Being really rich is awesome, and not enough really rich people do nutty things like create an island park or leave their money to dogs or fund college dorms on the condition they get to design them.
Today, many people were horrified to learn of the hobbies of Charles Munger, a man rich in both ambition and in money. The University of California, Santa Barbara, accepted a $200 million gift from him in exchange for allowing him to design Munger Hall, which provides housing for thousands of students, resulting in a dorm design so abhorrent to unwealthy, unvisionary people that an architect on the school’s design review committee quit and the whole internet has lost its lunch.
It took Munger—who is worth more than $2 billion, owing to several decades spent as Warren Buffett’s right-hand man—a year and a half to come up with this configuration, he has said. The secret is that the dorm has compact, windowless rooms. Esteemed architecture man Paul Goldberger described the design as “a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory.” Also, apparently there is one shared toilet per eight bedrooms? Yikes.
Not to be someone who actuallys Paul Goldberger, but prisons, as high-surveillance territories, tend to open onto long corridors and also have windows. Take a look at Sing Sing or other classic American penitentiaries, for instance. Munger instead describes its inspiration as nautical — “ship architecture on land.” He even designed portholes for the rooms, he told The Wall Street Journal back in 2019, except they’re just … lights.
This means that there’s almost no way this meets fire code. That means it’s entirely possible, and exciting, that along the way our hero will re-create that staple of New York City architecture, the “air shaft.”
The Santa Barbara Independent has been riding this Munger story for ages, having dubbed the project Dormzilla in part because of its absolutely stupid-outrageous $1.5 billion price tag, needling the school’s communications team as they desperately fight to sell the dorm design to the public. UCSB — a huge school with an enrollment of 25,000 — is required to build more housing, even as it builds more teaching facilities. Santa Barbara has a serious housing shortage, to which the school contributes by not creating agreed-upon housing to keep up with the growth of its staff and student population.
Dormzilla was bizarre, everyone thought, even in the age of college’s capture by donors, until they found that the Journal had already done all the homework on Buffett’s buddy. The non-architect’s other, smaller work includes a graduate residence at the University of Michigan, which also largely eschewed windows. Its plan also groups people into little colonies — but in this instance, each bedroom has its own bathroom. So, really, it’s more hospital than prison. It is also extremely ugly, and every aesthetic decision made there, from the showerheads to the countertops to the paint, is disgusting. The Munger Graduate Residence at Stanford is also comparatively luxurious — every apartment unit there has a bathroom “for each student.”
Since we all know what this unbuilt UCSB dorm is going to smell like, together we can pray that the HVAC is absolutely top notch and that someone makes them put in a bunch more bathrooms and maybe some windows so you can get out during a fire. With that done — and maybe hire someone with taste for color palettes and fixtures and the like? — it turns out that … Dormzilla is great.
It is time not to just to build this dorm but to build this dorm nearly everywhere, from the housing-hate mean streets of San Francisco to Downtown Los Angeles to the stupid suburbs of Westchester. Mint the coin, build the hive, let’s save the future.
1. The proposal has no car parking — none, zero, zilch accommodation for cars. But it does have parking for thousands of bikes. This dorm already outperforms 98 percent of all American housing. I will live in this dorm.
2. Single-occupancy rooms for sleeping provide privacy and safety that aren’t present in many college campuses. UCSB has many triple rooms; one of their undergraduate housing standards calls for two double rooms sharing one bathroom. Sharing bedrooms with strangers is sometimes hilarious but mostly is disgusting and bad. What are we, Europe?
3. The project has enormous social, education, and recreation spaces because it steals footage from private spaces that go unused all day.
4. Dormzilla devalues empty and single-use spaces in general. “All the classrooms and everything are totally vacant except when the classes are there, which is massively stupid,” Munger said about his thinking and why he makes larger spaces modular and reusable.
5. Build housing. Like, basically, that’s it. There’s a million reasons why people won’t create more apartments. “These windows are actually just plexiglass with a full-spectrum light behind it” is just another excuse to not build housing. You millennials want to buy condos with your avocado toast money? We’re going to need to build those.
6. Architecture may be an art and a science — also maybe mostly a zoning and regulations management practice — but, as we’ve seen from the history of the past 40 years, architects aren’t getting more and more sane housing built. We should seize architecture from the architects. More amateurs should design housing if they can get it built! “Something like laying out a bunch of shapes on a piece of ground, that’s not rocket science,” Munger told the WSJ not long ago. This is all very true. But at least architects are required to design their work in a way that acknowledges that everybody poops.