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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Charlie Munger's Sardine Can for 4,500 Students

Colleges and universities have long been among the most important creators of consequential architecture in the U.S. From the University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson to the new Arctic Studies Center now under construction at Bowdoin College (my daughter, a student there, hates it but I am intrigued), academic institutions are the ones with the money and the vision to build notably.

But notably does not always mean honorably, or even capably. What causes campus architecture to go FUBAR? Just about 100 percent of the time, the fault lies with vainglorious donors and impetuous trustees. Especially when they're the same people.

Case in point: Munger Hall, the mega-dorm that is planned for construction on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Four thousand, five hundred students warehoused in windowless rooms according to a design by a 97-year-old billionaire donor with no architectural training who dismisses his critics as "idiots" -- what could possibly go wrong?

Check out the plan of a typical floor -- and all of those little rectangles, each housing a single student:

Or, if you prefer, zoom in on a slice of that typical floor:

I've seen this compared to a supermax prison or a prisoner-of-war camp. To me it reeks of Josef Stalin and the death penalty he imposed, literally with the stroke of a pen, on what was then the blossoming Soviet Constructivist architecture movement, replacing that intriguing set of design parameters with the neo-gothic gigantism one typically associates with the USSR.

Does billionaire Charlie Munger warrant comparison to Josef Stalin? Well, Stalin was probably more ruthless, and they're about equal when it comes to megalomania and Humor Deficit Disorder. But Stalin was the better amateur architect.

But trashing Munger's design for Munger Hall at UCSB begs about 4,500 relevant questions, such as: How could this university, even in its desperation to build sorely needed student housing, possibly be entertaining the construction of such a monstrosity, which makes the Pentagon look like a log cabin and the Chicago Merchandise Mart a lobster shack?

Beats me. All I know is, here is where I lived as a senior in college:

And here, within sight of that fine old building, is this bit of gigantism:

The latter comes from an era at this particular educational institution when certain headstrong trustees were calling the shots, architecturally speaking. And lest to think it is an anomaly, look how this same institution desecrated what was once a pleasant row of midcentury modern dormitory buildings, just a few years earlier:

I've never been to Santa Barbara in California, but I have to believe that the verdant setting of my alma mater is vastly more appealing than the UCSB campus, but just as prone to desecration by the headstrong rich.

Lest you think I just hate all big buildings, consider this fabulous edifice I visited just before the pandemic, the convention center in Nashville:

I earnestly hope the design for Munger Hall is consigned to oblivion; this is one case in which the wisdom of the crowd should exercise a veto (of what is, after all, a plan to house a crowd).

Charlie Munger is said to be fond of a story about a guy selling fishing tackle. "I asked him," Munger reports, "'My God, they're purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?' And he said, 'Mister, I don't sell to fish.'' Just like he isn't selling this sardine can of a mega-dorm to students.

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