The new Marble Arch reminds me of that Cristiano Ronaldo statue
The Marble Arch. Originally built as an entrance to Buckingham Palace, and moved to its current site, in 1850, at the foot of the Edgware Road, a Roman Road, which began construction at the point of the Roman invasion in AD 43.
Parts of London have grown and shrunk and risen and sunk many times since. And the Marble Arch is a nice illustration of — sadly — the shrinking fortunes of some of London’s objects: A beautiful arch, designed by John Nash, loved by a few, inoffensive to most. It was first envisaged with a statue of George IV, stood on top, astride a horse, but was watered down when John Flaxman, the sculptor chosen for the piece, died. When it shifted from the Palace to its current spot it was intended as an entrance way to the Royal Parks, and it carried out that job until 1908, when it was cut off from the park by a narrower version of the road that’s there today. Perhaps moving the Arch to the former home of the Tyburn Tree was not the solution to bring new life to the area. It has become something of a synecdoche since: Marble Arch is the arch itself, and is also the roundabout, and is also the wider area including the tube station. A no man’s land, between the shops and the park, where tourists may worry about being mugged at night, or locals may play table tennis in the day, but not really a big destination in itself. Known for little other than for the Arch, a much ignored landmark that could become a destination landmark once again, with a little love, and a little investment.
Rather than use The Arch itself, a plan was hatched to build a large “mound” overshadowing the Arch
Over the course of the pandemic, this is an area that was abandoned. It had an odd few years even prior: Taken over by Extinction Rebellion a couple of times. A site where EDL marches, and Brexit marches, and indeed any other sort of march may meet. The Arch was accompanied by a beautiful horse eventually, or at least part of one: an enormous horse’s head statue stood close by for the last decade — “Still Water” — crafted in bronze by Nic Fiddian-Green. But that, as with many other plans for the area over the decades, moved on to greener pastures (albeit only marginally greener: a rough patch of land on Park Lane, near Achilles Way, named after the large statue of Achilles, which was sculpted by the man who took over from Flaxman on the Arch’s adornments, Sir Richard Westmacott).
The horse bolted for a reason: Westminster Council’s next plan for the roundabout had taken shape. Just as the Government threw money at “culture” through the pandemic via the Cultural Recovery Fund, so Westminster Council is throwing money at the rejuvenation of the centre, and in particular Oxford Street — Europe’s Longest Shopping Street — to bring visitors back to the area.
The strategy for this is sound. Westminster planned to spend cash on both permanent tweaks and temporary tactics, to bring people back. Tourist traffic tends to tail off the further it gets from Oxford Circus. Piccadilly Circus – despite being empty other than a disused fountain – has retained the ability to pull people down Regent Street. But, past Selfridge’s, there is little to pull a tourist any further along Oxford Street, or indeed to encourage them to begin their journey at that point, or to bridge the park and the street. And so Westminster Council decided to push money into the problem, by commissioning something to carry out that job at Marble Arch.
Rather than use The Arch itself, and use the opportunity to plough a bit of cash into improving the structure, or perhaps light it as Tate Britain was lit, or the Lumiere Festivals lit various monuments, bringing footfall and interest to them even during the day, a plan was hatched to build a large “mound” overshadowing the Arch. Dutch architects MVRVD, who themselves refer to it as the Marble Arch Hill, designed a 25m structure, built on scaffold, to bring a “taste of the great outdoors’ to central London. Slightly ironically it would be located next to the largest area of green space already in London. Perhaps — despite that quirk — it could perform the function the Council wanted. MVRVD are known for some wonderful things — large and small: The Markthal in Rotterdam, the Balancing Barn you often see in in-flight magazines, or would at least prior to the pandemic. Perhaps the odd idea of overshadowing an existing, well-known landmark with a scaffolded hill could work, with the vision of a great architecture practice? Or perhaps it could not.
I presume the designs were based on Winter, as the grand views promised over Hyde Park are fully obscured by leaves
It’s been quoted as costing £2m, though various people have suggested it may actually have cost more, and nobody seems to know for sure outside of (presumably) Westminster Council. As the plan ticked along, the council sought ways to lessen costs. As they put it, “the project team will work to refine and reduce this figure where possible through design development, legacy planning and income generation”. In effect that meant: charging to climb the Mound, bringing in corporate partners to sell extra stuff to visitors, and chopping out elements of the build to reduce the overall price.
Ticket sales were forecast at 280,000, and a price list emerged, topping out at about £8 for an adult to climb the Mound, though that seems to have dropped to £6.50 (or at least, that’s what I paid for a “fast track” ticket on opening night). M&S would take over an area inside for what was at first referred to as a “café’, but latterly has been talked of as “food trucks”, and — at point of launch — whatever form that may take does not yet exist. That left the remaining element of reducing the cost “where possible through design development”. As anyone who’s worked on large projects will know, plans to ad-hoc chop costs out during the build phase often go wrong, and the magic of the initial vision easily fades. A grand vision to bring in quarter of a million people to summit a piece of art, and survey the open lands of Hyde Park can easily become — as one pundit, Gary Taphouse, put it — a journey to “a £2m temporary slag heap overlooking the Hard Rock Café and they expect you to pay £6.50 to climb it”.
