Marble Arch Mound billed as London’s High Line but it's really a token to tackiness

Something akin to a rubbish tip in the centre of London won't relaunch Oxford St or the West End

Here in Britain, we have strict laws against fly-tipping. Councils operate a “hotline” which anyone can call and they will send someone round to remove the mess, and if possible, investigate and prosecute.

Coming up Park Lane in London’s Mayfair, past the bevy of luxury hotels and apartments on one side and the luscious expanse of Hyde Park on the other, I want to dial the Westminster city council number.

Someone has dumped trailer loads of rubble next to Marble Arch. The giant pile has been there for a while, it would seem, so much so that grass has taken root.

It’s a big green hill, reminiscent of the town where I was raised in the north of England and the massive bank of "slag" (the spent fuel leftover from the steelworks) that was also grassed over in part and we would climb up and walk along as children.

It was an ugly monstrosity, put there when people did not know any better, when there were no rules about locating industrial waste.

These days, of course, we’re more environmentally conscious. Still, tens of lorries have tipped their rubbish, right in the centre of London, on the major traffic roundabout at the western end of Oxford Street.

It’s shocking. Where are the council details? As I near, I can see there are people on it, not dismantling but climbing to the top, up flights of steps. It all seems deliberate and permissible.

Hang on a minute, the notices indicate this eyesore is the brainchild of Westminster city council – the very same body I would phone to complain.

Marble Arch Mound, for that's its official title, measures 25 metres high and cost £6 million ($8.2m). It’s a shocker, hard to imagine how it was ever conceived, let alone allowed to get this far. Others agree, for Melvyn Caplan, the deputy council leader who spearheaded its building, has resigned. He went, not because he’d overseen the creation of a gigantic blob of whatever, but because the bill tripled, from an initial £2m.

The July opening, too, was botched, with those few visitors who bothered to ascend the stairs of what was billed as an “experiential destination” complaining it wasn’t finished and there was scaffolding everywhere. Instead of charging £4.50 to £8 for a ticket, the council gave refunds and made it free for the remainder of August.

Mr Caplan was not to blame for the awfulness of its appearance. After all, beauty is entirely subjective and the hill was designed by a Dutch firm of architects and the plans and computerised impressions were all approved by committees.

An instant source of ridicule

The unveiling of the mound came as a shock. For months, there were hoardings hiding some sort of construction work but exactly what was not clear.

Then, when the shrouds were removed, it was a head-spinner, an instant source of finger-pointing and ridicule.

Admittedly, Marble Arch is not as grand as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or even Wellington Arch at the other end of Park Lane at Hyde Park Corner.

That’s due in part to the fact it was never intended to be there – designed in the 19th century as a grand entrance for Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch was bizarrely and ignominiously moved to form the opening to the Great Exhibition in 1850 and never returned.

Today, Marble Arch is lost, amid a constant stream of vehicles and adjacent shops.

That explains some of the rationale behind the madness, that Oxford Street, hit hard by the rise of online retailing, required a boost. That was even before the onset of the pandemic. Since then, almost 20 per cent of the shops along the east-west thoroughfare have closed permanently. Social distancing restrictions have eased but footfall remains at half the pre-virus level.

Missing the sights

Marble Arch Mound was aimed, then, to draw crowds, as an “experiential destination”. It was part of a £150m outlay to try to return this part of London’s West End to its retailing heyday.

We live in an age of greening, of constructing vertical gardens on the sides of towers, planting trees on rooftops and placing flower beds and shrubs on bridges and walkways.

The concept was not unadjacent to New York’s High Line, affording vistas over Hyde Park and central London.

But, as anyone familiar with London’s layout should know, Marble Arch is not the ideal spot for providing spectacular cityscapes. At an elevated level, this section of the capital is rather drab, viewing-wise.

The iconic sights of Big Ben, St Paul’s, Tower Bridge, the City skyline, are elsewhere. This is a district of squat blocks, office and apartments below, shops beneath.

Hyde Park, too, is no great shakes to look at, not from a platform 25 metres up. Fair enough if the tops of trees and glimpses of lawns are your thing, but otherwise, it’s unexciting.

A tacky pop-up

Originally, the plan was for the Rotterdam consultancy, MVRDV, which specialises in devising “happy and adventurous places”, to totally cover Marble Arch.

They have form in this regard. MVRDV once proposed burying London’s Serpentine Gallery under a hill. That concept was scrapped because of cost overruns, but more successfully they did erect a 30-metre staircase in the centre of Rotterdam that rewarded the brave, and fit, with arresting views right across that city.

They were warned, though, that their idea for Marble Arch would risk damaging the white marble-faced structure, that being subjected to a lengthy period of darkness would weaken the mortar. A compromise was sought of erecting a mound to the side.

The landscaping was supposed to have a lush aspect, but London’s early summer heatwave put paid to that, with the result that the sparse vegetation is forlorn and wilting.

The hill’s unnatural, clunky shape (it looks like it’s been designed by computer, which it has) can also be explained by the fact it’s not a solid lump at all but a shell, hollow inside, put together in sections and hanging on a frame. There is the ubiquitous cafe and exhibition space at the bottom.

In a location badly devoid of foreign tourists, thanks to Covid, visitor numbers are low, although the mound has become an attraction of sorts, as a source of bemusement and amusement.

Sadly, the Marble Arch Mound will not solve the long-term issue of how to return excitement to Oxford Street. Neither, to be fair, was it ever meant to.

For, if there is one saving grace it is the hill’s impermanence. It was only ever conceived as temporary and will close as planned after six months, in January.

It’s a pop-up in other words – same as so many others that now grace the area. Somehow, that only serves to make its tackiness more fitting.

Published: August 18th 2021, 1:28 PM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London