Charlie Munger, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, passed away yesterday just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday.
For a long time I idolized him as a fantastic investor and wise man - reading books about him, listening to his interviews and watching funny quips & quotes. But my most recent and lasting impression is the story of Charlie Munger, Architect.
You see, Munger became an architecture buff in later life - he loved to design buildings, especially college dorms. According to a 2019 WSJ interview “he spen[t] up to several hours a day on making architectural drawings.” In the 1980s and 90s he tried out his experiments on just his California properties (“Mungerville”), and on the $13 million Science Center he donated to Harvard-Westlake school in 1995 (his kids’ and grandkids’ Los Angeles-based prep school). Then he went bigger. In 2004 he donated $43 million to Stanford for new graduate student housing, and in 2006, $9.2 million to Harvard-Westlake again for a new middle school campus. In 2011 he gave $20 million to University of Michigan (his alma mater) for housing renovations; followed in 2013 by an unprecedented $110 million for a brand new dorm, housing 600 students (Munger Graduate residence hall). In 2014 he donated $65 million to UC Santa Barbara (where his grandson studied) for resident housing at the Kavli Institute of Theoritical Physics; followed in 2016 by a stupendous $200 million to construct a 11-story, 1.68 million sq ft mega-dorm housing 4,500 students, to be named “Munger Hall”.
These gifts always came with a stipulation: that the buildings be designed by Munger himself, and made exactly as per his blueprints.
And he had some… unique ideas - some good, some not. Removeable walls in the library? Ok. Bigger restrooms for women than men? Fair enough. But no windows? At the proposed Munger Hall, 94% of the bedrooms had no windows, no access to natural light, or fresh air. Some called the design “Dormzilla”. Others called it “a grotesque, sick joke — a jail masquerading as a dormitory.”
Rendition of Munger Hall at UCSB (source: NYT)
His rationale? “To coax students into common spaces where they can mingle and collaborate.” Like all the executives recently forcing their employees back to the office, he just wanted the students to “riff”.
Munger, who is 97 years old, blind in one eye, and losing vision in the other, has no formal training in architecture, but over the last decade has developed a passion for creating unconventional yet highly efficient blueprints for college living. Most of the bedrooms in his UCSB residence hall, for example, don’t have windows in order to coax students into common spaces where they can mingle and collaborate. The rooms would instead be fitted with artificial windows modeled after portholes on Disney cruise ships.
How often has Mr. Munger read books on architecture? “Never,” he says.
“Architects don’t love me,” he says. “Either I change architects, or he does it my way.”
(Source: 2021 WSJ article)
After a lot of public outcry and 2 years of back and forth (chiefly driven by a desperate UCSB governance looking for a deus ex machina to save it from its self-created student housing crisis), in August 2023 UCSB decided to abandon the proposal. In response, Munger withdrew his funding.
A set of 8 single rooms, sharing 1 bathroom (rendition)
Would UCSB students have been better off giving into Munger’s quirky demands? After all, maybe any housing is better than none at all? Let’s ask the students living in Munger Hall at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (which incidentally is my alma mater too):
[G]raduate student Luiza Macedo didn’t see the sun for a full week when she had to isolate in her room at Munger Residence due to a Covid-19 scare. “That was probably the low point of my experience here. It was being stuck in my room,” Macedo said. “A lot of people are incredulous that this was even a thing before all these articles came out about UCSB…like, how is this legal? How are they doing this to us?”
Many students use sun lamps or night lights to create an artificial sense of daytime – students told CNN Business it’s almost impossible to get by without one.
Louise Batta, a PhD student, wasn’t aware her room wouldn’t have windows – she said there were no pictures on the website, and due to Covid she couldn’t tour in person. Batta said she immediately began getting headaches because of ventilation issues. “It’s completely thrown off my circadian rhythm. It’s hard to get up in the morning to go out of bed because I never know what time it is,” Batta said. “I know that people joke all the time about how bad the living situation is, but it has truly had a negative impact on my grad school experience.”
James Wyatt, the chief of behavioral sleep medicine at the Rush University Medical Center, said college students are already at the most vulnerable age bracket for a disrupted circadian rhythm. And artificial windows are merely “a proxy,” he said. “It was just staggering to me to take this vulnerable population of young adults and expose them to an environment depriving them of daily time cues of the light dark cycle,” Wyatt said. “It is absolutely in my opinion, as a scientist with decades studying these issues, reckless.”
(Source: CNN article)
What did Munger think of those who disagreed with him? For example, the architect who served on the UCSB achitecture advisory board for 15 years, but quit in protest when the university decided to proceed with construction in 2021 over all objections?
“When an ignorant man leaves, I regard it as a plus not a minus,” Munger said about the consulting architect in an interview with CNN Business Monday. “He’s just plain wrong.”
“I’m not a bit surprised that someone looked at it and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” he said on Friday. “What’s going on here is that it’s going to work better than any other practical alternative.”
“You can’t solve your problem, if you want correct thinking, by just hiring bright people,” he says, “because they do many dumb things.”
And Munger’s opinion on his own designs?
He predicts that when this dorm and his future housing projects at UC Santa Barbara are completed, “it will be widely regarded as the best in the world.” He invokes Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt: “It isn’t that the Jews didn’t get to the Promised Land, it’s just that Moses didn’t get to… That’s OK. This will all come to fruition after I’m dead.”
Like other hubristic executives of our current day, Munger saw his success in one field as proof that he can go conquer any field he chooses. Like Stockton Rush, he thought existing experts in their field were “just plain wrong”. Like Kalanick or Musk, he regarded objectors and regulators as stuck in the past; roadblocks to the “new paradigm” he was trying to usher in. And like all powerful people, he used his incredible wealth and influence to pursue his obsession and force everyone to go along.
Does he deserve any praise for his generosity? After all, he could have chosen to keep the money. Well, as he himself said, not really:
“I waited until my 90th year before making the gift, then gained friendship and creative joy in working with the university in a very interesting design effort likely to have a good outcome, while I parted with assets I soon won’t need,” Munger said.
So as this great man and his monstrous design for UCSB’s students are no more, let’s remember this old poem about fallibility:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.