I wander past the spot fairly regularly. I’ve seen it progressing from an empty space, to a building site, to a set of scaffolds, and more recently seen the turf going on. I’d thought it strange from the start that the answer to “we need a landmark at Marble Arch” was anything other than “how about Marble Arch?”, but as it progressed it felt stranger, rather than feeling like — as I assumed I would — the execution would be so brilliant I’d be proven wrong. A couple of days before the opening night, a taxi driver described it to me as looking like one of those roads in Spain, where they’ve cut into the side of a mountain, and thrown some turf on top, and as I went back to look again at the original marketing material I wondered if perhaps Westminster Council’s plan to spend £2m on an experiment to bring back tourists might actually be the waste of money I’d originally worried.
Another taxi driver pointed out subsequently: The architect’s impressions of the area use an old FX4 taxi, which hasn’t been in London for 20 years. “Beautiful and aesthetic vehicle. But, like the mound, not practical for modern London.”
I had a look at the website and noticed every spot on the opening day still had tickets available; not a great sign for the forecast of 280,000 sales. I thought I’d book on the chance that I may be free at that point. I had made a joke on Twitter previously about it costing 6p per step to climb the Mound, at 130ish steps, and £8 for the ticket, but realised the price seemed to have dropped to £6.50, meaning a bargain 5p per step. Again, this did not feel a sign of confidence in pricing strategy. The night came around and suddenly I remembered at about 7pm I had the ticket, so wandered over.
I’d seen a couple of photos of the place on Twitter the day before. One, from Amelia Torode asked “When did the hill appear by Marble Arch???”, which seemed to sum it up — essentially “What is this thing???” rather than “Wow!!!”
The site sold “fast track” tickets, but — on arrival — it was clear there was not really much need for that.
The climb is fairly easy, and there is a lift for those who cannot climb the stairs, though I did not see it in use. At the top is a large metal platform, as you might expect of a large scaffold. It feels fairly basic, as if you’re stood on the fire escape unexpectedly during a fire alarm, rather than enjoying a moment of pure beauty that punctuates the mundanity of daily life.
The views to each side are somewhat meeker than described by the marketing material. I presume the designs were based on pictures of the area during Winter, as the grand views promised over Hyde Park are fully obscured by Summer leaves.
To the East, the promised views down the length of Oxford Street are again obscured by trees, and actually the location of the viewing platform means you wouldn’t see much of the street anyway, albeit you can see the BT tower over the buildings, and the London Eye further round.
Visitors seemed happy enough, albeit in the same way as first time visitors to Piccadilly Circus seem happy — not quite sure what they were supposed to find there, rather than experiencing visceral joy. And in fact I was happy. It felt a little like visiting one of those Santa’s Grottos, in a car park off the motorway, where dogs have been dressed as reindeer; or the enjoyment you feel when seeing a particularly good example of a decorated Birthday Cake that’s somehow gone particularly badly wrong, resulting in something that probably tastes good, but looks aesthetically far from the plan. I think that’s quite a nice feeling, and I’m sure others would enjoy it in much the same way. Just as people would pay to visit a museum of bad taxidermy, or Madame Tussauds may even be more enjoyable if the waxworks were actually worse. Though I’m not sure it would reach the 280,000 ticket sales overall.
There are staff up there — security and customer service. Presumably to rescue phones dropped down the scaffold, and to answer questions about the area.
The climb down through the Mound is actually quite interesting too. If you haven’t been on a large scaffold, this is your opportunity to see the inside of an extremely large building site. The marketing information talks of this as “descending into the heart”, and talks of the café and a shop, but those have not yet appeared either, and it feels a little soulless rather than a beating heart, an empty space used to store hand sanitizer and temporary signs. There’s also supposed to be a light show, but that too has not emerged.
I felt a little sorry for Westminster Council, and for the developers. This was obviously a project that plenty of effort had gone into, and that plenty of money had been spent on, and that plenty of positive intent had been funnelled. Rather than delay, or lower expectations on the website, they had ploughed on, and delivered something a little like that famous Cristiano Ronaldo statue, rather than Michaelangelo’s David.
Perhaps it might reach its targets; perhaps this early launch may cause the council to regroup and rejuvenate. If so, I’m glad I got to see it at this moment of accidental charm. I enjoyed my visit, and think others may too, but thought perhaps the 2 million pounds might have been a little too much to spend for the current outcome, and could have been better used.
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