I presume by now you’ve heard about “Dormzilla,” the mega-dorm with the windowless rooms designed by 97-year-old billionaire Charles Munger for the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The controversy over the 4,500-room would-be residence hall is that unusual architecture story that crosses over from the quaint confines of design discourse into the greater public imagination. Alas, these stories always seem to be negative — e.g. the Surfside tower collapse in Miami, or the endless Museum Tower death ray saga in Dallas — which speaks to the degree architecture is taken for granted, despite its pervasive impact on our daily existence.
So be it. At least these dramas are an opportunity to think about how we might build better, and we can certainly do a lot better than Munger’s Folly, an 11-story, 1.67-million-square-foot structure with a price tag in the vicinity of $1.5 billion.
The Munger Hall kerfuffle achieved viral status at the end of October, after The Independent of Santa Barbara reported that Dennis McFadden, a member of UCSB’s design review committee, had resigned in protest over the project, calling it “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being.”
I’m not quite sure what is more odious about the project, the design itself, or the obscene conditions by which it was commissioned. Munger, an architectural amateur who achieved wealth as a Berkshire Hathaway executive and partner of Warren Buffett, offered the school $200 million toward the construction of the project, but if — and only if — it accepted his design. It is not the first time he has insisted on such an arrangement: Munger dorms have been built at both the University of Michigan and Stanford.
The UCSB project has achieved so much more notoriety than those previous examples because it eclipses them in scale by several orders of magnitude. It is a gargantuan thing, an immense block with nine identical floors of dorm rooms, each arranged in pods of eight single-occupancy rooms flanking a common space. Meeting spaces, lounges, a gym, and other communal spaces do have windows, but the dorms do not. Instead they come with adjustable LED panels that, theoretically, mimic the effect of natural light.
“When in your life have you been able to change the sun? In this dorm, you can,” Munger told The New York Times, which picked up the story after it caught fire online.
Like many foolish endeavors, it is the product of good intentions gone woefully awry. Munger’s proposition is that the small, windowless rooms will push students out into common areas, fostering community and collaboration. The uniformity of the design — in plan, it is terrifying in its cut-and-paste repetition — would allow for cost-saving prefabrication.
Despite its progressive intentions, and the university’s claims that the dorm was created “with flourish and elegance,” aesthetically it is lacking in any creative ambition, and deadening in a bulky conservatism that flouts the principles of classical design.
McFadden, for his part, called it “a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves.”
In the age of COVID, a lack of natural ventilation seems particularly foolish, aside from the other hazards imposed by windowless design — fire safety, the cumulative odor of 4,500 college students — not to mention the dubious morality of treating students as unwitting lab rats. Munger’s contention that the rooms would be “pretty cheerful” is belied by the entire premise of the design, that being to encourage students to leave them.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “Even penitentiary architecture allows for windows, albeit small and mean,” says architect Frank Barkow, a partner in the firm Barkow Leibinger, which recently completed a model residential complex, named for Sid Richardson, at Houston’s Rice University. McFadden’s resignation, according to Barkow, “rightly points out the ethics and inhumanity of this latest form of dilettantism.”
Inevitably, there has been a backlash to the online backlash, spurred by proponents of urban density for whom that quality is the overriding and all-encompassing objective. “It is time not to just build this dorm but to build this dorm nearly everywhere,” Choire Sicha wrote in a column for New York magazine.
I’m a proponent of dense communities that are environmentally resilient, but humans are not ants, even if the wealthiest among us have a tendency to treat the public as such.
Which, in the end, is the ultimate problem with this design; the idea that through the sheer power of their purse, the richest can impose their own prerogatives on the rest of us, however foolhardy those prerogatives might be.
This is, in many ways, the history of Dallas, a city in which an elite business class has exercised an outsized control over government policy and civic affairs.
The Vegas-style fountain to be placed at the foot of Klyde Warren Park is a product of just this kind of patronage, in which an inappropriate design project is imposed on the public with virtually no accountability.
“This is not something that’s done by a nutcase in a room by himself,” Munger told The Times, by way of defense. That, sadly, is true, and it is a fact that makes it all the more disappointing.