Isabel Hardman

Is the Marble Arch mound a joke?

Is the Marble Arch mound a joke?
Image: MRVDV
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What better way to get shoppers back into London's West End than by, er, building a large hill in the middle of it? That's the latest plan from Westminster City Council, who hope that the Marble Arch Hill will lure people back to the area with the promise of stunning views around the city from its 25 metre high summit. The mound, designed by an architectural firm MVRDV, will boast a winding path with trees and plants, along with a hollow centre for exhibitions. It will tower over Marble Arch, and visitors could be charged a small fee for scaling its heights by Westminster City Council. The BID's chief executive Kay Buxton describes the hill as a 'clarion call to the recovery of London's hospitality and leisure sector, in an enduring, world-renowned destination'. 

Perhaps it is fitting that plans for the recovery of this shattered sector after such a surreal, nightmarish year are in themselves totally bizarre and the sort of thing you'd expect most people to laugh off as an idea emerging from one of those dreams you have after eating too much cheese. Why does Marble Arch need a temporary hill with temporary trees and temporary plants? It's not as though the area is devoid of green space: one of the first things visitors will see once they've paid the fee and trundled up the 'winding path', probably in a long, slow and dreary line of people who aren't entirely sure why they're doing this, is Hyde Park. Sure, that huge green space lacks a random mound, but at least its trees have had a chance to put their roots down, the flowers aren't spending a sabbatical there before being shipped off elsewhere, and the wildlife hasn't been enticed there on false pretences. The park also has the benefit of being free, like the other green spaces that paying hill climbers will espy from the Marble Arch summit. It's not even as though wider London lacks hills: proper hills with proper views like Cornhill, Parliament Hill and Primrose Hill that don't get carried off on the back of a truck when we've had enough of them. 

No doubt the hill will be popular with some because it will end up on one of those lists of 'things you must do in London'. Many of these attractions are totally inexplicable: why, for instance, do people bother queuing to go to Madame Tussauds? The answer seems even to escape many of those who dutifully follow the instructions on these lists, which is why so many popular tourist attractions seem to be full of people who don't look entirely sure why they are there. 

That a temporary mound is being built at all also tells us a lot about the way we view the natural world. It is apparently merely a commodity for us to treat as we do the things we buy in the shops near Marble Arch, with no greater longevity than a Primark cardigan. Ship in the soil, then cart it off when it has served its purpose. Whack in the trees, then whisk them somewhere else when tourists have tired of them. Everything in this plan revolves around human beings and their random whims. Once the whims change, off goes the nature, as though it no longer has value just because tourists are trooping off to see something at the London Trocadero instead. 

Residents associations in the area aren't happy with the plan, with some initially wondering if an April Fool's Day joke had been released early. Perhaps someone is having a laugh. After all, whoever wrote the architects' press release which contains the line suggesting that 'this temporary addition help inspire the city to undo the mistakes of the 1960s' surely can't have done so with a straight face.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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