Long ago, in 1979, I visited a friend in London for three weeks while he was a student at the London School of Economics and lived on Great Russell Street across from the British Museum. I often walked down Oxford Street to Hyde Park at its corner with Park Lane, through the Marble Arch and into Speakers’ Corner, where British politicians, divines, writers and cranks have held forth on many subjects, sacred and profane, for centuries.
The Marble Arch was designed by architect John Nash in 1827 as the entrance to Buckingham Palace, completed in 1833, but relocated in 1851 to Hyde Park.
Wikipedia notes that Speakers’ Corner was frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell and William Morris, among many others. I assume they spoke when not listening, and I assume also none of them, even Karl Marx, would have been dumb enough to believe that the Marble Arch Mound was a good idea.
The Mound is a steep, hollow, fake hill with some trees. It opened next to the Marble Arch last summer, costing $18 million to build and $6 to climb. It was supposed to be a tourist attraction to help the Oxford Street shopping district cope with covid.
The good news is that attendance was so poor, so widely ridiculed, that yesterday it closed to the public. By that point, tickets were “being sold for free,” according to CNN. The bad news is that no date certain has been selected for tearing the damn thing down. Or, it might be reasonably asked, since bad architecture hates a vacuum, what might be put in its place?
The Marble Arch Mound was meant to be temporary. Not temporary enough, it appears. Its closure has been described as permanent. Thank God! But when will it begone? An interesting but largely wrongheaded essay by Rowan Moore of the Guardian is headlined “Why the Marble Arch Mound is a slippery slope to nowhere“; at least the headline is true!
The moundstrosity (please excuse me) was designed by MVRDV, a firm based in Rotterdam that specializes in stupid buildings, including buildings with trees on top. It also designed a twin residential towers with a central element of a clustered puff of balconies that resembled explosions. The firm denied that it had intended it to resemble 9/11, but it was obvious they had. Maybe because of justifiable horror at the design, it has yet to be built in its target city of Seoul.
Firms like MVRDV cater to the whim of architects and city planners, and idiot developers who are really to blame, for buildings and other structures that don’t look like anything ever built. Most end up looking like bad architecture already imagined and built, but there are exceptions, such as the Twin Seouls. Another, just to name a few, is CCTV headquarters in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas, which looks like it is stomping on the people of China. The Pompidou Center, a museum in Paris designed by the late Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, looks like it was built inside-out. Another of this ilk is called The Vessel, a “sculpture” designed by Thomas Heatherwick and installed at Hudson Yards, in Manhattan. It closed because some people who climb it like to leap off of it. These oddities were joined by the Marble Arch Mound. So far as I know, nobody has jumped or fallen off it.
It may be hoped that there are plans to take it down soon so people won’t have to look at it anymore. If so, the denizens of Speakers Corner, if they are still allowed to voice opinions, will be saddened by its absence as a splendidly easy object of their derision.
[After publication I was informed that the Marble Arch Mound covered a Blitz-era WWII bunker next to the arch. In a couple of dozen articles from the time of its initial opening last July 26 to its recent closure, including Wikipedia, I could find no mention of such a bunker’s existence or its dubious rationale for the Mound. A bunker near Hyde Park Corner served as a refuge for Winston Churchill during the London Blitz at a corner of the park well away from Marble Arch. It does not show on the diagram below, nor was it supposedly demolished prior to the Mound’s construction. But I did learn that the Mound was originally expected to close on Jan. 9, which it did, that it was to be removed shortly after, and that its trees would be replanted on London streets and school grounds. There remains no thinking that I could discover regarding plans for a replacement, if any. The most extraordinary thing I learned via this additional research is that the original plan for the Mound was for it to cover up the Marble Arch itself. This plan was rejected, not because it would have been insane but because it might have damaged the arch.]
Hyde park needs a mound.
I say chaps, it’d been cheaper to simply truck in a pile of dirt….. and plant it.
David, the money would have been better spent restoring some of the store fronts along Oxford Street, and perhaps planting more trees along this currently somewhat blighted thoroughfare.
The mound looks like nothing more than a recycled “landfill”, an amusing euphemism for “trash heap”.
I find, Clay, that there is a plan to redistribute the trees, though they apparently are not very healthy. Possibly replanting could benefit their health.
You said all that needs to be said. From Rowan Moore:
“The project has been commissioned by Westminster city council in the hope that it will help bring people, post-pandemic, back to the UK’s most famous shopping street. It … aims to crack what has long been an unsolvable problem… how to make this well-known but none-too-pleasant thoroughfare more enjoyable and civilized.”
Well, none of my friends who could have provided a humane and lasting solution based on centuries of urban practice was asked to do this job. It went instead to a team that promised glamor and fashion. $18 million spent in the best possible way to build a tourist attraction with trees? The Westminster city council got what it deserved.
I am sure you are not surprised, Nikos, that a sensible landscape or architectural use of the space was not sought or considered necessary, or even that something beautiful or interesting, or both, might have been permitted to breach their consciousness. Originally the plan was to cover up Marble Arch itself with the Mound. That plan was scrapped, but only because experts thought it might damage the arch. (I found this out in research that I described in the note at the end of the post.)