Dezeen Magazine

Munger Hall at UCLA Santa Barbara

"The Charlie Munger windowless dorm is the building of our moment"

The controversial Munger Hall at University of California Santa Barbara represents the university's capitulation to "the whims of old white men" and will lead to another Greta Thunberg moment, argues UCLA architecture professor and City Lab director Dana Cuff.

Architecture has the capacity to coalesce historical eras by reflecting society at a key moment in time, telling us the story of our shared existence. In 1981, an uproar sprang from the winning competition entry for the Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin, a young Asian woman still a graduate student.

In the early 1970s, the demolition of nearly 3,000 units of public housing at Pruitt-Igoe designed by Minoru Yamasaki symbolized the end of modernist utopian aspirations, and with them, the idea of warehousing poor families of color. One step further back, when public housing programs were advanced by the federal government in the 1930s and '40s, public debate raged. In each of these moments, social and political conditions reached a flashpoint that was clarified by architecture.

A building or monument mirrors back to architects and the general public an intelligible translation of swirling complexities otherwise hard to grasp. When that happens, the debate around the architecture is a debate about our shared existence. Alas, the Charlie Munger windowless dorm at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) is attracting so much attention because it is the building of our moment.

What was confusing or invisible now seems apparent, and what we see is surely not the world we want to live in but one we seem resigned to accept. Despite all our contemporary divisiveness, from political partisanship to architecture’s incoherent response to climate change and homelessness, the UCSB-Munger building is bringing us all back together. The real question is: in response, will we collectively rise up or give up?

Think of the UCSB-Munger solution as bringing steerage class and San Quentin to campus

The grossly scaled, concrete, semi-classically decorated, Costco-capped, 4,500-bed dormitory architecturally captures, all at once, the grim realities of our impoverished public sphere, the bloated powers of industry kings and the punishing inequities that face students even in the best public university in the nation.

Repercussions from California’s taxpayer revolt of 1978 mean only 8.3 per cent of the UC budget now comes from the state. In 2012, rising student tuition exceeded the state contribution for the first time in history. Even further cuts to the state budget are sending UC to look for revenues like out-of-state tuition, but also income from residential services, including dormitory rents.

So the university capitulates to the whims of old white men like Munger, the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire who promises $200 million toward the $1.5 billion estimated cost and dictates the architecture in which a full 20 per cent of undergraduate students' lives will be lived, with no guarantees of affordability. Small rooms, each holding a bed and desk, are organized around a common room, and none of these spaces has any natural light or ventilation.

Prisons and lower ship decks use exactly this model – think of the UCSB-Munger solution as bringing steerage class and San Quentin to campus. Maybe that’s unfair to the Department of Justice, which recommends natural light throughout their facilities.

The huge embodied carbon in its concrete construction is environmentally indefensible

On top of that, the 11-story windowless building goes against UC’s 2020 Sustainable Practices Policy. Without windows, the building requires electrification and mechanical systems where daylight and natural ventilation would have pleasurably sufficed, and the huge embodied carbon in its concrete construction is environmentally indefensible.

Even though the university will have to find the other $1.3 billion, it capitulated to Munger’s donation and to the further privatization of the world’s best public university system. We can see the results of industry titans evading taxes, and then "donating" far less than they owed in taxes to get the next write-off. We shouldn’t be too surprised when Munger offers to build a business school so long as he can shape the curriculum.

According to knowledgeable sources, the building is further developed than published schematic plans might imply, which is surprising given the apparent indifference to code requirements tied to bedrooms without windows and lack of required egress. For sleeping rooms that exit into another room rather than the outside, there must be a safe evacuation passage in case of fire or earthquake. To get to an exterior wall from inside UCSB-Munger, inevitably long corridors between cell blocks will be part of a life-safety system, generating the need for all that concrete and "communal spaces" overwhelmed by safety requirements.

Building code renders the common good through setting minimum standards to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, but that doesn’t absolve the architects, Van Tilburg Banvard and Soderbergh, or UCSB for that matter, from abandoning the intent of the code.

When I asked my students their opinion about the UCSB-Munger building, their sanguine reaction surprised me

As an architecture professor at University of California Los Angeles, and director of the design research center cityLAB, my students and I have been working for the past five years to understand student housing insecurity and come up with dignified, creative solutions. Nationwide, in 2020, 15 per cent of students at four-year colleges experienced homelessness and over 40 per cent had some kind of significant housing challenge.

When I asked my students their opinion about the UCSB-Munger building, their sanguine reaction surprised me but it shouldn’t have. Besides dorm rooms, students look for every avenue to affordably sleep near campus from overcrowded apartments to couch-surfing. Captive for four years, a housing crisis can generate a residential version of Stockholm Syndrome among students who rationalize unacceptable conditions.

After tuition, housing is the second largest expense for UC students so it is no wonder they have been advocating for the cheapest solution they can imagine: safe parking. Students consider the UCSB-Munger building in relation to available grim alternatives: better than a car or a sardine can.

We are facing another Greta Thunberg moment when youth will have to show the way forward

Our cityLAB studies found the most affordable housing available to students is living in a co-op, a group house where a few hours of weekly work serves to lower rents, or living at home often with crushing commutes. In response to commuter issues, cityLAB and UCLA created an on-campus lounge where these students can nap, study, or stay overnight for free.

This one small solution, along with a range of decent dormitories, co-ops, rooming houses, co-living arrangements, motel conversions, and even some safe parking would mirror students’ lives far more humanely than one giant concrete block.

But it looks like the grown-ups have lost their way: UCSB, Munger, VTBS Architects, have all abdicated their responsibility to the students as well as to the environment. Yet despite UCSB students living in vans, motel rooms, and on friends’ couches, the windowless dorm sparked a protest demanding humane housing solutions.

We are facing another Greta Thunberg moment when youth will have to show the way forward. It should be architecture students who envision creative new alternatives, along with UCSB students, students advocating for safe parking, students commuting hours each way to get an education, and all the others who are being offered lousy housing options. Remixing John Legend and Lennon, tomorrow’s starting now so if you’re out there: all together now.

The main image is courtesy of University of California Santa Barbara

Dana Cuff is director of cityLab and a professor at the Department of Architecture and Urban Design University of California, Los Angeles.