BBuild a hill and they will come. This, at least, is what the Westminster council is betting on, having lavished £ 2 million on a temporary mound. It stands at the western end of Oxford Street like a faceted green shell, resembling a landscape from a low-fidelity video game, the Marble arch mound it is one of the most unlikely strategies to stimulate our main streets affected by Covid.
“You have to give people a reason to come to an area,” says Melvyn Caplan, the council’s deputy leader. “They no longer just come to Oxford Street for the shops. People are interested in experiences and destinations ”. The pandemic has caused the complete closure of around 17% of the shops on London’s most famous shopping street.
The mound is expected to be the kind of novelty experience that will draw people back to the West End, providing an opportunity for shareable Instagram moments, beyond selfies with arms full of Selfridges bags. Starting Monday, after booking in advance and paying the entrance fee between £ 4.50 and £ 8, visitors will be able to climb a staircase that winds its way to the top of the scaffolding hill (or take the elevator), enjoy elevated views from Hyde Park, post some photos, then take a more fire escape-like staircase down to an exhibition space and cafeteria. It is an extreme example of the “experiential” urban setting type of amusement fair popularized by social media. But it was supposed to be even more radical.
“Originally we wanted the hill to completely cover the arch,” he says. The fault of the Maas, founding partner of MVRDV, the Dutch architecture studio behind the pop-up mound. “That was an interesting discussion, let me put it that way.” Conservation experts warned that wrapping the nearly 200-year-old stone structure in total darkness for six months could weaken the mortar joints, leading to potential collapse. Instead, the solution was to cut the corner of the hill, leaving room for the arch and making the mound look like a computer model caught in the middle of the rendering, revealing the wireframe structure underneath.
If the hill’s low-resolution polygon gives it a retro feel, there’s a reason. For Maas, the project represents the fruit of an idea invented almost 20 years ago, when his company proposed to bury London’s Serpentine Gallery under an artificial hill. for its summer pavilion in 2004. It was designed to be supported by a steel frame, rather than scaffolding, so the budget spiraled out of control and the scheme was scrapped, living in gallery history as the ghost pavilion that got away.
Seeing the Marble Arch mound a few days before it opens to the public, it’s hard not to wonder if it would have been better if it stayed that way. Ingenious computer images from architects tend to paint an optimistic picture, and this one is no exception. While the computer-generated blueprints depict a lush landscape of thick vegetation, dotted with mature trees, the reality is a thin mat of sedum clinging desperately to the steep walls of the structure, punctuated by occasional thin trees. The recent heat wave hasn’t helped, but neither tree seems happy.
“It is not enough,” admits Maas. “We are all fully aware that you need more substance. The initial calculation was for a straight, and then there are all the extras. But I think it still opens people’s eyes and provokes an intense discussion. It’s okay to be vulnerable. “The trees will be returned to a nursery when the hill is dismantled and the rest of the vegetation is ‘recycled’, but it remains to be seen what state they are in after six months perched on scaffolding. It’s a question. which also looms over temporary forest this summer at nearby Somerset House, or the collection of 100 oak saplings outside the Tate Modern, all of which make you think the trees are best left in the ground.
MVRDV was approached by the city council after one of its officers saw its temporary staircase project in Rotterdam in 2016, which was a brilliant moment of urban fantasy. Upon exiting the station, visitors were greeted with a colossal scaffold ladder, 180 steps leading up to the 30-meter-high rooftop of a post-war office building, from where you can see panoramic views of the city. Climbing its steep incline had the momentous processional feel of climbing a Mayan temple, and sparked a debate on how Rotterdam’s 18 km2 of flat roofs could be used, sparking numerous initiatives and driving momentum an annual rooftop festival.
Could the mound have a similar effect in London? Will we see the city’s recent low-traffic roadblocks turn into miniature mountains? Probably not. But beyond offering a momentary distraction from shopping, the project is intended to spark a broader discussion about how the future of this unsavory corner could take.
“We are not planning a permanent mound,” says Caplan, “but we are looking for ways to improve the turn and bring more greenery to Oxford Street.” The project is part of a £ 150 million program of improvements in the public realm, which has already seen the widening of the pavement and the introduction of temporary parklets along the street in an attempt to encourage the relentless overflow. of buses, taxis and bicycle carts. A competition to design a partial pedestrianization of Oxford Circus will also be launched later this year.
But Marble Arch is a more complicated proposition. It has long been abandoned at the confluence of several busy roads, a victim of the plans of post-war highway engineers. The arch itself was originally designed by John Nash in 1827 as a monumental entrance to Buckingham Palace, but it was moved to this corner of Hyde Park in 1850 to form a large gateway to the Great Exhibition. It remained as an entrance to the park for more than 50 years, but a new route of the road in 1908 left it isolated, exacerbated by a further widening of the road in the 1960s.
Plans were drawn up in the 2000s to connect the arch back to the park, with a scheme designed by John McAslan as part of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s 100 Public Spaces program. Like many of the parks and squares Ken promised, it was more of a blue sky thought than a tough proposal, and the £ 40 million to fund the project never materialized. Instead, 17 years later, we have a temporary hill-shaped attraction, confined to the roundabout, that does little to change the experience of crossing congested arteries of traffic.
Maas, however, believes the mound could inspire broader thinking. “Imagine if it raised Hyde Park on each of its corners,” he enthuses, with his typical youthful wonder. “Speaker’s Corner could be transformed into a kind of tribune, with a perfect view of an infinite landscape.”
Over the years his enthusiasm has bewitched many customers into buying MVRDV’s particular brand of Landscape Alchemy. The son of a gardener and a florist, with initial training as a landscape architect, Maas has always approached buildings as landscapes first and foremost. MVRDV’s first project in 1997 was the headquarters of a Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, which seemed to lift the ground and bend it back and forth to form an office building, topped with a thick grass roof. More recently they have built a museum storage building in Rotterdam in the shape of a salad bowl topped with a surreal floating forest, and now they are completing the Valley in Amsterdam, a great mixed-use development smothered in plants.
They join a plethora of green finger real estate companies, from Stefano Boeri’s “vertical forest” apartment blocks in Milan and China, at Thomas Heatherwick’s 1,000 trees project in Shanghai, which sees trees imprisoned in concrete pots on stilts in an attempt to disguise the huge mall below. Isn’t it all just a green wash though, using a superficial eco-trim to distract from the tons of carbon-starved concrete and steel underneath?
“Our initial research shows that green buildings can have a 1C cooling effect,” says Maas, “so it could be a significant step towards combating the urban heat island. Even developers who only use it to camouflage their buildings a bit, it’s at least a start. You can kill the baby before it is born, but I want to defend it. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism