Charles Munger and UCSB Deserve Each Other
Munger Hall, with its attempt at social engineering, really will be a dorm that reflects the philosophies of our time.
It may be that Charles Munger, the near-centenarian billionaire behind the planned mega-monstrosity dormitory at UC Santa Barbara, is actually a misunderstood visionary whose true architectural genius will be properly recognized in years to come. No doubt, he sees himself as such. But I am not holding my breath awaiting his vindication.
For those unfamiliar, the proposed “Munger Hall” would be 11 stories tall and house 4,500 students, most in tiny windowless single rooms. The plan has become a subject of widespread controversy in recent weeks, after a scathing resignation letter by consulting architect Dennis McFadden brought the matter to national attention.
The yet-unbuilt Munger Hall is a testament to the hubris of central planning, the sort of magnificent vision considered by its progenitor to be so glorious that it absolutely must be forced on the general public. Munger, who unsurprisingly has had kind words for Chinese authoritarianism, did not offer his plan on the free market, because no one would want to live in an apartment complex, or stay in a resort, based on such a model.
Instead, he is imposing his plan on a captive audience of college students at a public university that holds an effective monopoly on freshman student housing and already faces a severe housing shortage. Munger secured his hold over the university with an offer of $200 million, in exchange for UCSB following his exact specifications for the project.
I graduated from UCSB five years ago. While my alma mater has certainly produced its share of luminaries, there is no denying that (as with most universities these days, and more so than many) large portions of the school serve as a left-wing indoctrination and activism training camp. Libertarian and conservative students face a supremely hostile on-campus environment, as I and many of my friends experienced firsthand.
In light of this, it is supremely ironic to watch UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang and other administrators, whose regular espousal of social justice talking points and habitual pandering to left-wing student activists helped to cultivate such an environment, rush to praise the “vision” and “leadership” of a billionaire willing to write them a sizable enough check.
To blame Munger Hall on capitalism, though, would be a mistake. The building itself, although loathed by the majority of students and community members, is the most fitting piece of architecture imaginable for UCSB. It stands as the product of an ideological ether fostered by the university and its fellow elite academic institutions, and in particular reveals much about the modern intellectual’s view—or lack thereof—regarding human nature.
Architecture, ideally, should serve to meet human needs. Munger Hall reverses this: It is designed to create new human needs to be fulfilled. Dennis McFadden, in his letter, called the building a “social and psychological experiment.” I would go one further. It is, by its designers’ own words, a vast social engineering campaign deliberately designed with an eye to shape the behavior of its occupants.
According to UCSB, the building is meant to “build a transformational prototype” for dormitory living. It does this via its basic layout, which involves suites of eight single-occupancy windowless rooms surrounding a large common area. This is, by the admission of its architect, done in order to “encourage a co-living model through the narrowness of its spaces.”
In other words, the dorm will try to foist communitarianism on students by making their private sleeping quarters as unpleasant as possible. Their personal relationships, instead of being given the space to flourish organically, will be molded into Munger’s preferred format by the very walls around them. Or at least, this is the goal.
Under Mungerism (if I can call it that), the student residents of the building are reduced to the role of automata, to be subjected to the will of the architect as thoroughly as are the plumbing and electricity. They are treated as mere components in the plan, rather than as fully realized individuals with independent volition.
The plan also denies the nature of human beings as physically embodied creatures beholden to the needs of their biology. Munger Hall treats its occupants as an infinitely malleable tabulae rasae. The physiological imperative for natural light is casually disregarded because, after all, the sun can be easily supplanted by an artificial light panel. Except that it cannot, as anyone who has ever seen the two can attest.
It brings to mind Kolya Krasotkin, the precocious preteen in The Brothers Karamazov, who confidently explains that people will accustom themselves to socialism as easily as they do to colder temperatures during winter: “Everything is habit with men, everything even in their social and political relations.”
Intentionally or not, Munger’s plan is reminiscent of much progressive social engineering. In particular, it resembles the societal order of the past two years, in which all human interactions, from the largest to the smallest, were reshaped according to the great overarching principle of “social distancing,” with ordinary physiological and psychological needs (from social contact to natural sunlight) blithely dismissed as “nonessential.”
In this, too, humans were treated as components in a system rather than as self-willed creatures. This is why our leaders spoke in such openly mechanistic terms: In California, Gavin Newsom talked about toggling back a “dimmer” switch and pulling an “emergency brake” when implementing new rounds of lockdowns. Across the pond, Boris Johnson spoke of a “circuit breaker.” And thus are men reduced to photons, by the Mungers and Newsoms of the world alike.
It is easy to postulate in abstract about the unimportance of aesthetics or the malleability of human nature, but when confronted with the prospect of actually living in a building like Munger Hall, the absurdity of these premises cannot be contested. Revolting though the UCSB community may find it, the building stands as a testament to the philosophical failings of our era. One can only hope that generations of UCSB students forced to inhabit Munger’s grand vision will learn the right lessons from it.
Jason Garshfield is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Townhall, RealClearPolitics, and numerous other publications. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.