An Interview With An Architect About Charlie Munger’s Hell Dorm
9:01 AM EST on November 9, 2021
In late October, the Santa Barbara Independent blew open a tasty bit of local drama when they reported that long-tenured UCSB Design Review Committee consulting architect Dennis McFadden quit the committee in protest and left an excoriating resignation letter on his way out. He did so because UCSB is planning to move ahead with the construction of a monstrous new dorm building, an 11-story cube that will house 4,500 students. The building was designed and partially financed by Charlie Munger, the 97-year-old half-blind billionaire Berkshire Hathaway deputy whose complete lack of architectural education has not stopped him from using his big pile of money to cosplay as a building designer, usually for colleges, which have a long-established relationship with and reliance on megalomaniacal donors.
So why did McFadden take his knives out for Munger? Well, because the vast, vast majority of rooms don't have windows. Munger is an avowed proponent of designing dorm rooms that are deliberately unpleasant, theoretically forcing students into common spaces where they can collaborate. McFadden called the proposal "unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being" and characterized it as "a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves." Munger returned fire, calling his critics "idiots," claiming his building would "last as long as the pyramids," and claimed that windowless living will be "endurable." UCSB, like most of its fellow UC schools, has both a housing shortage and an increasing dependency on big-money donors, so they are pushing forward with the project despite intense and widespread criticism (the New Yorker's architecture critic called it "a jail masquerading as a dormitory.")
Munger is a flamboyant character, and his entry into the California housing wars has inspired a good deal of spirited debate—carceral-ass housing is better than no housing vs. don't let a fake architect build punishing housing because he has billions of dollars. I wanted to get an informed perspective, so I called up Ian Miley, the smartest architect I know. Miley is a lecturer and design critic at a handful of universities in Boston, and he is from Santa Barbara and has experience with UC housing, so he seemed like the perfect person to chat with.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Defector: Charlie Munger has given all these interviews where he called architects idiots and fools. As a practitioner of the architectural arts, how do you feel about that?
Ian Miley: I mean, that's part of the interview I took the least issue with. This is just like an editorial note, but it feels like every single time that architecture surfaces, in any kind of broader public discourse, we look like such idiots. Case in point: Alejandro Zaera-Polo. It's always like, "What the fuck are they doing over there?" But we're trained in building buildings that, you know, don't feel horrible to live inside of. Charlie Munger has proudly proclaimed he's never opened an architecture book. So there is a kind of an explicit anti-intellectualism or more like expertise-eschewing involved here.
Defector: Yeah, if you read his interviews, the thing that stands out is not so much that he's driven by this bone-deep commitment to the way things should be, or that he has this like grand vision. The thing that really is alarming is that there kind of is no grand vision. I don't know if it's power for power's sake, but he isn't really architecting towards some defined goal. Do you see a coherency to his work?
IM: I don't think there's an explicit ideology behind what he's proposing. He sort of goes back and forth for years on whether you should have roommates or not, whether rooms should have windows or not. It's not as though it always was going to be the cube. I think he arrived at that design through a process which is guided by the kind of person he is, the kind of resources he has access to, and his view of the world.
Defector: What is wrong with building something that would approximate the eighth-densest neighborhood in the world, without windows, in Santa Barbara, which is a place that you famously want to look at?
IM: It is bizarre that it's at UC Santa Barbara. This is a like famously temperate, beautiful, scenic campus that a lot of people go to just because of how close it is to the beach. I don't know Charlie Munger's particular relationship to UCSB, but it does seem especially sadistic to do this version of it at UCSB. He's done other versions in Michigan that are like one level less deranged, because each bedroom doesn't have a window, but each pod of eight bedrooms does. And in the Munger dorm, each bedroom doesn't have a window, but also each pod of eight bedrooms doesn't have a window.
Defector: So you're going down from 1/8th of a window to zero.
IM: Well, 1/64th.
Defector: The dialogue around this case always focuses on the student housing shortage. There are all these, I think, fairly bizarre quotes given by the Chancellor where he's like, We love Charlie, we love the building. We love his $200 million. Yes, the UC system does keep accepting more students, UC Santa Barbara famously had to put kids in hotels, and Munger does have a lot of money. But then if you dig into it, he's only paying for less than 1/7th of the building. The UC system is also highly financialized and is inherently in the real estate business. So I feel like this doesn't all square as a purely altruistic project.
IM: He sees an opening, right? It's like, the UC system is incapable of solving the housing crisis with public funds. And I think he identified it as a place that he could have a lot of agency at and create some monstrosity that doesn't adhere so some standards [of buildings with windows] because of this particular financial situation.
Defector: It's almost like the housing crisis is his leverage to just be like, Well, you have to take my money now. Have you ever designed a building without windows?
IM: I think every building I've designed has at least one window. I don't think Henry Yang would describe me as a visionary.
Defector: I want to circle back to why the discourse around this is so frenzied. It feels related to the YIMBY-NIMBY debate in that everyone is very fired up but there are a lot of contradictions that need to be squared. It seems like in the case of architecture, people seem to know what they're talking about even less.
IM: I think architecture is especially toxic when it bubbles to the surface of public discourse. Since modernism, in the early 20th century, architecture has moved further and further away from what people want to see in a city. Brutalism is a sort of famous cultural flashpoint. It's particularly interesting because many people are looking at one thing and seeing radically different objects there. You know, architects also like brutalism. It's an acquired taste.
The 1960s represented maybe the last moment that architecture had any non-capitalized agency and culture. And in that era, some architects were revolting against the kind of architecture of capital, which manifested in the glass skyscraper. So in seeking an alternative answer to What can our cities be? What can our shared spaces be?, they did actually look back to Roman antiquity and thought about the permanence of those structures, the thickness of those structures, and the monumentality of civic life.
Defector: What's a good example of this sort of '60s-era building?
IM: I would say Boston City Hall is the canonical example, which people will probably hate. But in that modernist era, there was a kind of like realizable civic aspiration to create buildings for a public realm that was not financialized and lay outside of the architecture of neoliberalism, or the cities of neoliberalism.
Because architects were rehearsing these ideas about durability, thickness, and monumentality, with a material palette and labor economy of modernism, it produced these very, for most people, dystopian-looking structures, rather than the grandeur and ornament of antiquity. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other toxic aspects of modernism that were baked into that project, like destroying entire old neighborhoods. So I think after a lot of these structures were built there was a there's a kind of understandable backlash. Also, interestingly enough, most architecture schools in the United States were built in this period. So you can visit almost any college campus and the tour guide will tell you, "That's the architecture building, isn't it ironic? It's the ugliest building on campus."
[Ed. note: I've omitted a lengthy digression here on UC Berkeley's Wurster Hall, a famous example of this phenomenon.]
Defector: I'm interested in following the thread here from the end of maybe modernism towards financialization, and how that connects with Munger.
IM: Charlie Munger talks about Le Corbusier, who is one of the very eccentric but very influential founding fathers of architectural modernism. He built a lot of a lot of utopian housing projects that were sort of proto-brutalist, like the Unité d'Habitation and the La Tourette Monastery. Charlie Munger actually studied these, and he said, Oh, these are good, but they're too thin. They have too many windows, but they're good because they're efficient. And Le Corbusier was famously interested in ocean liners and he modeled a lot of his ideas about modern architecture based on the industrialized economies of scale of ocean liners. Now Charlie Munger is talking about studying, you know, Disney Cruise lines, and there's a very interesting kind of reciprocal exchange between architecture and gigantic ships.
Defector: There's an interesting parallel here, because you think about Corbusier in the past, and I just looked at that building in Marseille, and it's beautiful. And the thing he's imitating is the actual state of its art at the time. A Disney Cruise line is sort of just like capitalism's diarrhea. Imitating that is pretty bleak. It's just like a copy of a copy.
IM: And not only that, but Corbusier had the the skills to translate concepts between naval architecture and land-based architecture, and realized there are different regimes of access to light and air, different regimes of stability and social interaction that need to occur on land versus on sea. And Charlie Munger just doesn't do that at all. It's a one-to-one recreation of a Disney Cruise on UCSB campus. It's not any different.
Defector: So you're saying Corbusier has actual architecture skills, and can translate a concept into a building and still have it be habitable by humans versus Munger just spamming the concrete button.
IM: Yeah, CTRL-C, CTRL-V.
One thing I'll add is that UCSB isn't in a city, it's outside of Santa Barbara. There's no land shortage there. There's no reason to build this monstrosity, even if you take the Munger scarcity framing at face value, right? The question should be, "Should we let a single billionaire donor decide what is in our backyard? Or do we develop some other framework to solve this?"
Defector: Yeah, this is what "solving the housing crisis" looks like only if you're accepting this very broken neoliberal framework where the only way to do this is to build more housing and to do it under the most onerous possible terms dictated by your billionaire patron. There are other ways to do this. Theoretically, university housing at a nominally public institution should be more like public housing. It shouldn't look like market rate housing. If you accept the Munger framing of it, you're accepting the financialized university as a business and not like, a public service whatsoever. And, unfortunately, UC system is marching towards privatization.
IM: It's worth noting that public housing in the United States has a particularly fraught history, but in other countries—in particular, the UK and even more so in Red Vienna—they had public housing programs that are still beloved and widely utilized housing structures, because they were able to prioritize something other than a kind of rentier profit system. They were able to prioritize quality of life and a sort of equity in the units and in the shared common spaces. It really is unfortunate because student housing at "public universities" is kind of the last realm in America that there is a possibility for having a bottom line that's not profit, of having some other idea about how we should live and what what our spaces should look like, and how we should relate to each other inside.
Defector: Yeah, and the terms of the debate have already taken at face value that the market is the market and we have to deal with that.
IM: But I am really interested in the discrepancy between what the market would produce, and what Charlie Munger has produced. Because it's not the same thing. I think [the Munger dorm] is a kind of horrifically marketized model of university living with particular pathologies. David Harvey wrote this piece called "Neoliberalism With Chinese Characteristics." And I think this is like neoliberalism with Munger characteristics.
Defector: So if subservience to the market and the financialization of everything is one stage, that's not necessarily the end stage, because wealth has been—especially over the past year-and-a-half—more and more concentrated into fewer hands. And so we're almost going back to, like, Medici Mode. The patrons have increasingly more power, and as Munger shows us, they also have fucking stupid ideas.
IM: Who gets to shape the future? You know, I guess I have to say, there is some—I wouldn't say optimism, but at least humor in this idea that our futures aren't like, entirely predictable, because there are these contingencies in the Freudian traumas of our billionaire overlords as they were children. Like Munger's anecdote about having to cuddle up to his fellow Boy Scout for warmth through the night is the formative experience he cites for ultimately deciding to create single rooms as opposed to double rooms, which ultimately led him down the process of eliminating windows for 94 percent of the rooms. So it's like a really, really incredible sort of butterfly effect.
Defector: This seems related to the Bezos space thing. As a kid, he became obsessed with space, and then once he became a billionaire, he was like, I can realize this childish vision, and make Amazon this big monstrosity so that I can be the guy who colonizes Mars and write my name and human history forever.
IM: It's interesting that once you arrive at the pinnacle of human achievement within capitalism, they've both reverted to their childhoods. And now you have the ability to reshape the world in your image and it's the image of you as a child.
Defector: It's unfortunate that we've reached the "...and Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer" moment, and all that's been produced is this giant hell-brick structure with a Costco on the roof. At least if Munger is right, maybe one of the students will be motivated by all that surfboard parking and the collaborative environment and they'll solve climate change.
IM: Oh man, can you imagine having a surfboard spot and having one of the, you know, 20 rooms with a window? You would be a king.