a larger social environment, both through perspective (views) and environments, that make the bedroom more than a place to be with your eyes shut. The current trend toward ever more luxurious and large college bedrooms, however, raises questions in other directions—do we want college dorms to be versions of the suburban home?—but the alternative is not a windowless cell. We all need and deserve windows.

This is especially important if we understand the college experience as the model or staging ground for future community in the manner the American campus has traditionally provided. The building up of a social experience through the building blocks of bedrooms, dorm suites, entry halls or floors, dorms, quads, and campuses is precisely what provides an alternate model for how our residential and commercial spaces could be arranged. These spaces should be stages on which we live as the critical actors in our society that we all deserve to be.

The current trend towards ever more luxurious and larger college bedrooms raises questions in other directions, but the alternative is not a windowless cell. We all need and deserve windows.

It is ironic that not only will construction of Munger Hall necessitate the demolition of a number of low-density dormitories that provided those benefits in spades, thus already wasting resources; and that the spectacular site sits a promontory between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon. One of the great things about the UCSB campus is the manner in which students can have a direct relationship with a larger landscape, although the isolation of the campus next to a very high-priced community removes many chances for relations with a larger human-made landscape. Munger Hall is not a building that represents the “genius loci.”

All those good aspects of this and other campuses, as well as the intricacy of the traditional dorm, are inefficient and expensive: Building structures with windows, let alone character, and then organizing them into campuses whose layout, including courtyards and other public spaces, bring together students, faculty, and staff costs money. That is the main justification for “dormzilla.” Putting 4,500 students together in a single building is certainly a compact use of resources, even if its construction starts with dumpsters full of rubble from torn-down structures. The university needs more housing and does not have enough money to build it. If building the Munger dorm were to mean that UCSB was made more accessible for a broader range of students, would that justify the compromise of the design? No, for the same reason that poorly built high-rises as storage systems for the poor have only exacerbated social divisions. Treating students like prisoners does not exactly welcome them into the possibilities that the academic system is supposed to unlock; rather, it communicates that they only deserve what we have deigned to give them.

The recreation room in Munger Hall
courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara The recreation room in Munger Hall

Finally, and perhaps trivially, there is the pure ugliness of the building. At its scale, it would be difficult to be anything else, but the dusting of vaguely Spanish Colonial detailing strewn around the structure, the utter repetitiveness of the spaces, and the meanness of materials implied by the renderings are horrifying. Munger Hall is every Type 3 repository of living crammed into stucco-clad boxes towering over neighborhoods of single-family homes that have infested all our cities, but blown to a gigantic and ominous scale. This is your future, UCSB kids—not an openness and awareness to complex human relations building a community; not a sustainable relationship to the landscape; not anything open or complex at all. Just storage in residential warehouses.

The problem is that despite these arguments, there is the fact that, as large as the building is, it is indeed the most efficient way to create a college dorm. That very fact raises the biggest question of all: How can we as a society and a discipline justify anything more than such bare minima as offering something more than luxury? In other words, how can we build a persuasive case that the values and standards I outlined above are worth investing in? Obviously, the profession has not done a good enough job in that respect—even if the local AIA has condemned the building—and the final failure of Munger Hall is that the institution's board of governors, facing a large donation with no offsetting public funding for an alternative, had no choice but to accept the design and the money.

Munger Hall is an abomination. I can only hope that other universities will continue to understand the need to invest in human-scaled, human-oriented, and community-building campuses that will help students learn to become part of an open, sustainable, and beautiful world, and that the discipline will learn from this case to do a better job defining and communicating the true worth of architecture.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.