After billionaire designs dormitory, architect quits in protest


“Absolutely breathtaking” is how the University of California, Santa Barbara described the plans for Munger Hall, an imposing residence for more than 4,500 students designed by Charles T. Munger, billionaire and Berkshire Hathaway executive.

But Dennis McFadden, an architect who served as a consultant to the university’s design review committee, disagreed. On October 24, in a scathing letter to the committee chairs, he announced his resignation following the university’s decision to approve a project which he compared to “a social and psychological experiment.”

He said he was “bothered” by a design that would lock students into a 1.7 million square foot, 11 story building and live the vast majority of them in small, windowless rooms, “entirely dependent on artificial light and mechanical ventilation. “

“In the nearly fifteen years that I have served as a consulting architect in the DRC, no project has come before the committee that is larger, more transformational, and potentially more destructive to the campus as a place. than Munger Hall, ”he wrote in the letter. “The basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unbearable from my perspective as an architect, parent and human being. “

Mr McFadden’s resignation follows an Oct. 5 committee meeting on design, which the university adopted because it faces a housing shortage so severe that students have had to be placed in hotels. On its website, the university said Munger Hall would create “better and more affordable” housing “with flourish and style.”

In a statement, Andrea Estrada, spokesperson for the university, said the design and project were progressing “as planned”.

Ms Estrada said the plan was a collaboration between the university, Mr Munger and the architects at VTBS Architects, and that it would reduce the number of students who would have to live off campus.

She said the project was in line with how the university generally develops its housing projects, “with the aim of providing affordable housing on campus that minimizes energy consumption.”

Ms. Estrada did not respond to Mr. McFadden’s specific concerns.

“We are grateful for Mr. McFadden’s contributions and insights during his tenure as a consultant,” she said.

In an interview, Mr Munger, 97, ignored the criticisms and said he only saw them as typical criticisms of architects.

“I’m not at all surprised that someone looked at him and said, ‘What’s going on here?'” He said on Friday. “What is happening here is that it will work better than any other practical alternative.”

Mr Munger, who is not a licensed architect, said he worked with licensed architects for the project.

The design is similar to the dorms he helped design at the University of Michigan, where units are also windowless and students have their own bedrooms.

Unlike these residences, he said, the Santa Barbara dorms would have “virtual windows”; students would have a button to allow them to manipulate the amount of artificial light to be allowed into their rooms in order to mimic day or evening.

Artificial windows that rely on LED lights to replicate natural light have been used in enclosed spaces, small apartments and basements.

“If you want it romantic and dark, you can make it romantic and dark,” Mr. Munger said. “When in your life have you been able to change the sun? In this dorm, you can.

He added: “It’s a pretty cheerful place, those little rooms.”

The idea of ​​virtual windows was inspired by the artificial windows of the cabins of Disney cruise ships, he said. “Except mine are better,” Mr. Munger said.

Other parts of the building, mainly common areas such as the gymnasium, a multipurpose room and a study lounge, would have windows facing the outside.

In his letter, Mr. McFadden said that indoor environments with access to natural light and nature improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

“Munger Hall ignores this evidence and seems to consider it unimportant,” he said. The project’s “unprecedented” density and scale are also at odds with the character of the campus, which overlooks the Pacific coast, McFadden wrote.

Mr. McFadden, design director at LEO A DALY, a design firm, declined to comment. He confirmed that he wrote the letter announcing his resignation, but said it was leaked and was not intended to be made public.

Architecture critics and students seemed to agree with Mr. McFadden.

A student said he opposed the project because of its height and lack of windows, according to a transcript of public comments that were gathered at a July meeting on the proposal.

“Young people don’t always smell good,” he wrote. “Fresh air is INCREDIBLY important to students.”

Another student compared the rooms to “solitary confinement” units.

“You are asking students to suffer from depression and self-harm,” the student wrote. “Strongly reconsider this whole plan. “

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, said the concept showed “how far the UCSB has fallen since the days when it had architects like Charles Moore.”

“This design is a grotesque and sick joke – a prison disguised as a dormitory”, he said on Twitter, in connection with a story from The Santa Barbara Independent on design. “No, the design does not belong to billionaire donors.”

Munger Hall is expected to cost over $ 1 billion and will be funded in part by Mr. Munger. Its opening is scheduled for 2025.

In his letter, Mr. McFadden said it became clear to him after the October 5 meeting that the university was not interested in the committee’s contribution.

“The design has been described as 100 percent complete, approval has not been sought, no votes have been taken and no further submissions are planned or required,” he said.

Mr Munger, a longtime friend and business partner of Warren Buffett, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, said he had consulted with several chartered architects and other professionals.

Mr. McFadden “may not have been consulted, but many other people have been,” said Mr. Munger. “It’s not something that is done by a weirdo in a room all by himself.”

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