Charles in charge
The Berkshire Hathaway underboss sparked outrage with his windowless megadorm — but he has no time for the haters
In over half a century atop the business world, Charlie Munger has never dealt with an outcry quite like this.
Not as a real estate lawyer who founded Downtown Los Angeles-based Munger, Tolles & Olson nearly six decades ago. Or as Warren Buffett’s right-hand for the past four decades at Berkshire Hathaway. Or as the owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Daily Journal for about as long.
Instead, it took a controversial design for a college dormitory to put the revered investor and longtime L.A. resident in the eye of a modern-day media storm.
And it took the media storm to show that the 97-year-old wheelchair-using billionaire remains tougher than a rusty Nebraska nail, even as the controversy lights up the internet and leads many to question the basic architectural competence of a man who, through multiple record-setting donations, has shaped the design of American college campuses.
But Munger has precisely zero interest in backing down.
“There’s no real controversy,” Munger told The Real Deal in early November. “We just had a couple of nutcases that went off half-cocked.”
One of the “nutcases” was Dennis McFadden, a respected architect who was a longtime member of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Design Review Committee.
On Oct. 25, McFadden submitted a biting resignation letter: He was quitting his post because the public university was pushing ahead with a plan to build an 11-story, 1.7 million-square-foot undergraduate megadorm.
The complex was designed by Munger, and the design was a condition of the project’s initial $200 million funding, which also came from Munger. The dorm will house 4,500 students. Very few of them will have natural windows.
To McFadden, who did not respond to an interview request, the project amounted to an assault on both the principles of livable architecture and common sense. Instead of integrating with the natural setting, the megadorm represented “an alien world parked at the corner of campus,” McFadden wrote to administrators — “a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves.”
The project, he added, was “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
Queen of the arts
McFadden’s resignation letter brought Munger’s “Dormzilla” — as the Santa Barbara Independent branded the project — to the attention of the masses. Outraged nonarchitects tossed about comparisons to such notorious buildings as the Rossiya Hotel, Moscow’s Soviet-era luxury deathtrap; the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a high-density complex that’s frequently used as a horror film location; and the grandiose institutional works of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s preferred architect. One Pulitzer-winning architecture critic was more direct, panning the project as “a jail masquerading as a dormitory.”
Munger is convinced the critics — who don’t know anything about campus architecture and haven’t even bothered to really study his models, he maintains — are short-sighted idiots.
Once the dorm is actually built, he predicted, it will be “a screaming hit,” prompting a wave of copycats in California and beyond.
“If I’m right on this, you know what’s going to happen is that these buildings are going to spread. There will be four more buildings like this on the UCSB campus. The other campuses of the UC system will copy it. Other parts of the country will copy it. I think this model of building is likely to sweep the country.”
Munger’s passion for architecture predates his penchant for funding and dictating campus megaprojects.
Like Buffett, seven years his junior, he grew up in Omaha, where as a teen he worked in a grocery store owned by the future Oracle’s grandfather. (Munger and Buffett wouldn’t actually meet, however, until they were adults.) Munger would go on to become a lawyer, like his father, but he also had an architect uncle, Frederick Stott, who designed schools and churches in Nebraska and California and became a chief architect for the Federal Housing Administration.
The impression stuck.
“I regard architecture as the queen of the arts,” Munger said. “Think of how much more good one nice building does for humanity than one damn painting.”
These days Munger’s own style veers toward the pragmatic: He wants buildings to “work and not leak and be convenient to use and totally safe and last a long time and have perfect ventilation,” he said. He happily pores over plans and ideas for hours, even with his failing vision, but he has no formal training; he also can’t stand famous architects, who are egocentric and whose buildings do leak.
“I don’t want to be crazy,” he said. “I want the walls straight.”
He first dabbled in architecture by way of condo development. It was the 1950s, and Munger was in his 30s, not yet famous and only barely rich, when he invested in and helped design five apartment projects in Pasadena and Alhambra, California. His early work couldn’t have been further from UCSB’s artificially lit megadorm: After the first building’s ground floor patios took off, he doubled down on living spaces with ample outdoor access, creating one-story apartments even though zoning allowed for two.
