Following the leaked resignation of Munger Hall Architectural Consultant Dennis McFadden and subsequent national press coverage, the UC Santa Barbara community continues to voice opposition to the dorm design that gained notoriety for its lack of windows.
The current design includes eight houses per floor, eight suites per house, eight private bedrooms per suite, nine floors of houses and nearly no windows. The 11-story building also has a market.
Billionaire Charles Munger — designer and donor for the project and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway — and the university received criticism from local architects and UCSB students and faculty due to both a lack of consultation for the design and the design of Munger Hall itself.
Tommy Young, a fourth-year economics and geography double major, started a petition to demonstrate student and community opposition to the Munger Hall design. As of Nov. 16, the petition amassed over 12,000 signatures.
“The proposed building is an architectural nightmare, entirely out of touch with Isla Vista and the needs of students, and the administration is moving forwards with the project, ignoring all criticism,” Young wrote in the petition description.
The petition has received signatures from undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni and family members of current and potential future students, according to Young.
In addition, the UCSB Architectural Historians Group started its own petition, which has amassed a little over 3,000 signatures as of Nov. 16. The petition also received several signatures from UCSB faculty members.
“This project, in sum, does a grave disservice to our students, their families, and the myriad stakeholders, from educators and staff to donors and alumni, who believe in and work for the University’s core values,” the petition read. “We, the undersigned, therefore affirm our strong opposition to the project for Munger Hall in anything like its current configuration.”
“We reject the administration’s efforts to force this monstrous project into construction without the customary community debate and input,” the petition continued. “And we invite the administration to return to previous norms of debate and collaborative consultation in exploring how UCSB can best fulfill its serious responsibilities with respect to the current housing crisis.”
Richard Wittman, history of art and architecture professor and a member of the UCSB Architectural Historians Group, said the building’s lack of windows and density motivated him to speak against the design of the building.
Wittman believes that the only reason the building design has been accepted is because of the billionaire behind it.
“Nobody but a billionaire could propose this and ask the university to invest that much money in it and not be laughed out of the room,” Wittman said.
Wittman also took issue with how news outlets and the general public compare UCSB’s Munger Hall with the University of Michigan’s Munger Graduate Residences, which was also funded and designed by Munger himself.
“[The University of Michigan Munger-funded building] has more or less one bathroom for every bed. This one is one bathroom every four beds. Also, this building is for undergraduates. That building is for graduate students — people who are older, who have more experience in life, who are not perhaps as vulnerable. They’re not straight out of high school,” Wittman said. “And that building is something like one quarter the size of this one, so it’s not really a comparison at all.”
“Munger’s building for UCSB is really unprecedented in what it’s claiming to do. There’s no evidence that it won’t be horrible for these students — and yet the amount of money that they want to invest in it is titanic,” Wittman continued.
Wittman also took issue with how UCSB bypassed its usual protocols of shared governance while designing and approving Munger Hall.
“There’s the fact that this university has certain norms as a kind of more or less democratic community as a state university, where there’s a Design Review Committee [(DNC) with] a custom protocol of [the DNC] looking at buildings, making comments of the administration and the architects taking those on board and making changes,” Wittman said.
“All of that was, to a large extent, bypassed with this building, as part of what Dennis McFadden and his letter said is that this project was presented to the Design Review Committee as a completed design. There was no vote, there was no option to make substantive critiques. The university presented it like it was an inevitable done deal,” Wittman continued.
Marc Vukcevich, UCSB alum and former student representative on the Design Review Committee, attended the DNC meeting and agreed with McFadden that the university failed to consult the DNC on the Munger Hall design.
“They said that we are not really soliciting any guidance from you all at all. This building is considered 100% ready … Ultimately, it was a sham of a meeting. None of the members of the meeting had any purpose,” Vukcevich said.
“The building was going to go through no matter what. So, the DNC was explicitly informed that any words the members were there to share probably wouldn’t have much impact on the actual building.”
Vukcevich later sent an email to everyone who attended the DNC meeting, highlighting his issues with the building design including the following points: impacts to mental health, student marijuana use setting off smoke alarms without windows providing ventilation, students needing to cook as a result of not having a dining hall, the building not being handicap accessible and the isolated location of the dorm.
Vukcevich did positively credit the design for its high density being better than several sprawled buildings, ability to house more students and decarbonized water heaters.
Following Vukcevich’s email, McFadden resigned from the Munger Hall project, and Vukcevich — without asking McFadden — posted his resignation letter on Reddit, where the news about Munger Hall became viral.
McFadden has declined all requests for media comment after the posting of his resignation letter but did voice his opinions on the project in an L.A. Times op-ed.
