Billionaire donor bequests prison cellblock to put up undergrads. That, more or less, was the tl;dr of a flurry of recent criticism in response to plans for a new dorm at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). A girthy strongbox measuring around 350 feet wide and 475 feet long that will accommodate 4500 students over nine identical floors sandwiched between a ground floor and penthouse level with service and communal spaces, the building’s form certainly is carceral. To wit, in the rigid plan for each of the residential floors, individual bedrooms are ganged tightly together — a fractal of eight “houses” of eight “clusters” of eight cells per floor — in such a way that 94% of rooms will have no window to the outside. This particular aspect of the design has been the subject of much of the recent negative criticism of the building. So, too, is the fact that the design is the work of one of the project’s main financiers, the investor Charlie Munger, whose $200 million gift in 2016 came with the catch that the university must build according to his plans.
Munger is not a trained architect. However, working with the architect of record for the project, Los Angeles-based VTBS Architects, he has reportedly steered the dorm’s design from the beginning. Hence, those windowless rooms. In an illuminating interview with Architectural Record, Munger asserted that the preponderance of interior bedrooms was a functional outcome after he ruled out shared sleeping rooms and optimized the communal spaces, such as the fitness center and gastro pub slated for the penthouse level. “We had a window shortage,” he told the magazine, “So we just copied what Disney Cruise did.” Indeed, the project design team is touting “virtual windows” that will provide “circadian rhythm lighting” as well as a robust ventilation system to provide fresh air.
The reliance on technological building systems to such wholesale extent is unconventional for a building with human residents. But as this systems-reliant approach plays out in Munger Hall, it also highlights the provocative politics of the private room.
How well or poorly the design of Munger Hall will promote the communal aspect of dorm life relies on its novel bedroom design. The mostly windowless chambers will be furnished with the bare essentials of a bed, desk, and wardrobe — nothing more will fit. It is a bit of social engineering designed to nudge students out of their bedrooms and into the communal spaces throughout the building, such as the kitchens and great rooms in each of the houses or “our town in the sky,” as the penthouse level is called in design materials. The same spartan furnishings and absent windows that have drawn ire are thus the crucial elements for the building’s intended use and function.
To unpack this further, we can look back nearly a century to a very different housing proposal that was similarly defined by its lack of bedroom appurtenances. Co-op Interieur is a model for an apartment interior produced by the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer in 1926 and published in his essay “The New World.” Designed in the precarity of 1920s Europe for a transient urban dweller, Co-op Interieur was represented by a photo showing the corner of a bare room with a bed, a table with a gramophone, two folding chairs, and a shelf. It is an image of emptiness. Floating in that emptiness was a critique of the cloying interiors of the petty bourgeoisie and a demonstration of a new form of living unencumbered by the surfeit of goods and possessions accumulated in the private home under capitalism. As architect Pier Vittorio Aureli explains, linking Co-op Interieur with the radically empty apartment interiors chronicled by Walter Benjamin during his visit to Moscow in the winter of 1926, “Once the private room is reduced to a minimum, people can fully engage in collective life.”
At UCSB, could those demanding exterior windows be clutching at a present-day equivalent of the bourgeois interior comforts rejected by Meyer and Benjamin? Could the omnipresence of essential building systems like HVAC and circadian rhythm lighting somehow instill a stronger collective feeling? That’s unknown. And while Hannes Meyer and Charlie Munger might really be just two strange bedfellows, there is another important parallel between their projects. Namely, each uses a moment of uncertainty to propose a new form of living.
At UCSB, a longstanding housing shortage has become dire in the pandemic. And the university faces mounting legal pressure from city and county governments for failing to make good on commitments it made over a decade ago to help protect the availability of the local housing stock in exchange for their approval of its campus development plan. Given this context, it is hard not to see the university’s rhetoric about the communal spaces and amenities at Munger Hall as belying the critical issue of the building’s absurd density. It may just be the most ruthlessly efficient way to house 4500 students, virtual windows and all.
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