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The writer is the FT’s architecture and design critic
The Marble Arch is a structure with a void at its centre. Sure, all triumphal arches are gateways without walls, but most at least celebrate a triumph. Whether it’s the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commemorating the French Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Victories, or the Wellington Arch in London celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, these are representational architectures of victory.
Marble Arch is known more for its Tube station than its arch. Designed in 1827 by John Nash, architect of Regent Street, it was once the gateway to Buckingham Palace, but was moved to Hyde Park and then put on to a traffic island in the 1960s.
It has now been joined by another pointless pile, the Marble Arch Mound. This is a 25m tall, £2m turf-and-tree covered artificial hill designed by Dutch architects MVRDV and funded by Westminster Council. The mound has closed, two days after it opened.
I went to see it, sitting on a bench eating my sandwiches, pigeons eyeing the crumbs by my feet. The plywood cladding, scruffy turf and forlorn trees were still being applied. Despite having lived in London my entire life I had never sat at Marble Arch. It is the kind of place Londoners take pains to avoid, and this is the problem the unlikely mound is designed to address. Can something be done to pull people back to the West End after the lockdown, the collapse in tourism and the loss of so many shops?
The fake hill is constructed on an armature of scaffolding. This is not the first scaffold attraction here. That would have been the Tyburn gallows, sited a few yards from here until the 18th century. Execution days were public holidays, rowdy events with pie sellers and beer vendors. As Oxford Street developed more civilised manners it became an entertainment centre, a street of theatres and attractions, dioramas and ballrooms. And finally it became known for shopping, with the arrival of the department stores in the late 19th century. Judging by the shuttered shopfronts and empty stores, that era might also be coming to an end.
The mound is part of a new era of wholly aimless global attractions designed to be climbed and take selfies on. There was Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in New York for instance, which may face permanent closure after a fourth suicide earlier this week, or Copenhagen’s Amager-Bakke waste-incinerator/ski-slope by architects BIG. Or there was MVRDV’s own Scaffolding Stair in Rotterdam (2016), along with a slew of pavilions and pop-ups.
Architecture to clamber over has confused spectacle with publicness and accessibility. Is this really a park, as it is billed? When it opened, tickets cost £4.50 or more and as it has a long set of steps, this is hardly an accessible attraction. The Vessel, another set of stairs, was touted as a free attraction when it opened. It now costs $10. Heatherwick’s Little Island in New York is now timed entry only. It is also part of a trend for sticking trees on buildings in an effort to make them look green.
London’s mound is a temporary, grass-covered bit of summer silliness that does little damage and can mostly be recycled, but would it not be more interesting to examine the future of those empty department store hulks? Perhaps they could be given over to culture, to struggling theatre companies, artists and makers, to clubs and live music — they are already, after all, fully-kitted-out public buildings.
With the most prominent location possible, transport links and novelty, they could become the most remarkable places, housing anything from studios to dance floors. Many of the shops are now looking at reducing their footprints to create more office space. The hairy hill is not, perhaps, the most interesting possible future and its failure should not have been a surprise.
The question is: can Oxford Street, one of the world’s most polluted thoroughfares, signify anything beyond shopping? If it is going to have a viable future it needs to look beyond fake hills, trees treated like hair transplants and pointless arches towards a more substantial and sophisticated mix of culture and commerce.