Wed. Oct 20th, 2021

London Updates

The author is the architect and design critic of the FT

The Marble Arch is a structure with a gap in the middle. Of course, all triumphal arches are holes without walls, but most celebrate at least one 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 Napoleon’s defeat, it’s representative architecture of victory.

Marble Arch is better known for its subway station than its arch. It was designed in 1827 by John Nash, architect of Regent Street, and was formerly the gateway to Buckingham Palace, but was moved to Hyde Park and then brought to a traffic island in the 1960s.

Another useless stack, the Marble Arch Mound, has now been added. It is a 25 m high artificial hill, £ 2 million covered with artificial hills, designed by the Dutch architects MVRDV and funded by the Westminster Council. The hill closed, two days after it opened.

I went to see it, sat on a bench and ate my sandwiches and pigeons watching the crumbs at my feet. The plywood upholstery, sharp grass and abandoned trees are still being applied. Although I have lived in London all my life, I have never sat at Marble Arch. This is the place where Londoners want to avoid trouble, and this is the problem that the unlikely hill has to deal with. Can anything be done to lure people to the West End after the closure, the collapse of tourism and the loss of so many shops?

The false hill was built on an anchor of scaffolding. This is not the first scaffolding attraction here. It would have been the Tyburn gallows, a few feet from here until the 18th century. Export days were public holidays, bustling events with pie sellers and beer sellers. As Oxford Street developed in more civilized ways, it became an entertainment center, a street with theaters and attractions, dioramas and ballrooms. And eventually it became known for shopping, with the advent of shops in the late 19th century. Judging by the grocery stores and empty stores, the era could also come to an end.

Marble Arch was the site of the Tyburn Gallows, the site of public executions until the late 18th century.
Export days at Tyburn were turbulent holidays with pie sellers and beer sellers © Universal Images Group / Getty

The hill is part of a new era of worldless sights that are completely aimless, designed to be climbed and take selfies. There was that of Thomas Heatherwick Vessel for example in New York, which could be permanently closed after a fourth suicide earlier this week, or The one from Copenhagen Amager-Bakke waste incinerator / ski slope by architects BIG. Or there was MVRDV’s own Steiger Trap in Rotterdam (2016), along with a string of pavilions and jumpers.

Architecture to climb over has confused spectacle with publicity and accessibility. Is it really a park, as it is paid for? At the opening, tickets cost £ 4.50 or more, and because it has a long set of stairs, it is hardly an accessible attraction. The vessel, another set of stairs, is presented as a free attraction when it opened. It now costs $ 10. From Heatherwick Small island in New York is only timely enrollment. It is also part of a trend to stick trees on buildings in an attempt to make them look green.

The Hill of London is a temporary, grass-covered piece of summer swing that does little damage and can mostly be recycled, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore the future of the empty shopping malls? Perhaps they can be handed over to culture, struggling theater companies, artists and makers, to clubs and live music — after all, it is already a fully equipped public building.

With the most prominent location, transport links and novelty, it can become the most remarkable places, from studios to dance floors. Many of the stores are now reducing their footprints to create more office space. The hairy hill may not be the most interesting possible future, and its failure should not come as a surprise.

The question is: can Oxford Street, one of the world’s most polluted highways, mean anything beyond shopping? If it is to have a viable future, it must look beyond false hills, trees treated like hair transplants, and useless arches toward a more comprehensive and sophisticated blend of culture and commerce.

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