‘A waste of money’: Londoners pour scorn on artificial hill installed beside Marble Arch

·4-min read

“It’s a waste of money,” scaffolder Mo Martins says, looking up at Marble Arch Mound. The temporary installation, which cost Westminster City Council £2m, is a 25m-tall artificial hill that looms over central London.

It opened to derision on Monday, with online commentators quick to suggest that the real thing does not live up to the marketing brochure, which pictures lush foliage and tall trees. Instead, visitors can find an emptier – and somewhat brown – slope with limited vegetation. As a result, the artificial mound has been mocked widely on Twitter for its supposed resemblance to a slag heap.

One visitor said he enjoyed his visit on Monday, but perhaps not as its designers intended. “More as you might enjoy a bad statue of Christiano Ronaldo, or a car park Santa’s Grotto, with dogs pretending to be reindeer, than as a dazzling spectacle,” he tweeted.

The following day, Martins provided a similarly harsh verdict. “Marble Arch looks like Paris, this just looks bland.”

The outdoor attraction, designed by the renowned Netherlands-based architects MVRDV and located beside the famous London landmark, comes as part of the council’s wider vision for a “greener smarter future together”.

“The pandemic offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink this important piece of London,” the council proclaims in the site’s advertising material.

This piece of rethinking has not gone exactly to plan. On its opening day, the council suspended new bookings, admitting that “elements of the Marble Arch Mound are not yet ready for visitors”. Those who have already visited can go again for free, once the art installation and an M&S food truck are in place and once the landscape “has had time to bed in and grow”.

Toufiq Majeed, a young dentist, tells The Independent he usually walks down Edgware Road and admires the treeline in Hyde Park beyond Marble Arch. This view is now blocked by the mound. “I preferred how it was before,” he says matter-of-factly.

Scaffolder Mo Martins stands in front of Marble Arch Mound. (Rory Sullivan)
Scaffolder Mo Martins stands in front of Marble Arch Mound. (Rory Sullivan)

He also points to a white canvas section beneath the mound’s viewpoint. “It would have been nice if they finished it off. I don’t like this white bit on the side.”

George Seitanidis, a student who walks past a little later, has the same opinion. “The white part is a little bit ugly, I find. It puts me off the whole thing.” His friend, Sophia Plaar, had planned to climb the stairs to the viewpoint, but was put off by the prices, which start at £4.50 for adults.

The pair believe the concept will not work in the current travel climate, given the shortage of tourists in London. “You can tell by how empty it is,” Mr Seitanidis says. “Yeah, there’s no one there,” Ms Plaar agrees. If they are correct, Westminster City Council could struggle to recoup its outgoings.

Michael White, who lives just across from Marble Arch, has stronger feelings about what he judges to be an eyesore. For him, the money should have been spent by the council on other things. “I can’t see the point of wasting £2m on that lump, when every day I go for a walk and fall arse over head because the pavements are disgusting in Westminster.”

Marble Arch Mound does have some admirers, however. Architect Chris Choa says the installation is “fantastic” and puts attention on an “unloved part of the city”. He and Sarah Elson say they are both fans of the views, shortly after they descend from the top of the artificial hill.

“All of us have passed through this area hundreds of times. Just to alter the perspective a little bit makes it really exciting and new. I think it’s fantastic,” he says.

Mr Choa also suggests the site is a clever play on permanence and impermanence. “It looks like a hill that’s been here for generations, and from underneath it’s just very light scaffolding that could be blown away in a day.”

Chris Choa and Sarah Elson stand close to Marble Arch and its neighbouring mound (Rory Sullivan)
Chris Choa and Sarah Elson stand close to Marble Arch and its neighbouring mound (Rory Sullivan)

One thing the mound certainly has going for it is sustainability. Unlike some other installations, its constituent parts will all be reused, with the wood, soil, grass, and trees set to be incorporated into nearby gardens and parks when the attraction closes in early January.

This is unlikely to be much of a consolation to Mr White. He is flummoxed by the council’s decision and says tongue in cheek: “There’s a big place over there called Hyde Park. It’s got lots of green and lots of grass – maybe they don’t know.”

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