By Kelsey Brugger
Four years ago on the Fourth of July, Charlie Munger, the billionaire who is vice chair of Warren Buffet’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, sat down with Lars Bildsten, UC Santa Barbara’s theoretical physics director. The meeting went well.
Munger offered to donate $65 million for a residence building at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. “It’s the main visiting physics program in the whole damn world,” Munger, 92, said recently. “It’s a huge feather in the cap of UC Santa Barbara. Physicists are important. If we had lost the war against Hitler, which we very easily could have if he hadn’t attacked Russia, the physicists would have won it for us.”
Hundreds of top scientists, half from outside the U.S., are accepted every year into the institute’s programs. Beginning next year, the visiting scholars will reside in the spectacular new building on El Colegio Road.
“Architecture is the queen of the arts,” said Munger, a part-time resident of Montecito whose grandson attended UCSB. “[Winston] Churchill said we shape our buildings and then they shape us. The architecture impacts the human outcome.”
Too many architects, he said, want to be sculptors without caring about the engineering. “That’s grievous. It’s like a doctor that didn’t want to learn anatomy,” he said. “It’s kind of a hobby.”
Munger invoked this thinking to hone the details of the three-story, ivory-white house made up of 61 units. Built by The Towbes Group, the structure stands out on campus. High ceilings and 10-foot-wide corridors make the interior feel spacious. Airy dining areas face wetlands and offer mountain views. Window frames are made of steel. Nearly everything — down to the exact width of décor on the doors — “was all Charlie,” said Bildsten.
Munger insisted that more than 50 international flags line the hallways. Two-dozen chalkboards are scattered inside and out. “I can guess these blackboards will be filled with equations immediately,” Bildsten said. Munger initially wanted whiteboards, but Bildsten convinced him chalkboards are a longstanding tradition in the field.
n the basement — a rare feature in California, also at Munger’s instruction — is room for Ping-Pong tables, surfboards, musical instruments, bike storage, and patios with barbecues, all to encourage intellectual bonding after hours among scientists with different specialties.
Earlier this year, Munger announced a major pledge to UCSB for new, highly unconventional dorms. While the details have not been finalized, the proposed building is believed to be higher than customary on the coast, with windows planned only for the common areas. He designed a similar eight-story building at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, and recently completed a residence project at Stanford.
Munger explained the project is still in the design stage, and described it as “complicated” and “ambitious.” It will be an “utter transformation of UCSB for the better,” he promised.
Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Independent. Kelsey Brugger ’10, is a writer at the Independent.