Skinny trees, patchy grass, appalling sight … why the £ 6million Marble Arch mound always falls flat | London


It was called a “BTec Tour Eiffel” and a “heap of slag”. He has been compared to “a Santa Claus cave in the parking lot, with dogs pretending to be reindeer ”. The Marble Arch Mound, the temporary man-made hill commissioned by Westminster City Council as an “ambitious” tourist attraction, has become, as one representative of the local community put it, “an international laughing stock”.

The council responded to criticism by allowing free entry during the month of August, and a number of the curious and ghoulish fascinated came in. This week it will start charging again. Given the fundamental flaws in the project’s design, the question is whether people will want to pay £ 8 for a fast-track weekend ticket now, any more than they did when it opened in late July.

Two complaints emerge: Its lean trees and patchy brown grass look nothing like the lush foliage promised in computer visualizations, and the 25-meter height of its viewing platform is not enough to see above. neighboring buildings and mature trees in the nearby Hyde Park. “It wasn’t high enough to offer the view,” a mother said last week as she descended her slightly inconsolable children from the top, “and they clearly didn’t have a good enough gardener.”

There is also the question of its cost. Council minutes as of last May ‘current indicative construction costs’ stood at ‘around £ 1.998 million’. With operating and other costs included, the total figure was to be £ 3.3million. The cost is now estimated at £ 6million. The board declined to give reasons for the increase, on the grounds that it is “subject to internal review”.

Westminster City Council President Rachael Robathan has pledged that “we will be able to cover almost all of the costs of construction and operation over its six month lifespan through the sale of tickets and sponsorship ”. It’s unclear how much sponsors will pay, if any, to associate their name with a PR disaster. There are no signs yet of the Marks & Spencer food trucks or the Percy Pig vending machine (a “world first” where “kids can take a picture with Percy via an interactive mini-experience”) that would have contributed to the income. .

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Robathan told the local amenity group Sebra that she could “safely say it’s a mind-blowing point of view.” It would be, she said, “a good investment”. Elad Eisenstein, the council’s program director for the Oxford Street neighborhood, and a driving force behind the mound, said it would “draw people to the West End”.

The mound offers a good view of the traffic on Park Lane. Photograph: Sarah Lee / The Guardian

The project was motivated by the impacts on Oxford Street of online retailing, shopping malls such as the two giant Westfield malls of London and Covid. Famous stores, such as Debenhams and Topshop, have closed their doors. Thus, “a bold vision” was designed “to provide a prosperous future for the country’s main street, as the greenest, smartest and most sustainable neighborhood of its kind anywhere in the world”.

The mound would be a harbinger of this grand plan, a “daring new tourist attraction”, a “catalyst for the neighborhood to regain global fame and success”. This would bring much-needed footfall back to Oxford Street, the west end of which ends at Marble Arch.

Dutch architects MVRDV were approached to design the attraction, which could have been a good choice. They have a track record of imaginative and engaging projects, including a large scaffolding staircase who took people to a temporary cinema on top of a commercial building near Rotterdam Central Station. In Tainan, Taiwan, they turned the remains of a shopping mall into a water garden, and they made a old elevated highway in Seoul in a park.

They had also had a previous unsuccessful attempt to build mounds. In 2004, they proposed to bury the Serpentine Gallery, located a mile from Marble Arch, in such a structure, but the project was aborted due to the difficulty of its delivery. If this was a warning about the problems with creating a high-speed flowery hill landscape, it was ignored. The doubts of local community groups, expressed as soon as the mound was announced last February, were also not. “We criticized the project from the start knowing that anything that involves planting on this scale takes time,” says Tim Carnegie of the Marylebone Association, which represents the people who live and work in the area north of Marble Arch. .

Eisenstein has promised it will open for the expected end of the lockdown on June 21, “or in a few weeks.” It finally opened on July 26, then closed after two days, then reopened – with free entry – on August 9 “We wanted to open the mound in time for the summer break,” the Westminster chief executive said, Stuart Love, but he and MVRDV admitted it was “too soon”.

“It’s always unpredictable,” said the architects, “when working with plants and trees… we just need to give nature a little time. They cited “difficult conditions,” and certainly the droughts and torrential rains this summer did not help, but this defense begs the question why something so ambitious was being attempted at breakneck speed.

The official reason for the rush is the urgency of the crisis facing Oxford Street. “Doing nothing is not an option,” council officials liked to say, which is why they moved the mound forward with minimal consultation and scrutiny.

But Paul Dimoldenberg, Labor opposition adviser to Westminster, points out that it was never clear how the 280,000 people expected to visit the mound would, even in the unlikely event that all of them also went shopping, would have a significant impact on traffic on a street which, pre-pandemic, attracted 200 million visits per year. “It’s the smallest drop of water in the ocean,” he says.

Dimoldenberg says the mound is a case of the council’s “total pride” and that “heads should fall”. So far Deputy Council Chief Melvyn Caplan has resigned due to the budget overrun. But Robathan and Eisenstein, the project’s most prominent enthusiasts, remain in place for now.

Meanwhile, entrance fees will return on September 1 and the mound is expected to stay until January. At the time of writing, its website’s ticketing page indicates “excellent availability” for each time slot after billing begins. It does not seem likely that additional growth on the trees will be enough to save the project.

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