Think Architects Don’t Matter? Check Out the World’s Most Hated Floor Plan

A billionaire’s proposal for a gargantuan, windowless student dormitory has reminded the world why it’s smart to hire an architect.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Take a brief glance at the architectural plan below, and imagine what it might be like to live inside. How does it make you feel?

This question has spawned a colorful array of responses from Twitter users around the globe in the past few weeks. Ever since the unveiling of a controversial proposal for a new residence hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the project has been dubbed a “giant, windowless prison“, “Dormzilla“, “a torture experiment” and “a recipe for student depression“. If, like most modern media platforms, you’re comfortable using the internet as a barometer for public sentiment, it is no overstatement to call this the world’s most hated floor plan.

Munger Hall — a 1.7-million-square-foot, 11-story block designed to house 4,500 students in largely windowless bedrooms — was designed by Charles T. Munger, a billionaire businessman, investor and executive of Berkshire Hathaway. Charles T. Munger is not an architect. His proposal is intended to address a major lack of housing for UCSB students, and is an exhibition in density. If built as-is, the building would have a population density equivalent to 221,000 people per square mile, making it the eighth densest neighborhood in the world.

The rectilinear layout of the building means that some students will be up to 200 feet — two-thirds the length of a football field — from a view to the outside world. Needless to say, this isn’t the epitome of good design in the eyes of most critics. “This design is a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory,” lamented Paul Goldberger. “No, design isn’t up to billionaire donors. How far UCSB has fallen since the days when it had architects like Charles Moore.”

Outrage over Munger’s architectural monstrosity has not been limited to Twitter’s creative commentators. Consulting architect Dennis McFadden resigned from UC Santa Barbara’s design review committee in protest over the project, and his reasons for doing so have resonated far beyond the architectural profession. In a recent op-ed published by the LA Times, McFadden described the proposal as “an alien and destructive presence out of tune and out of scale with the rest of the campus.”

Don’t worry, you might say — there’s no way that this project can comply with building codes, so it’ll never come to pass. It is certainly hard — and arguably quite terrifying — to imagine how inhabitants might react should a fire break out in the heart of this structure. In spite of this, there is a possibility the project could find its way through to construction, given the localized nature of regulations in California. “UC Santa Barbara, like each UC campus, is essentially its own building department,” explained McFadden. “The campus can, with approval from the UC Board of Regents, make its own determination.”

While the creative name-calling of this debacle is darkly comical — Slate dubbed it “The Munger Games” — the project raises real concerns about architecture’s long term psychological impacts. As McFadden states, “the building is a misguided experiment that will affect the health and safety of multiple generations of undergraduates who will be forced to negotiate the design’s gross miscalculations and unintended consequences — long after the story of how and why it came to be is forgotten.”

This is where the value of hiring an architect is illuminated for all to see. The story of Munger Hall is a case study in what can happen if a client leaves all the decisions to people who prioritize money far above the physical and mental wellbeing of a building’s future inhabitants. Munger Hall is a shining example of why architects should not be regarded as an optional luxury, but as an essential collaborator from the outset of a project.

Providing housing for 4,500 students on a limited site is no easy feat. Architects spend their lives finding creative solutions to challenges just like this one, addressing programmatic demands without forgoing the comfort and atmosphere that makes spaces livable. If UCSB had allowed for the input of an architect specializing in multi-unit housing, they could have explored a plethora of options to address the lack of natural light and ventilation that awaits thousands of students should Munger Hall come to fruition.

Most of all though, architects strive to expand the purpose of buildings beyond shelter and achieve something greater — they aim to design spaces that can uplift, invigorate and inspire.

McFadden summarized his role as an architect and university campus designer as follows: “My professional life has been devoted to making buildings and places that try, incrementally, to improve our physical environment. Those of us who have had the privilege of working on college and university campuses also know the responsibility of balancing new with old, as well as aspirations with available funding. Student housing on campuses, like housing in general, carries the added responsibility to make places where life can unfold in multiple ways, places of emotional refuge that raise the spirit and dignify the individual.”

Good architects have an uncanny ability to produce places like this, time and again. The takeaway for institutions, corporations and real estate developers when considering their next big project? Consulting with design professionals throughout a project will not only help you procure a better building, it might also save you from an awful lot of negative press, too.

UCSB: Next time, hire a design architect.

If you have an educational project or a multi-unit residence that could be viewed as an antidote to Munger Hall, we encourage you to submit it to this year’s A+Awards program, which is now open for entries — Winners receive worldwide recognition and global publication. Click here to get started on your submission >

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article suggested that no architect has been involved with the Munger Hall project. UCSB has clarified that there is in fact an ‘architect of record’ which is VTBS. However, multiple sources state that the design itself was largely or wholly determined by Charles Munger himself:

“The idea was conceived by 97-year-old billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the project with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly.” — The Independent

© Anne Evans

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