Does money trump ethics in architecture?

Not too long ago, I was talking with an alumnus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who mentioned plans for a strange new dorm on campus. When I was attending Caltech in the 1970s, I had the privilege of visiting UCSB, and it has classic California vistas: beautiful beaches, palm trees, hills in the distance... You'd think that any dormitory there would take advantage of the view and at least allocate one window per dorm room.

Well, Charlie Munger doesn't think so. Mr Munger, an investing associate of Warren Buffett, is a billionaire who has donated US$200 million to UCSB to build a new dormitory for 4,500 students, which would make it one of the largest campus dormitories in the US. But he is saying that the dorm has to be built to his specifications, which are eccentric, to say the least.

For one thing, most of the rooms where people actually live will not have any windows. Mr Munger says they can have TV screens like staterooms in Disney cruises have—a kind of artificial view that can show any place in the world, presumably. The building will have windows, but they open into common areas, not individual dorm rooms. And so far, the plan is for the building to have only two entrances.

Architect Dennis McFadden has served on UCSB's building design review committee for about 15 years. But he resigned when the university overruled his opposition and accepted Munger's plans. In his letter of resignation, he said that “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."

That about covers the field.

I'm assuming that the university has not yet run the plans by the Santa Barbara building-code enforcement authorities.  When they do, I think the fire marshall will have a few things to say about plans for 4,500 students to exit in a few minutes through only two doors. Maybe Mr Munger won't mind the university hanging fire escape stairs on the exterior, like you used to see in old noir movies of night-time chase scenes in Manhattan. But that's an issue for another day.

The more fundamental question here is, how loudly does money talk when it comes to building a fairly permanent thing like a dorm that promises to create problems? If we judge by UCSB's actions so far, you'd have to say it talks pretty loud.

It's one thing if an eccentric millionaire leaves her dog a $12 million trust fund, as the late Leona Helmsley did for her Maltese, appropriately named Trouble.

But buildings in general, and dormitories in particular, affect the lives of thousands of people over their useful lifetime. And while I doubt that anyone staying in Munger Hall will actually die from it (unless they really do build it with only two exits and there's a fire), they may not grow weepy at their 30th class reunion remembering how wonderful it was to wake up every morning to a TV screen instead of an ocean view.

In his book The Aesthetics of Architecture, the late philosopher Roger Scruton tackles the old saw de gustibus non est disputandum (Latin for "in matters of taste, there can be no disputes"). He disputes learnedly through some 300 pages that just as there are right and wrong ways to behave in society and to execute works of fine art, there are right and wrong ways to design buildings—not simply from a safety point of view (which goes without saying) but from an aesthetic point of view as well.

If UCSB builds Munger's dorm exactly the way he wants it built, it won't fall down. And with appropriate fire codes observed, it won't be dangerous to live in. But judging from the exterior artist's renderings posted online, the building can't avoid looking like what it is: a big box to house as many students as possible in as small a volume as possible.

We have something similar on my campus at Texas State University. Called Tower Hall, it is a monolithic oblong block dotted with tiny four-foot-square windows, and from the outside (I've never been inside, although my nephew survived a semester in it) looks like a nice, well-designed prison. I'm not sure what combination of poor judgment, penny-pinching, and administrative absence of mind led to the construction of Tower Hall, but fortunately the mistake has never been repeated, and since the advent of our current President Trauth 20 years ago, she has imposed a pleasing Romanesque style on any building built during her watch.

Engineers, and possibly even some architects, spend little time or effort to consider the long-term effect of the appearance and aesthetics of their works on the spirits of those who use them. Americans are not accustomed to think in terms of decades, and perhaps the enticing bait of a $200 million donation beguiled the UCSB authorities to throw good judgment to the winds and agree to Mr. Munger's plans for a building that will ultimately cost more than five times that amount. Such issues have imponderable effects that may not seem important but accumulate over time.

W.E.B. DuBois Library at UMass Amherst

If we're looking for bad examples, I will hold up for inspection the school I served for 17 years: the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While it is a highly regarded research institution that would be better known if it were not in the shadows of Harvard and MIT, the Amherst campus is a collection of nearly every major architectural style used for public buildings in the US from 1880 to 2020, from a faux-Gothic chapel to a 1960s-bunker-style administration building to a 26-storey library that is wildly out of place in a small New England town.

It shows what happens when every administration wants to make its presence known by doing something different than the last one did with whatever money comes to hand. Although there were other factors involved, I blame the architecture of that campus for at least some of the most depressing days I have ever experienced in my life.

I recommend that the building planners at UCSB take an extended field trip—in February, let's say—to UMass Amherst to see what happens when other considerations prevail over aesthetic ones in architecture. If that doesn't change their minds, nothing will.


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