Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Kowloon Walled City. A gulag, a self-storage warehouse, a factory farm, and a prison ship. A human rights violation. Grad student offices.
Those were some of the colorful metaphors employed to describe Munger Hall, a planned dormitory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose designs went viral on Friday morning after an architect on the institution’s design review committee resigned in protest. “The building is a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves,” the committee member, Dennis McFadden, wrote of the building, a block with enough square footage to fit 1.5 Chrysler Buildings—or, in this case, 4,500 undergraduates in mostly windowless bedrooms.
To which the building’s designer, the 97-year-old investor Charles Munger, would probably say: “Yes, and?” Munger is the rare architect who pays his clients, rather than the other way around, which is the reason UCSB was eager to let him turn his AutoCAD dreams into reality: The billionaire Warren Buffett sidekick is contributing $200 million of the building’s $1.5 billion price tag.
In some ways, the project is totally anomalous: It would be one of the most populous residential buildings in the world, surpassing such icons of urbanity as Saõ Paulo’s Edifício Copan and New York City’s London Terrace. It will rise in a city with one of the most severe housing shortages in the world, where the median home price is $1.5 million. It will have more parking spaces for surfboards than for cars.
But in other ways, it is very much the logical outcome of several familiar trends: donor-driven public institutions, colleges desperately competing for students, and a nationwide housing shortage.
Start with the philanthropists. The rich have more money than ever before, but their charitable giving is increasingly narrow, locked into restricted pet causes that may or may not align with an institution’s greatest needs. With public funding flat or falling, universities often chart their course around the desires of their biggest donors, ranging from Chinese government–funded Confucius Institutes to Yale’s push to channel a gift from alumnus Joe Tsai into a pandemic-proof Ivy League lacrosse bubble. In this sense, a donor with a strong interest in dorm architecture is a welcome surprise.
Indeed, UCSB is not the first institution to work with Munger, who boasts of having never read a book about architecture. He has designed several buildings for the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, as well as dormitories for Stanford and the University of Michigan. Of the former, a Stanford student and former resident wrote on Quora, “I thought I was never going to live in a fancier place in my life. It almost felt like a hotel, but at the same time a lot of things about it didn’t make sense.” The latter, whose suite design is a prototype of the Santa Barbara project, is the highest-rated apartment building on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. Despite most bedrooms having no windows.
Which brings us to Santa Barbara, where administrators have gone all-in on “Charlie’s Vision.” They might have preferred that Munger, in designing for a population density last seen in the East Village tenements of the early 1900s, borrow some of the architectural innovations of that time and place as well, such as air shafts, courtyards, and fire escapes.
But the university is in desperate, desperate need of new housing. Other UCs are in similar situations, with UC Merced forced to delay the start of classes because it was unable to house 1,000 students. This is, after all, a state where “let students sleep inside their cars in the parking lot” is a real, progressive position. But the real estate market in Santa Barbara, where hundreds of students are living in hotel rooms this semester, is particularly unforgiving. You’ve got to make the most of your buildable land.
Particularly because UCSB is facing down a potential lawsuit over its failure to build enough housing to keep up with the needs of its students. This summer, a judge forced UC Berkeley to halt its enrollment because it had not built enough housing, under a new and liminal application of California environmental law. Like Berkeley, UCSB has expanded the student body in recent years, giving more kids a shot at a UC education but taxing the region’s housing stock.
In most cities, the demand for student housing has been shared among the university dorms, existing off-campus student ghettoes (fraternities, overcrowded old Victorian co-ops), and a wave of new, luxury units that developers have brought online since the 1990s.
But four-year universities do not want to cede their role as housing providers, and not just because of community pressure. There are two reasons for this. First is the altruistic, long-term vision of an American university’s purpose, which dates back to the country’s earliest colleges. On-campus housing was considered as much a part of the experience as the classroom itself, and later came to be viewed as a leveling force akin to school uniforms, obviating class distinctions upon enrollment. “Students who live on campus with other students learn more in college,” says Greg Blimling, the former vice president of student affairs at Rutgers University. “Retention is greater, student satisfaction is greater, students are more likely to be engaged in student life.”
The second great motivator for dorm construction is competition among selective colleges. “The level below your MITs and your Harvards and all the way down, the quality of housing is a huge determinant,” explains Carla Yanni, the author of Living on Campus, a history of dorms. Through an 18-year-old’s eyes, she said, the “academics are pretty much all the same, so you choose a college based on the football team and the dormitory.” Research backs this up. As a recent economics paper, “College as Country Club,” explained, “most students do appear to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories. While this taste for amenities is broad-based, the taste for academic quality is confined to high-achieving students.” No surprise that the cost of college housing is going up fast, and likely makes up a sizable share of student debt.
This last point—the fact that colleges now rely on high-quality dorms, among other amenities, to lure all but the brightest students, and their parents, and especially students from out of state or abroad whose parents can pay full freight—might make you more confused about Mungeropolis than ever. How could this gargantuan barracks possibly seduce a college-bound teenager, let alone their parents? But maybe that misstates the real desires of 18-year-olds and their parents looking at UCSB. Sure, everyone wants a window. But more than that, they want their kid not to have to live at a Marriott downtown.
And in this way, Munger Hall exposes one of the paradoxes of the American housing crisis. Rents climb and climb, but responses do not rise to the occasion. Instead, the worse things get, the more piecemeal, weird, and desperate the solutions become. Living in a hotel room? That’s a model. Living in a garage? That’s even better. Sleeping in the parking lot? Could be worse. A single dorm the size of a liberal arts college, with nearly every bedroom closed to the cool California breeze? Maybe that’s the best we can do.