Perhaps Charles Munger’s nightmarish dormitory at UC Santa Barbara is the best we can do.

Triangular shirt factory. Walled city of Kowloon. A gulag, a self-service warehouse, an industrial farm and a prison ship. A violation of human rights. Offices for graduate students.

These were some of the colorful metaphors used to describe Munger Hall, a planned dormitory at the University of California at Santa Barbara, whose designs went viral Friday morning after an architect resigned from the design review committee. of the institution in protest. “The building is a social and psychological experience with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates served by the university,” wrote committee member Dennis McFadden of the building, a block d ‘sufficient area to contain 1.5 Chrysler Buildings. -or, in this case, 4,500 undergraduates in mostly windowless rooms.

What the building designer, 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 why UCSB was eager to let him turn his AutoCAD dreams into reality: Billionaire sidekick Warren Buffett contributes $ 200 million on the $ 1.5 billion price of the building. .

In some ways, the project is totally abnormal: it would be one of the most populous residential buildings in the world, surpassing urban icons like the Edifício Copan in Saõ Paulo and the London Terrace in New York. It will rise in a city with one of the world’s most severe housing shortages, 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’s quite the logical result of several familiar trends: donor-led public institutions, colleges in desperate competition for students, and a nationwide housing shortage.

Start with philanthropists. The rich have more money than ever before, but their charitable giving is increasingly constrained, locked into narrow favored causes that may or may not correspond to the most important needs of an institution. With stable or declining public funding, universities often chart their way around the desires of their biggest donors, ranging from Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes to pressure from Yale to funnel a gift from former student Joe Tsai into a pandemic-proof Ivy League bubble butt. In this sense, a donor strongly interested in the architecture of the dormitories is a good surprise.

Indeed, UCSB is not the first institution to work with Munger, who boasts of never having read a book on architecture. He designed several buildings for the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, as well as dormitories for Stanford and the University of Michigan. From the first, 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 looked like a hotel, but at the same time, a lot of things just didn’t make sense. The latter, whose suite design is a prototype of Project Santa Barbara, is the top-rated apartment building on the Ann Arbor, Michigan campus. Although most of the rooms do not have windows.

Which brings us to Santa Barbara, where the administrators really got down to “Charlie’s Vision”. They might have preferred that Munger, designing for a population density last seen in East Village apartment buildings in the early 1900s, also borrows some of the architectural innovations of that time and place, such as ventilation ducts, courtyards and fire escapes.

But the university is in desperate need of new housing. Other UCs are in similar situations, UC Merced being forced to delay the start of classes because it was unable to accommodate 1000 students. This is, after all, a state where “letting students sleep in their cars in the parking lot” is a truly progressive position. But the Santa Barbara real estate market, where hundreds of college students live in hotel rooms this semester, is particularly cutthroat. You need to get the most out of your building land.

Particularly because UCSB faces a possible lawsuit for its inability to build enough housing to meet the needs of its students. This summer, a judge forced UC Berkeley to suspend its registration because it had not built enough homes, under a new introductory application of California’s environmental law. Like Berkeley, UCSB has expanded student numbers in recent years, giving more children a chance for a UC education, but taxing the area’s housing stock.

In most cities, the demand for student housing has been shared between college dorms, existing off-campus student ghettos (fraternities, overcrowded old Victorian co-ops), and a wave of new luxury units that developers have brought online since the early 1990s. 1990s.

But the four-year universities are unwilling to give up their role as housing providers, and not just because of community pressure. There are two reasons for this. The first is the altruistic, long-term view of the goal of an American university, which dates back to the country’s earliest colleges. Housing on campus was seen as as much a part of the experience as the classroom itself, and was then seen as a leveling force akin to school uniforms, avoiding class distinctions upon enrollment. “Students who live on campus with other students learn more at university,” says Greg Blimling, former vice president of student affairs at Rutgers University. “Retention is greater, student satisfaction is greater, students are more likely to engage in student life. “

The second big motivator for building dormitories is the competition between selective colleges. “Below your MITs and Harvards and all the way down, the quality of housing is a huge determinant,” says Carla Yanni, author of Living on campus, a story of dormitories. Through the eyes of an 18-year-old, she said, “academics are pretty much all the same, so you choose a college based on the football team and the dorm.” Research confirms this. As a recent business article, “College as Country Club,” explained, “Most students seem to enjoy college consumer amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dorms. If this taste for convenience is broad, the taste for academic quality is reserved for the most successful students. “It’s no surprise that the cost of university housing is rising rapidly and is likely a significant portion of student debt.

This last point – the fact that colleges now rely on high quality dormitories, among other amenities, to attract all but the brightest students, and their parents, and especially out-of-state students or from abroad whose parents can pay full freight – might make you more confused than ever about Mungeropolis. How could this gargantuan barracks seduce a college-bound teenager, let alone his parents? But maybe it distorts the real desires of 18-year-olds and their parents watching UCSB. Of course, everyone wants a window. But more than that, they want their child not to have to live in a downtown Marriott.

And in this way, Munger Hall exposes one of the paradoxes of the American housing crisis. Rents go up and up, but the answers fall short. Instead, the worse it gets, the more piecemeal, bizarre, and hopeless the solutions become. Living in a hotel room? It’s a model. Live in a garage? It’s even better. Sleep in the parking lot? Could be worse. A single dormitory the size of a liberal arts college, with almost every room closed to the cool California breeze? This is perhaps the best we can do.

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