“An Experiment of Torture”: The Project of a Mega Student Residence Almost Windowless Sounds the Alarm | Architecture

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Agiant windowless prison“”, “Dormzilla“, a “torture experience”: Internet was to weigh on the plan to build a student dormitory at the University of California at Santa Barbara since last Thursday when an architect’s resignation letter went viral.

The proposed building has become perhaps the most controversial architectural project in the world – pitting an almost 100-year-old monomaniac billionaire against a potential student revolt, and sparking a heated debate over what human beings should, or can, endure in the world. name of efficiency. .

Billionaire funding the project, Charlie Munger, believes it is a state-of-the-art student residence that will maximize the use of space and encourage social interactions. In contrast, the architect who resigned in protest, Dennis McFadden, calls it an unprecedented “social and psychological experiment” on students, “unbearable” from his “point of view as an architect, parent and child. ‘To be human “.

Munger is the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway investment fund, where he is the right hand of billionaire Warren Buffett. Self-taught, passionate about architecture, Munger endowed $ 200 million for the short-housing University of California campus on the unusual condition – some would say Faustian – that the university uses a housing plan that he designed himself.

Charlie Munger proudly acknowledges that he has no architectural background – and has never read a book on the subject. Photography: Nati Harnik / AP

The proposed dormitory will be the densest in the world, a feat achieved by bringing together 4,500 students in an 11-story building whose rooms and common areas are mostly without windows. Expected to cost $ 1.5 billion in total, the planned building looks like a glass-less anthill: 94% of residents will have no windows in their small single-occupancy rooms, according to McFadden.

Instead of windows, rooms will have bright screens that mimic sunlight – an idea inspired, says Munger, by the virtual windows on Disney cruise ships. He also argues that the small bedrooms will encourage residents to spend time together in common areas.

The public seems to disagree. Internet commentators are castigate the dormitory proposed as ‘barbarian’, arguing that it will incubate Covid-19, and comparing it to panopticon, a notorious eighteenth-century concept for a penitentiary whose inmates are so constantly watched that they end up protecting themselves.

The story, which had previously flown under the radar, exploded after McFadden’s attack resignation disclosed to the press. In his letter, McFadden, a respected architect who had served on UC Santa Barbara’s design review committee for 15 years, pitted the Munger Hall project against the Bancroft Hall of the US Naval Academy, which is said to be the most large dormitory of the world.

Home to around 4,000 students, Bancroft “is made up of several wings wrapped around several courtyards with over 25 entrances,” he wrote. “Munger Hall, by comparison, is a single block housing 4,500 students with two entrances. (UC Santa Barbara told The Guardian that although it has two “main” entrances, there will be “fourteen additional entrances / exits in and out of the building.”)

Munger Hall is said to have a population density equivalent to 221,000 people per square mile, argued McFadden – making it the eighth densest neighborhood in the world, just behind a district in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He also pointed out that the dormitory appears to have been designed without considering the surrounding geography: although UC Santa Barbara is located in a “spectacular coastal setting,” the students who live inside won’t be able to see it.

Rendered images of a multipurpose room in Munger Hall.
Rendered images of a multipurpose room in the Munger Hall project. Photograph: Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara

Research suggests that humans are negatively affected by the lack of sunlight and fresh air. Rooms without windows disturb our sleep patterns and make us depressed and anxious, and the mental health of dorm residents has been bound to their ability to see green spaces. The lack of windows also makes it more difficult to evacuate fires and can cause the build-up of mold or carbon monoxide. In many US jurisdictions, including New York, it is illegal to advertise a windowless room such as a bedroom.

In his letter, McFadden said the university seemed intimidated by its donor and determined to move the project forward. “It was clear that the [design review committee] was just a formality, ”he wrote. “The design has been described as 100% complete, approval has not been requested, no votes have been taken and no further submissions are planned or required. “

When I contacted McFadden by phone, he told me the letter was not for public consumption and that he had nothing to add to what he had written.

So far, UC Santa Barbara is not backing down. “We are delighted to move forward with this transformation project which directly addresses the campus’ s great need for more student accommodation,” said the university administration. noted in a statement to the Washington Post.

In a separate email to the Guardian, the administration added: “Every room that does not have an opening window (and even all rooms that do) are supplied with continuous fresh air at about twice the rate. building and mechanical code minimums. It could be argued that this can be an improvement in air quality as it does not require a student to open the window for fresh air. One could indeed argue that, but only if one did not know that the windows open.

Opponents of the project face two very powerful forces: a land-granting university with over 26,000 students and a man worth a valued $ 2.2 billion.

Unlike his mentor Buffett, known for while eating $ 3.17 McDonald’s Meals and living in the same house since 1958, Munger enjoys spending his money on ambitious pet projects.

I couldn’t reach him for a comment; in one interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2019, however, Munger, 97, and partly blind, lambasted the architects. He cited the long queues in women’s public restrooms as an example of the failures of conventional architecture: “What kind of idiot would make the men’s bathroom and the women’s bathroom the same size? he said. “The answer is, a normal architect! “

Yet the warren floor plans for Munger Hall show that there will only be two individual bathrooms – each with a toilet and a shower – for each group of eight rooms.

Although Munger had some experience as a real estate developer, he never formally studied architecture nor, he told the Journal with apparent pleasure, ever read a book about it. He admitted he might die before the project ends, but said he was convinced “he would be widely regarded as the best in the world.”

This is not the first time that Munger has funded architectural projects of his own design. The proposed Munger Hall is a much larger and more extreme version of the Munger graduate housing, a 630 student dormitory than Munger unveiled at the University of Michigan in 2015. Munger sees the earlier project as a proof of concept – a position that some students who lived there to reject.

“It was terrible,” one person said recently. wrote on an online forum for University of Michigan students. “Too many roommates [meant] no cohesion or standards. The lack of windows was depressing. Munger is about as out of touch as the billionaires come.

The “lack of windows really messed up one of my roommates with school, mental health and wellness,” another student wrote. There was “no notion of time if you are just in your room with no natural light”.

“Honestly the only two things I hated about life in Munger were the lack of windows and the fact that you just couldn’t get the humidity out of the bathrooms,” said another, “but these are things that I hated enough to leave. Unfortunately, the floor plans of the rooms at UCSB also look far worse than what we have here.

Several thousand people have signed a petition to cancel the UC Santa Barbara project. The controversy comes at the same time Howard University, a historically black university in Washington DC, has been rocked by student demonstrations on housing that students say is uninhabitable and filled with mold and insects.

There is a long story dormitories being social engineering sites. Some earlier American dorms were explicitly designed to enforce racial or class segregation; others, motivated by a progressive philosophy, were designed to erase them.

American behavioral researcher John B Calhoun has spent decades studying how populations of rats and mice respond to constrained environments. For his most famous experience, he created a 101 square inch enclosure, with plentiful food and water but limited space, and introduced four breeding pairs of mice.

In less than a year, the colony had grown to a population of over 600. As the cage grew overcrowded, its mouse utopia began to resemble something more akin to dystopia. The mice became listless, stopped breeding, and engaged in cannibalism. Some, whom Calhoun called “the beauties,” stopped interacting with other mice and instead spent all of their time obsessively sleeping or grooming themselves. When the population reached 2,200, it slipped into extinction.

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