London’s Marble Arch Mound closes after a turbulent six-month run

Farewell to the Folly

London’s Marble Arch Mound closes after a turbulent six-month run

London’s Marble Arch Mound pictured in August 2021. (Matt Brown/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0)

Marble Arch Mound, an 82-foot-tall artificial hill and urban lookout point that first debuted in central London late last July only to be greeted by a crushing landslide of derision and disillusionment, officially closed for good over the weekend and will be dismantled. While the $8 million landscape installation, designed by MVDRV as a commission by Westminster City Council, may have been a relatively short-lived one, its memory will certainly live on… but not in the manner the council had likely anticipated.

Envisioned as a singular diversion to help to ramp up domestic tourism on and around Oxford Street after coronavirus-prompted lockdowns, Marble Arch Mound was a spectacular misfire from the get-go. Within two days of its opening, the faux knoll, comprised of a sloping scaffolding structure clad in sedum turf and dotted with potted trees, was forced to temporarily close due to complaints that it failed to live up to what promotional design renderings had promised: a lushly landscaped hillock rising above the eponymous, 19th-century triumphal arch that anchors the end of Oxford Street. Demanding refunds, let-down visitors lamented that the ticketed attraction felt half-finished and that the city views from up top were less sweeping than promised; meanwhile, online criticism over the commission was particularly scathing and architecture critics duly gave the attraction quite the lashing.

“The result looked parched and patchy, more like an ensemble of ill-matched carpet tiles than a greensward,” wrote Rowan Moore for the Observer, sister publication of the Guardian. “The trees were looking skinnier and less luxuriant than the computer-generated promotional images had suggested. The finished project will have to pull off the trick of making you forget the scaffolding that holds the whole thing up, but the grass looked in danger of losing its argument with the metalwork.”

Initial visitors were granted refunds and free tickets to return once the viewing platform-topped installation, which also featured a light art exhibition by gallery W1 Curates housed inside of the scaffold structure, had a bit more time to mature.

“The Mound is a living building by design. We’ll continue to adapt and improve London’s newest outdoor attraction and resolve any teething problems as they emerge,” the council explained on its website of the temporary closure. “We’re sorry for the delay and look forward to welcoming visitors when they’re ready to enjoy all the mound has to offer.”

Meanwhile, Melvyn Caplan, the former deputy leader of Westminster City Council who spearheaded the project, resigned in August due to the “totally unacceptable” cost increases associated with the attraction. Marble Arch Mound was originally slated to cost just under $3 million.

Although MVRDV did not immediately respond to the backlash, founding partner Winy Maas told Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright just ahead of the opening that he was “fully aware that it needs more substance,” and said that plant growth had languished during a summer heatwave. “But I think it still opens people’s eyes and prompts an intense discussion,” he added. “It’s OK for it to be vulnerable.” (An artificial hill constructed from demolition debris is the centerpiece of another MVRDV project planned for Mannheim, Germany, although it is not meant as an ephemeral work like Marble Arch Mound.)

Following its rocky, ridicule-filled start, Marble Arch Mound reopened to the public sans admission fees on August 9 and, as promised, appeared a touch less straggly-looking that during its July debut. Initially meant to be temporary, the free admission policy was ultimately kept in place through the attraction’s entire six-month run.

At the conclusion of Marble Arch Mound (not a premature one as it was always supposed to come down in January), a council spokesperson, seeking to end things on an upbeat note, claimed in a statement shared by the BBC that “the Mound has done what it was built to do — drawn crowds and supported the recovery in this part of London. We’re really pleased that over 242,000 people have visited to see the Mound and the terrific light exhibition inside.” At its closing, the attraction had a three-star average on Google. Most of the recent reviews praised the installation for being free but noted that they were underwhelmed by the overall experience.

As noted by The Daily Mail, the attraction received a last-minute rush of visitors seeking to experience (and likely take a final dig at) the “cheap-looking, unfinished slag heap” before it came down.

With tongues firmly planted in cheeks, over 100 Londoners also signed onto a petition pleading with officials to spare the “icon of modern London” and extend its run:

“The aim of this petition is to ask Westminster City Council to extend its lifespan beyond the proposed 9th of January dismantlement date,” reads the #SaveTheMound petition. “This icon of modern London and celebration of life during the Covid deconfinement period should be preserved and the many happy memories people have enjoyed on it should continue to take place.”

The dismantling process is expected to take four months and, per Oxford Street District, the materials used to build the mound will be “recycled and reused wherever possible to provide a legacy.”