From affordable housing to an Oxford quad, beauty and practicality cut through debates over cladding, billionaires – and a mound

Read the Observer critics’ review of 2021 in full here

What can be said of a world where one billionaire wants to build a giant tulip-shaped tower of little practical use and another wants to house thousands of students in windowless rooms in a block with all the charm of an Amazon distribution centre? The first, designed by Foster + Partners for the Brazilian Jacob Safra, was supposed somehow to boost confidence in the City of London by building what would have been only the world’s second highest flower-themed absurdity, a taller Lotus Tower having already been built in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The second, Munger Hall, is the dormitory for the University of California, Santa Barbara, where in return for donating $200m of the $1.5bn cost the 97-year-old Charlie Munger is insisting that 94% of residents have no natural light in their rooms.

At least the British government saw sense and refused the Tulip planning permission, whereas plans are still proceeding for Munger Hall. Both projects seem driven by ego, but in the wide space between the brutal functionalism of the latter and the redundant gesturing of the former you might hope to find places where beauty is put in the service of the usual and unusual needs of human life. My top five, I submit, achieve this.

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