hillgrowstitle2 - A hill grows in London?

Who’d have ever thought this would happen but it is – if the plans are anything to go by! A 25 metre (82 foot) high pop-up hill is to be built on the Marble Arch island right next to the iconic structure itself and right opposite London’s famous Hyde Park. The idea is part of a plan by Westminster Council to entice shoppers and tourists back to the area especially after the COVID pandemic and the lockdowns and to give people the opportunity to views the arch itself from a different perspective. Its said the artificial structure will be open to the public by June which means work shall have to start on the project quite soon. When it comes to the end of the hill’s projected 6 month life cycle the trees and plants and other fauna will be reused elsewhere.

As for Marble Arch Hill, is it a good idea even to plonk a hill right where there’s never been one? On the face of it that does seem so. Central London has a dearth of strategically placed viewpoints – there are none in fact bar the rooftop gardens that are found on some buildings but no natural promontories of any sort anywhere in the capital past a line south of the Regent’s Canal or the Metropolitan/Circle/Hammersmith Lines. There are of course promontories alongside the River Thames but these have been compromised so much its difficult these days to know there’s actually a string of hillsides which stretches along the north bank of the Thames between Charing Cross Station and the Tower of London. We have got Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath but alas one cannot see Marble Arch from there! Thus its time to invoke the ages old art of building artificial hills once again and bring a bit of excitement into peoples’ lives!

In a way its quite important to build a hill in the vicinity this year because it will be the last such opportunity. Why would that be? Well the new development that is opposite the island should be finished in due course and welcoming its first residents at some point. They wouldn’t want a view of a great big hill plonked in front of their sightline towards Hyde Park! A hide park isn’t actually what these people have in mind for it needs to be visible!

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How the hill will actually look from the arch itself. The hill like structure is hollow and will have exhibition space beneath. Source: Twitter

Marble Arch is no stranger to lofty public viewpoints however. Despite the arch itself having never been a public viewpoint say like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, attempts at providing a viewpoint in the locality has been rather more popular in recent years. During 2015 there was a giant ferris wheel in operation. There’s also the annual fun viewpoints offered by the rides at Winter Wonderland nearby and during one of the British Summer Festival events there was in fact a suspended dining suite high above the park with good views all around for the fortunate few who were able to afford the experience. If one thinks about it London really has a lousy choice of viable prominent viewpoints compared to many of the world’s other leading cities.

Nevertheless in terms of upping the ante for once and all (albeit rather temporarily) its been said the hill will extend the environs of Hyde Park itself considerably and what it means is it will cause the area the traffic island and the arch itself are in to feel once again a part of Hyde Park. After all, the Marble Arch once formed the entrance to the northern part of Hyde Park – but over the years the demands of traffic and road widening projects has seen the arch increasingly isolated from the park and this has often proved problematic in trying to find an effective use of the space in question. The work done in the sixties which brutally reshaped the entire eastern side of Hyde Park to facilitate a new urban roadway – the subways, sunken concourses and other features have all been removed because of safety and security – thus the one and only sixties feature still in use are the famous fountains and the rest is, well, a chaotic mess especially around the arch itself.

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The Marble Arch Hill described in the printed Evening Standard 16 February 2021. Online report here.

The hill itself is being promoted as part of the Oxford Street District framework – a new initiative intended to revitalise the area in light of the COVID pandemic. Westminster says it will produce a greener and more sustainable business area and showcasing connectivity, economics and culture. There will be themes around People, the City, Nature and Live, Work, Shop, Play – and the new hill is evidently a combination of all those themes.

In a press release on 16 February 2021 Westminster City Council Leader Rachael Robathan said of Marble Arch Hill:

Our proposed Marble Arch Hill temporary visitor attraction at Marble Arch signifies our ambitious approach to the District. It will be important for bringing in visitors to support the local economy. However, it will offer so much more. We hope it will give people an opportunity to look afresh and with wonder at this well known, but sadly increasingly overlooked, area to recognise its beauty and importance. We want visitors to appreciate the wider context of this iconic location and its close connections to Oxford Street and Hyde Park, as well as other key destinations in the West End and beyond.

There were a fair number of cynics who thought the scheme wouldn’t have much going for it or do anything to regenerate the area. Some called it a waste of money and suggested this be used elsewhere on more permanent projects which benefited the local community. Others however applauded the move and called it innovative and bold.

