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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

After a billionaire designed a dorm, an architect resigned in protest

Dennis McFadden’s resignation followed an Oct. 5 meeting of the committee over the design, which the university has embraced as it contends with a housing shortage so severe that students have had to be placed in hotels.

By: New York Times |
Updated: October 31, 2021 11:28:07 am
Munger Hall, a towering residence hall for more than 4,500 students was designed by Charlie Munger, a billionaire and an executive of Berkshire Hathaway. (Reuters)

Written by Maria Cramer

“Absolutely stunning” is how the University of California, Santa Barbara, described plans for Munger Hall, a towering residence hall for more than 4,500 students that was designed by Charlie Munger, a billionaire and an executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

But Dennis McFadden, an architect who served as a consultant on the university’s design review committee, did not agree. On Oct. 24, in a scathing letter to the committee chairs, he announced that he was resigning over the university’s decision to approve a design he likened to “a social and psychological experiment.”

He said he was “disturbed” by a design that would cram the students into a 1.7-million-square-foot, 11-story building and make the vast majority of them live in small rooms without windows, “wholly dependent on artificial light and mechanical ventilation.”

“In the nearly 15 years I served as a consulting architect to the DRC, no project was brought 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 unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent and a human being.”

McFadden’s resignation followed an Oct. 5 meeting of the committee over the design, which the university has embraced as it contends with a housing shortage so severe that students have had to be placed in hotels. On its website, the university said that Munger Hall would create “better and more affordable” housing “with flourish and elegance.”

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

Estrada said the plan was a collaboration between the university, Munger and 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 goal of providing affordable, on-campus housing that minimizes energy consumption.”

Estrada did not address McFadden’s specific concerns.

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

In an interview, Munger, 97, shrugged off the criticism and said he saw it as nothing more than typical carping by architects.

“I’m not a bit surprised that someone looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” he said Friday. “What’s going on here is that it’s going to work better than any other practical alternative.”

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

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

Unlike those residences, he said, the dorms in Santa Barbara would have “virtual windows”; students would have a knob to let them manipulate how much artificial light to let in to their rooms as a way to mimic daytime 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 dim, you can make it romantic and dim,” 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, these little bedrooms.”

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

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

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

“The Munger Hall ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter,” he said. The “unprecedented” density and scale of the project is also out of step with the character of the campus, which overlooks the Pacific coast, McFadden wrote.

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

Architecture critics and students appeared to agree with McFadden.

One student said he opposed the project because of its height and lack of windows, according to a transcript of public comments that were taken during a July meeting about the proposal.

“Young people do not always smell good,” he wrote. “Fresh air is UNBELIEVABLY important for college students.”

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

“You are asking for students to get depression and commit self‐harm,” the student wrote. “Strongly reconsider this entire plan.”

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

“This design is a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory,” he said on Twitter, linking to a story by The Santa Barbara Independent about the design. “No, design isn’t up to billionaire donors.”

Munger Hall is expected to cost more than $1 billion and will be partly funded by Munger. It is scheduled to open in 2025.

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

“The design was described as 100% complete, approval was not requested, no vote was taken and no further submittals are intended or required,” he said.

Munger, a longtime friend and business partner of Warren Buffett, chair and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, said he had consulted with multiple licensed architects and other professionals.

McFadden “may not have been consulted but many other people were,” Munger said. “This is not something that’s done by a nut case in a room by himself.”

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