Fiat Dollars and the Architectural Results of Unsound Money.

It’s hard to imagine a large-scale public project that does not receive criticism and creates some controversy these days. It could be anything from: The aesthetics don’t match the neighborhood, the site was previously used for XYZ, the project will increase traffic around my home. There are many reasons people get up in arms around architecture (lowercase a). All probably valid concerns.

Many buildings today serve no other purpose than the pursuit of investment needs of a quickly eroding dollar. Sky-high rental rates and rapidly rising real estate prices are all factors of “High Time Preference” as Saifedean Ammous would describe it. The replacement of saving and investing in the future for the immediate needs of the present. How do you get rid of the dollar as quickly as possible and into something that will not vanish in 10 years’ time?

You put it into real estate. You invest in stocks. You become a master of the market and risk all you have today just to keep up with the coming inflation. These are the ideas that have been circulating in my head. Why has architecture shifted to the buildings we see today? Cheap short-term housing. Low design standards. Focus on profits, etc… People have few other choices. Most of us being born after 1971 have lived in a world of artificial money. A dollar, based on nothing of considerable value. More gets created when needed out of thin air. Crisis = Print. Recession = Print.

If you don’t know the US dollar is created as debt. Those with the closest connection to the debt, as it’s created, typically benefit the most from it. It’s easy money that is supposed to trickle down to the masses and stimulate the economy.

With all that said, it’s been running around in my head. Why don’t we have Architecture similar to the great works of the past being built today? What happened to the days of artisans constructing our cities. We have the engineering and machinery to create even greater works of art today with less manual labor than ever before.

Unfortunately, I bring this question up without a real solution to its problem. Let’s take for example the article below. If you have not read the full article I suggest you at least skim it. I will highlight some comments below.

Charlie Munger, the 97-year-old billionaire who has been ridiculed for wanting to build a dormitory with thousands of windowless bedrooms at the University of California, Santa Barbara, came out swinging on Monday morning. In a wide-ranging conversation with Record, he called his opponents — including a respected architect who resigned from an advisory committee last week — “idiots” and said he expects the 4,500-room building to be copied all over the country. “Every other college will be jealous,” he asserted.

Let’s take a look at this. A university has an issue with housing and a lack thereof. They look to a large donor for a solution. Just to be clear, it’s currently unclear how many dollars Munger will place into this self-named housing project “Munger Hall”. He calls everyone designing it idiots and decides a building with thousands of windowless bedrooms is the way to go. Then claims they will all be jealous of me.

Munger’s plan for an 11-story, 1.68 million square foot housing block was greeted with open arms by the university’s chancellor, Henry Yang, who called it “inspired and revolutionary.”

You can read a little about Yang’s Bio. Basically, he’s an engineer and in charge of solving the school’s needs for housing. The more housing, the more students, the more revenue, the more grants, the more student loans… and so forth and so on.

The building will have nine identical residential floors, each divided into eight “houses,” with each house further divided into eight eight-person suites. Rows and rows of identical 10 foot by 7 foot bedrooms give the building, in plan, about as much variety as a sheet of graph paper. And only about 6 percent of the rooms — the end rooms in each row of 32 — have windows.”

Ok, so repetition and the use of modular elements and repeating forms is not really the issue here. 7'x10'. Probably livable. Sure why not. It’s larger than the typical American prison cell of 6'x8'. It’s like a cool tiny house. But in this case, it’s more like a small tiny house shoved into the basement garage of a highrise. They should not be spending much time in their rooms anyway, right Munger.

“Everybody who sees the models goes ape-shit for them,” Munger said.

Wait, who is going ape-shit? “Everybody” Oh ok. Do you see them go ape-shit? “Everybody goes ape-shit” Really, Everybody? “Everybody”

“It’s all about the happiness of the students. We want to keep the suicide rate low.” Munger said.

Wait a second here. Now it’s about the happiness of the students. You want to keep the suicide rate low in a windowless room only slightly larger than the average prison cell. A room in which you can’t tell whether it’s night or day. Have you seen the sleeping patterns of college students?

“We had a window shortage. So we just copied what Disney Cruises did. The way Disney does it, the window is really a television set. Those work beautifully on the ships.

Beautiful. Simply breathtaking. So nice… Love the light quality.

But I wanted to have a spectrum of sunlight, so with a curtain hanging over it you couldn’t tell if it was artificial or real. I figured out how to do that. Programming the lights to copy the sun was too expensive. So we will give the students knobs, and they can have whatever light they want. Real windows don’t do that.”

Wait. The TV is not just a tv in the room that happens to provide some light if they want it. It actually is designed to be the window. I bet the curtain really helps. I’m glad Munger figured out how to hang the curtain over it.

I just have to take a deep breath. This feels like too much. Is this the direction we want to go? Do we want to send our kids off to live in windowless rooms during a time known for expanding personal knowledge and creativity? It feels like thought is not being put into this. It’s purely a mathematical solution to a larger issue. Where do we go from here?

What are your thoughts on this? Am I way off base with my relationship with the eroding dollar and degradation of Architecture?

I’m an Architect. My favorite thing to do is create stories through architectural design. Founder of Whitewash Studio architecture firm in Atlanta, GA.