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Westminster Council please don’t give planning permission to #OxfordStreetDistrict to build that hideous ridiculous mound at Marble Arch says Jenny. Source: Twitter

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Marylebone Association points out the low numbers the attraction would potentially get. Source: Twitter

The idea for the hill has come from Rotterdam, where the company responsible for the projected Marble Arch Hill, MVRDV, successfully saw the installation during 2016 of a gigantic staircase consisting of 180 steps and 29 metres in height up onto the roof of a building. This was to commemorate 75 years of the rebuilding of the city following WWII. Marble Arch Hill is in fact the company’s second major public project in the UK although it has designed housing projects for the UK previously. In terms of hills MVRDV too proposed a gigantic artificial hill for the Serpentine Gallery in 2004. MVRDV won the placement to design that year’s summer commission. It was never pulled off because of the complex logistics of the project, and that year is the only time the famous gallery has had to go without a summer commission.

No doubt the plan for a hill at Marble Arch will be complex too. There’s lots of logistics concerned. Trees are heavy, so is soil, grass. I am sure the architects have thought of every conceivable issue that could arise but in my mind’s eye its still a very complex job, and that is why, if it is given the go ahead, its going to take something like just over four months to construct. Its got to be 100% portable in that it can as easily be taken down as it was built up. Its not some special stand that is built over say a couple of days to overlook an event like Trooping the Colour or a huge sound stage that hosts a series of music concerts, but rather an infinitely complex job that has to be done just right and be absolutely up to the task its intended for.

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The Marble Arch area needs improving greatly especially after the sixties work to build new roads. Would a hill help? Source: Twitter

One thing the project does highlight however, is as we have already briefly mentioned, the question of the Marble Arch site which is something of an eyesore actually. The area forming the junctions of Bayswater, Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Park Lane was of course a result of a rather inconsistent and messy collaborations of several road schemes throughout the 20th century that eventually saw the arch isolated totally from the park it once stood at the entrance too, and it hasn’t really quite fitted in since. Not only that the roads, the one way system is a total mess too but that is because it was built at a time when it was envisaged as being a gyratory hub with the M1 motorway actually leading off one side to head northward. In those days it was build, build, and no-one really thought much about the visual effects of these horrific schemes. In the 1960s when the new Marble Arch to Hyde Park Corner ‘motorway’ opened with its many underpasses for pedestrians and underground parking lots for the new four wheeled conquistador, the motor vehicle, it was an attempt of course to retain a connection between the newly disconnected bits of Hyde Park with the main bit of the park on the west side of the new road. But it didn’t do the job in fact and these traffic islands saw very little use. The Marble Arch islands, being part of that inconsistent and messy sixties rebuilding are also problematic and incoherent.

Winy Maas, founding partner at the Dutch practice of MVRDV, said of the Marble Arch site:

‘It’s a location full of contradictions, and our design highlights that. By adding this landscape element, we make a comment on the urban layout of the Marble Arch, and by looking to the site’s history, we make a comment on the area’s future. Marble Arch Hill strengthens the connection between Oxford Street and the park via the Marble Arch. Can this temporary addition help inspire the city to undo the mistakes of the 1960s, and repair that connection?’

In that respect Maas is right. The huge disconnect between the Marble Arch and Hyde Park itself needs to be sorted out. A hill might do it, but only temporarily. Something more permanent is needed – and that likely will require removal of most of these ugly roads and greening the area over instead.

Disability Access

One important aspect in terms of the project hill at Marble Arch is something no-one has mentioned or at least explored – not even the most important news media or bloggers in London! That is the question of disability access. Is there going to be that?

Disability access is no doubt a definitive part of the plans. So far nothing’s been indicated to show this however there is a lift within the structure. MVRDV did in fact propose a lift for its Serpentine Pavilion Gallery job back in 2004 so evidently there’s a lift in this latest scheme. Let’s not forget that it would be an outrage these days if something was approved without such consideration of course. In terms of the hill itself, although the main access is by way of a lengthy series of steps, the lift ascends from the exhibition area in the base of the hill to its summit. What intrigues me is the designers have taken the steps to make sure this particular aspect of the construction is highlighted quite considerably.

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The lift within the structure is highlighted for easy reference.

There’s plenty of portable lifts that can do the job and no doubt it will be one of those. The site the hill will be built upon is itself is in a slight depression which means there will be the opportunity to place the equipment below floor level (assuming of course its made level from the surrounding area) thus a ramp wont even be necessary to access the lift. As well as being intended for disabled people, it will of course also be useful in emergencies or when someone has to be brought from the top, such as being taken ill for example.

I’ll try to do an update or two covering the hill and its construction (that is of course dependent on it being given planning permission first.) The text used in the title picture is based on the original cover work used for the 1943 novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

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