In addition to McFadden’s resignation, graduate student representative for the DNC Pedro Craveiro sent an email announcing that “the executive board of the Graduate Student Association has decided to no longer participate in this committee.”
“It is clear to us that the university has already made a decision regarding the construction of Munger Hall ignoring the input of students, faculty and the consultant hired to review the project,” Craveiro said in the email. “There is mounting evidence that Munger Hall, as currently designed, will have a detrimental impact on students’ mental health and bodily safety. Given that the committee is unwilling to engage with these critiques, we will not participate in what is essentially a process that might lead to an unhealthy living situation for UC Santa Barbara’s undergraduates.”
In addition to UCSB community members voicing opposition, the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIASB) sent out a collective letter speaking against the dorm design, standing in solidarity with McFadden.
“As architects, it is our responsibility to positively design the built environment in ways that support the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants, respect the natural environment, and enhance the community at large,” the letter read.
“The American Institute of Architects, Santa Barbara Chapter believes unequivocally that the Munger Residence Hall as proposed does not meet these requirements and that there is no justifiable reason to proceed with the project as proposed.”
The letter continued to discuss the psychological impacts of the proposed design of Munger Hall.
“This is a critique of the unacceptable, inhumane living conditions that will no doubt, have psychological impact on its inhabitants and the community at large. This project shows complete disregard to the building’s scale and proportion in relationship to its immediate surroundings and the negative impact it will have to the community in which it’s located,” the letter read.
AIASB’s letter ended with the possible negative environmental impacts of Munger Hall.
“We urge the University to seek and encourage buildings that respect the natural environment, contribute to the community and support the student’s health, safety and welfare to the highest level. Munger Residence Hall, as proposed, fails to meet these goals at any level,” the letter read.
Two architects who signed the AIASB letter — Detty Peikert and Paul Poirier — spoke to the Nexus as individual architects, not on behalf of AIASB. The pair emphasized that the criticism of the design is not directed at the university but rather at the design of Munger Hall.
Peikert said that the Munger Hall design was “an affront to my values as an architect and my training as an architect.”
“It looked like an environment that would not enhance the psychology and the sense of place and belonging into a community. It just seemed like an isolated box placed into a context that did not respect the environment around it at all,” Peikert said. “And certainly looked like an experiment in human living that had never really been thought through or researched or understood fully what the implications are.”
Poirier said that if he agrees with Munger on anything, it is that Munger is “an amateur architect.”
“[Munger Hall is] not a sophisticated attempt at meeting the needs of humans,” Poirier said.
Poirier added that architects work to ensure that “humans can live in harmony with the nature around them and take advantage of all the benefits that nature can give people,” a value not reflected within the design of Munger Hall.
“Circadian rhythms, natural light, fresh air, clean water — all these things that I think architects are trained to believe are basic human rights,” Poirier said. “The basic human rights are having access to views and the opportunity to live in harmony with nature, and how it works and the opportunity to reflect on themselves in this environment and connecting to it. And I think that maybe the billionaires and corporations have forgotten that or don’t have that same value for those basic human rights.”
Peikert added that the Munger Hall design is incongruous with the university’s previous attempts at student housing.
The university and Munger have touted the design as a structure that facilitates communal living. However, Peikert said that there are plenty of architectural designs which promote the same values that have windows.
“There are many models of student housing where people have their own private rooms with windows, ventilation, light, access potentially to the outside etc. that also have communal space that the residents there can share, and that’s a great model. That does exactly what Munger wants to accomplish here but in a very different way, in a way that is far more humane,” Peikert said.
Poirier added that to build a dormitory that has little access to the outside world is in direct contradiction with the natural surroundings of Santa Barbara and the county’s work in enacting the movement of environmentalism.
“I think it’s no real fluke that Santa Barbara is the birthplace of the modern environmental movement either, and I think it’s because the ecosystem here on the Central Coast is so beautiful that people can’t live here and help but fall in love with it and care about it,” Poirier said.
According to Peikert, the design is too flawed to be adapted into an acceptable housing model.
“I don’t think you can take this design and fix it … The very fundamental principles of how it’s organized would make it almost impossible to create an environment that we could walk away from and say this is a much improved situation,” Peikert said.
“I would urge the university to step back from this and really re-examine everything about it from the beginning — from the ground up — to determine what sort of values we need to incorporate, and how do you do that? How do you take the money and leverage it to create something that moves towards a solution to our housing crisis in an appropriate manner?”
“And most of all, I think that the university really has to take input from the community and the students and the profession of course, in this case of architects, and just rethink the whole thing.”