“I wanted my projects to be better, so I just provided more land, more trees,” he said. “In those days you could get a mature olive tree out of a grove … a big tree … for $200. So I planted more damn olive trees than you can shake a stick at.”
The projects earned him his first big payday.
“Very important, the first million,” he said.
Around the same time, Munger also bought a house in Hancock Park, an old-money neighborhood in the heart of L.A. — and promptly tore it down. In its place he built, and helped design, an elegant but modest one-story home, in a style Munger described as “vaguely French”: The 4,300-square-foot house features slate roofing, shutter windows and a front entrance tucked behind a shady circular driveway.
“It’s a very traditional neighborhood, so I didn’t want to jam a modern house in it,” Munger said. “But it’s basically a one-story house.”
Munger, a man whose net worth Forbes calculates at $2.2 billion, has lived there for over 60 years. “Like me,” Buffett once quipped in a Berkshire Hathaway report, “Charlie can’t be budged if he is happy in his surroundings.”
In 2013, a British magazine, Building Design, announced that an 11-story student housing project at University College London had won that year’s Carbuncle Cup — awarded annually to “the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months.” The building, located behind a 19th-century warehouse, was panned because it forced students in cramped rooms to stare directly into a brick wall: “The 350-bedroom hulk squats on north London’s Caledonian Road like a beached whale,” the Guardian wrote, “trying to hide its copious grey flanks behind the dainty Victorian mask.”
But until this fall’s debacle at UCSB, rarely had an American student housing project drawn so much ire.
Munger, who holds degrees from the University of Michigan, Caltech and Harvard, has been a prolific campus donor, including for housing projects. But he’s never been shy about attaching a stipulation: The universities only get the money if they follow his designs.
“They can change the plans any way they want,” he said. “But they have to use their own money to do it. And that’s a reasonable request.”
In 2004, Munger donated $43.5 million to Stanford Law School, his first wife’s alma mater, and designed a fairly standard five-building complex — loaded with windows — that housed 358 suites and apartments. The approximately 600-student project did spur controversy, but only because it would block the light to smaller nearby buildings.
Munger followed the Stanford project with something more radical: a 370,000-square-foot, community-focused graduate student housing complex at Michigan that he funded with $110 million. Here, 630 students would be grouped into apartments mostly made up of seven small individual bedrooms with their own bathrooms and shared kitchens and living areas. The common areas would have windows; most individual bedrooms would not.
It was “a revolutionary concept,” Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan’s then-president, said at the time of the project announcement, that “makes graduate study less isolated.” It was also something of a teaser for “Dormzilla.”
Munger, already a major UCSB donor, donated $200 million for the new undergraduate dorm project in 2014. The university, with more than 20,000 students and growing, had limited land and was facing a dire housing shortage. Munger’s original plans called for two or three people to a room, similar to most universities.
“And one bright day I just realized that was insane,” he said. “I said, ‘No, we’re going to give everybody their own private sleeping room.”
He came up with a project, again focused on communal living, that would feature various amenities — fitness center, restaurant, music space — and was designed around a system of co-ed “houses” and single-sex “suites.” Each suite has eight residents, who share common spaces and two bathrooms but have their own small bedrooms. But there was no way so many bedrooms could all have windows. To solve the window problem, Munger looked to marine architecture, designing a system inspired by the interior portholes on Disney cruise ships: artificial “windows” that are programmed to emit light according to daylight patterns but can also be adjusted individually.
“That’s never been done,” Munger said of the adjustable sunlight option. “We realized that our damn artificial windows were going to be better than other people’s real windows.”
The recent backlash likely won’t affect construction. For years, UCSB has proved a consistent cheerleader, branding the controversial dorm “absolutely stunning” and crediting “Munger’s own sweeping and inspired vision”; recently the administrators have said they’re sticking by the design, which next advances to the Coastal Commission.
Munger is also excited about the actual construction process, which will feature off-site, extremely high-pressure concrete and various modular elements.
“Of course the people who are going to do the contracting for this project are also enormously talented, and it’s very complicated to build a precast building of this size,” he said. “It takes enormous logistics and so on — it’s not something any amateur can do.”