Making a mountain out of a molehill

By Rebecca Coleman, Executive

The rather innocuous junction where Oxford Street meets Edgware Road is no stranger to a public execution or two. From as early as 1198, the area (then known as the Tyburn) where Marble Arch now stands was ‘the’ place for the execution of London’s criminals. So famous was the site, that to simply ‘go west’ became synonymous with the practice. However, despite the Tyburn closing shop more than 200 years ago, last week one more untimely demise took place in its modern surrounds.

The area’s newest attraction, the Marble Arch Mound, was brought forward and approved by Westminster Council in February this year, alongside renowned Dutch architects MVRDV. The artificial 25 metre hill promised panoramic views of Hyde Park and Marylebone to those who made the ten-minute climb to the top and more broadly, to revitalise an area long forgotten at the end of Europe’s longest shopping street.

However, a series of unfortunate events and scathing reviews saw the installation (which is only supposed to last six months) close after just two days last week. Images posted by visitors comparing the scaffolding and bare sedum turf against the lush, grassy knoll promised in the promotional photos instantly became the latest ‘expectation versus reality’ of planning. Comments on social media so far have likened it to the Teletubby Hill, the first level in Super Mario 64 or perhaps less imaginatively, a slag heap.

And the view that awaits? Little more than some treetops, a car park, and a loftier perspective of the roundabout on which it stands. The promised café at the top has been bumped down to a food truck and the exhibition space nowhere to be found. Quite literally, the project has promised a mountain, yet delivered a mesh covered molehill.

In fairness, the Mound was always meant to be a temporary feature, a £2 million ‘catalyst’ to showcase the ambition of the Oxford Street District Framework, which will guide the area’s £150 million reinvention. The promotional booklet promises piazzas, pocket parks and a pedestrian-first refresh of the street, as 17 per cent of its shops sit vacant. It is a necessary, and as those who have ever tried to visit the street even two months before Christmas will attest to, an overdue venture.

For me, this doesn’t quite overcome the Mound’s bizarreness in the first place. Not least its ambition to make the area (a confluence of four major roads) greener whilst neglecting London’s largest park sitting mere feet away. It feels too gimmicky, aimed at attracting spectacle rather than adding lasting value to the area’s setting. Put simply, if the Marble Arch Mound was meant to be the starter for the Oxford Street regeneration, I’m not sure I would be staying for the main course.

But with many urban planners now advocating for a green recovery from the pandemic, such radical public realm improvements are truly in vogue. Just as Westminster Council has done, developers are beginning to unveil bold visions which will see the likes of Bank junction and Brick Lane pedestrianised and a new highline span Camden. The days of the car dominating a city where 44 per cent of its population don’t have one seem to be truly over.

Will planners learn their lesson from Marble Arch? Well, flick through the newspapers this week and no doubt the headline ‘Does London really need a gigantic glowing orb the height of Big Ben?’ will catch your eye. For now, it remains to see if the re-opened Marble Arch Mound will live up to its much-reduced expectations. Perhaps it will meet the similar fate of those who have ‘gone west.’ Failing that, maybe we should keep an eye out for Winter Wonderland’s new 25 metre ski slope opening this November.