The design of a billionaire donor for a mega-dorm that would house UC Santa Barbara students in mostly windowless rooms has sparked widespread criticism and prompted the resignation of a consulting architect.
Munger Hall, named after donor Charlie Munger, would house 4,500 students in a 1.68 million-square-foot complex with only two entrances. The total cost of the project is expected to be $1.5 billion.
The building’s living spaces would be divided into apartments of eight single occupancy bedrooms, 94 percent of which would be windowless.
As a result of the plan, architect Dennis McFadden resigned from UC Santa Barbara’s design review committee, where he had served for nearly 15 years. McFadden described the project as a “social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development” of students in an Oct. 24 resignation letter to the committee that was leaked on the image sharing site Imgur.
“From my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being,” McFadden wrote, “the basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unsupportable.”
McFadden also expressed concerns in the letter about the project’s lack of committee input and Munger’s influence over the building’s design.
Munger, 97, donated $200 million to the project in 2016, specifying that he would only fund the residence if it was built to his specifications. In 2016, he told the UC Board of Regents that, instead of windows, dorm rooms would have artificial “window” monitors, similar to the portholes on Disney cruise ships, where “starfish come in and wink at your children.”
According to a California Environmental Quality Act report, the building would also include recreation areas, a full-service restaurant, and a space to store 570 surfboards.
Munger dismissed criticism about the amount of sway billionaires have over projects like the mega-dorm, telling MarketWatch that he’d “rather be a billionaire and not be loved by everyone than not have any money.”
Despite the criticism, UC Santa Barbara intends to proceed with the planned building.
Munger Hall was described as “transformational co-living student housing” by University spokesperson Andrea Estrada in a statement.
“It is intended to build community, encourage peer-to-peer interaction, promote engagement and relationship building, foster a learning and support environment, and provide necessary resources and amenities to support a 24/7 on-campus living experience,” Estrada explained.
He compared living in each apartment to “living in a janitor’s closet buried at the center of an Ikea warehouse, with the closest window somewhere back at the entrance.” Concerns that the lack of ventilation will jeopardize Covid safety in the building were dismissed by Estrada, who clarified that “there is no recirculation of air between student rooms” because each bedroom will be “provided with continuous fresh air supply,” with exhaust air vented directly outside.
“One could argue that this may improve air quality because it eliminates the need for a student to open the window for fresh air,” she said.
The plans horrified social media users. Some compared the potential living conditions to guard quarters in the dystopian Netflix thriller “Squid Game,” which are similarly windowless. Others compared the claustrophobic plan for the dorm rooms to prison cells.
Estrada referred to critical assessments of the project as “mischaracterizations,” noting that the building’s evacuation plans meet fire and building code requirements. She explained that the mix of single occupancy bedrooms and communal spaces is intended to provide students with a balance of privacy and social opportunity.
“He has been working on these ideas and other student housing projects for many years,” Estrada said.
Munger, who does not hold an architecture license, previously designed and funded the Munger Graduate Residence Hall at the University of Michigan, which houses over 600 students.
Each apartment of six to seven single bedrooms, like the proposed Munger Hall, is devoid of windows. One University of Michigan alumnus recounted their experience in the windowless dorm on the UC Santa Barbara subreddit, warning future students about how difficult it was to wake up without natural light.
The “benefits” of Munger’s approach to student housing, according to Estrada, are “legion.”