Billionaire Seeks to Build Largely Windowless Dorm In ‘Social and Psychological Experiment’

An architect on the review committee resigned in protest, calling it “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
October 29, 2021, 3:13pm
Munger Hall
Credit: University of California Santa Barbara

The University of California, Santa Barbara is preparing to spend $1.5 billion on a new 4,500-person student dorm designed by a billionaire mega-donor whose layout so closely resembles that of a prison a consulting architect resigned in protest, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. The architect likened it to a “social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves” in his resignation letter.

Advertisement

The building in question is the planned Munger Hall on the university’s beachside campus, which the university’s website says “will fulfill visions for both UC Santa Barbara and the donor, Charles Munger,” a billionaire investor often described as Warren Buffet’s “right-hand man.” Munger has also financed the construction of graduate residences on the University of Michigan and Stanford campuses fashioned on his architectural ideas to promote collaboration and bonhomie. While the Stanford residences are essentially normal apartments, the Michigan hall resembles its UCSB sibling in that “most bedrooms don't have windows,” according to VeryApt.com.

Do you have any information on Munger Hall or Charles Munger’s other architectural work? Contact Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

The vision Munger Hall is fulfilling is alternately described two ways, depending on who is doing the talking. The universities that take his money—on condition they use it to build his designs to his exacting specifications, as he reportedly considers himself an amateur architect—describe such projects as having “A focus on providing ample interactive spaces for students” and “Minimizing costs by maximizing the number of beds on a given site, employing the concept of repeatability…” 

Advertisement

But, it seems, when most people hear about this design, they think of one word: Prisons.

Floor Plan

Proposed floor plan of Munger Hall. Credit: UCSB

According to the Independent, 94 percent of dorm rooms in Munger Hall will be tiny, windowless pods that open onto a central common area. And it will stuff so many students into such a small space that Dennis McFadden, the architect who resigned from the university’s review committee, said in his resignation letter it “would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood on the planet, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh.” McFadden said the university had provided no justification for ignoring established research that natural light and views of the outdoors are vital to healthy living, except to say they were bound to Munger’s vision.

“The goal,” UCSB’s website states, “is to build a transformational prototype for world class student housing that attracts the best students.” Surely, a design that doesn’t immediately make everyone think of the word “prison” is not the best way to accomplish that goal.

Update: A previous version of the this article implied the University of Michigan Munger Residence bedrooms have windows. They do not. The article has been rephrased to make that clearer.