Residence Hall or Prison Block?
If you have gone to college, you have no doubt lived in a residence hall. Dorms are an integral part of campus life and something that incoming students, fresh out of high school and free from parental rules, think about quite a bit. After the first year, the number of students residing in dorms goes down and there is typically a massive drop off thereafter. The freedom (from parents) of dorm life quickly give rise to the desire to move off campus. The reasons for the desire to move are many. Dorm rooms are typically small and shared, and thus students today find that they have less personal space in their dorm than they did in their rooms at home. Another factor is the fact that students who live in dorms never leave their workplace. When I went to college, my dorm room faced the campus and from my room I could see every place I had to “go to work”. For a first-year student, that is not a big deal, but over time it gets to you psychologically. Dorms can also be quite loud compared to off campus housing where non-students simply will not tolerate blaring music or other noise in the small hours. The frivolity of campus life quickly becomes intolerable if you cannot sleep.
Perhaps the biggest driver of the exodus from campus is the condition of dorms – their cleanliness and upkeep. In others, it is the design. For the former, I know that one of the biggest complaints I had when living in the dorms as an undergraduate was the condition of the buildings. Although not unlivable, the dorms on my campus in the late 1980’s were generally unkempt, had heating, air conditioning, and plumbing problems on a routine basis, and were frequently inhabited by more roaches than people. In one case, that latter problem was a full-blown infestation that should have resulted in the building being closed for fumigation. We joked that the roaches in the building complained about all the people running around. The buildings were only about twenty years old at that point and there was really no excuse for them being in such a condition. The fact that the university allowed the building to get into that shape and charged people to live in it still strikes me as unforgiveable. It was intolerable and I have never forgotten the university turning a blind eye to us by letting that be the case.
As for design, the layout and look of dorms have varied quite a bit over time both due to economics and fashion. For example, my doctoral alma mater’s first two dorms were scaled back thanks to the Great Depression. Those buildings are ornate by today’s standards but were reduced in scale from what was originally planned and their roofs – envisioned as tile covered slopes – were changed to flat surfaces which were cheaper to install. Even without such dire times, budgets in academe always seem to be limited and dorms are an easy option to slight in terms of funding.
Naturally, aesthetics change. What is fashionable at one point will not be at another. Needs change as well. The explosion of students after WWII put a tremendous strain on all campus buildings as did the flood of the Baby Boomers a generation later. On many campuses, the GI Bill related rush of students after WWII required the construction of temporary structures and in many cases the use of trailers. The mass of Baby Boomers entering college was foretold by their entry into K-12, and more permanent solutions were developed. The dorms that dominated my undergraduate campus in the 1980’s were of this latter generation, and tended to be mid-rise structures with little features about them aside from being large boxes.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a box design. In fact, a simple design devoid of multiple angles and corners can be both cheaper to build and more energy efficient. If the scale is off, however, they can be abysmal especially to those who have to dwell in them. A woman I dated as an undergraduate who went to a different university described our dorms at the University of Tennessee as looking like “something straight out of the Soviet Union or East Germany”. I wouldn’t go quite that far but I understood her point. They were nondescript hulking masses that had no outward appeal and functional interiors that were even less notable.
In the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, the big box dorm seemed to be going away. Smaller apartment-building style residence halls were going up all over the country. The smaller scale had them fit in better with their campus counterparts. They were much more modern in terms of the square footage provided per resident, and in many cases, they actually had a bit of architectural flair. Only time will tell what will happen in the future.
All of this came to mind as I read the academic news in the last couple of weeks. A dorm is being planned at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A couple of pieces about the building have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, and on insidehighered.com. Although it is not unusual for news of a building to make the Chronicle, this one stands out for having not one, but two pieces appear in that outlet. You can gather that means something, and in this case, it is not good. The building is not even under construction at this point, but it is already causing a stir.
Munger Hall is to be an 11-story behemoth on the UCSB campus and will – if the current plans are followed – house about 4,500 students. Yes, you read that correctly, 4,500 students. The building will be the result of a $200 million donation by billionaire Charlie Munger, for whom the building will be named. But Munger is not merely the benefactor of the building, he is also the principal architect. Munger made his wealth via his work with Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway. He has no training in architecture, but this is not the first building he has designed. The Munger Graduate Residence at the University of Michigan was also his. But the size of the building and the fact that Munger has no training in architecture are not the main complaints being aired about the UCSB project. Although it is hard to imagine the structure not overwhelming its surroundings, it is the lack of a certain feature that has drawn the most ire. You see, the rooms of this residence hall will be suites with eight bedrooms, a kitchen, bath, a common area, and a single window. Not a single window per bedroom. Just a single window in the common area above the kitchen sink. Eight bedrooms and no windows! Some 94% of student living space will be devoid of an external view of any kind. The bedrooms are designed to have “false windows”, a light roughly the size of a typical rectangular window.
A consulting architect for the project, Dennis J. McFadden resigned and penned a scathing op-ed in the LA Times (see it here). He described it, among other terms, as “destructive”. He noted that over a century ago, New York City outlawed windowless living spaces in the New York Tenement House Act. The building would come in at some 1.68 million square feet, which McFadden noted is larger than Dodgers Stadium in LA! Plus, the building would only have two sets of doors.
I have had an office without a window, and I can tell you it was not a pleasant experience. I would lose track of time, have no idea what the weather was like, and worse. After a few weeks of being in that office on a daily basis, I found that would get dazed and dizzy at times (and that would happen within only a few minutes). I would absolutely hate to have a bedroom without a window. I also would not want my sons to live in such a place. I will go so far as to I don’t think it would be a humane space. If the dorms I resided in were like a Soviet housing block, this seems more like a prison block!
I will let you draw your own conclusions. In addition to McFadden’s op-ed, you can read about the project here, here, here, and here.
The future of residence halls is always in question. We are in the middle of the biggest decline in traditional college-aged students in modern history. That alone will likely shape the dorm environment. I don't know if it will result in smaller buildings being built, or simply no new construction at all. On the other hand, urban serving institutions have and are continuing to build dorms to provide an economical alternative to housing in the competitive environment. Only time will tell.
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