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UCSB Speaker Describes How Design Dictates Happiness. Spoiler Alert: Munger Hall Fails the Test

Updated: May 24, 2023

By Ewa Cook

UCSB Correspondent

In a recent UCSB Reads authors talk, famed urban design author Charles Montgomery described how architectural design directly dictates human happiness.

This just in: Dormzilla doesn’t do it.

Munger Hall Dormitory, dubbed "Dormzilla" by some media outlets, is among the most controversial issues on campus -- a proposed, nine-story structure designed to house approximately 3,500 student bedrooms, 94 percent of them without windows.

The project, which faces an uncertain future, has been in development for around a decade, amid a resoundingly negative opinion of it among students.

Elephant in the room. Montgomery, author of Happy City, at his May 10 appearance at Campbell Hall immediately addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” – Munger Hall – as an audience of about 500 people shared an awkward laugh. With key administrators, including Chancellor and Munger Hall-booster Henry Yang in attendance, however, Montgomery swiftly assured them that he was here to only talk about his book.

In Happy City, the author argues that the manner in which we build our cities alters the way we think, feel, and behave, not only as individuals but as a society. Montgomery’s insights derive, not only from urban planning disciplines, but also from his own social experiments, and encourage people to see city streets and mobility systems as emotional infrastructures.

In discussing the dangers of isolation, a growing concern of mental health professionals, he asked the audience: “Why does the name Munger Hall keep popping into my head?”

“I won’t mention it again, I promise,” he quickly added.

Despite campus surveys that have underscored the widespread student distress over Munger Hall, Yang and other administrators remain insistent on following through with the project, which receives the majority of its funding from its designer, Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger.

Munger is fronting $200 million toward the project. However, with the overall cost of the dorm forecast at $1.5 billion dollars, that represents just a fraction of what would be required, in order for Munger Hall to be considered "affordable,".

What students say. Both in his book and in his talk, Montgomery's words seemed to speak clearly to some of the critical issues swirling in the Munger Hall debate, despite his public reticence about addressing the topic directly.

Montgomery argues that cities have always been, and should always be, tools of happiness; but society has designed its way into cities that are dysfunctional which, Montgomery argues, makes people more dissatisfied, poor, isolated, and unhealthy.

Riley Bushman, a second-year environmental studies student, said that after reading Happy City, her negative feeling towards Munger Hall were heightened.

“Montgomery explores how urban planning can help us live healthier and more intrinsically valuable lives within an urban environment,” Bushman said. “I cannot imagine how Munger Hall would foster students to socialize, relax, and exercise.”

“How can UCSB support Munger Hall, a building that has virtually no windows and extreme population density, while also supporting the ‘happy city’ Charles Montgomery writes about?” she added.

The question was echoed by Gurleen Pabla, President of UCSB’s Associated Students, who recently commissioned a poll showing strong opposition to Munger Hall.

“The lack of advocacy and response from leaders on all levels (campus, local, and statewide) has been both confusing and frustrating for the student body and the community as a whole,” said Pabla.

Pabla organized A.S.’s recent, data-driven survey and analysis of over 1,400 student opinions on Munger Hall to help guide the organization’s advocacy of student concerns. The polling showed that among those who toured a mock-up of a Munger Hall room, discontent focused on density, small spaces, and artificial lighting, amid expressions about mental health.

Bottom line. In his talk, author Montgomery said that he had spoken to at least a dozen students about housing.

“Housing uncertainty is the precarity of mental health at your school,” Montgomery said, in concluding his presentation. “In order to make UCSB’s campus happier, create housing that foments strong social structures in small groups."

Ewa Cook is a Newsmakers intern,

Images: Author Charles Montgomery speaks at UCSB; Second-year UCSB student Riley Bushman; An anti-Munger Hall flyer posted on campus (Ewa Cook photos).

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