Placemaking Gone Wrong

by Richard Anderson

“Mound Zero,” so put the Guardian when reporting on what was officially termed “The Marble Arch Mound.”

A year ago an artificial hill next to Marble Arch appeared with the intended rationale (Westminster Council style) to entice/invite individuals to the West End retail/leisure offer, this being in the context of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

The facts are shocking:

  • Cost (from the public purse) £6m
  • Triple budget over-run from £2m to £6m
  • Initial individual ticket price of £8 hastily scrapped after firstly, few were willing to pay that price and secondly, the whole “attraction” had to temporarily close when plants and grass on the hill began to die
  • After having managed to scramble up the mound, the height of it was insufficient to be able able to see over tree-tops

The New York Times headline said: “Londoners Were Promised a Hill With a View.  They Instead Got a Pile of Scaffolding.”  Other comments are equally scathing and include … “Teletubbies,” “detracts from the majesty of Marble Arch,” “slag heap,” “totally unacceptable £6m bill,” these are words that have been levelled at this 25m high man-made mountain, with the latter comment uttered by the Leader of the Council herself!

The start of this project envisioned a different approach on a site next door; a sloped overhang for Marble Arch …

According to a blog post on the appointed architect’s website (MVRDV), this initial proposal was halted after concerns were issued by English Heritage and Historic England over the diminution of a very sensitive and Listed Grade 1 historic asset.  The result – move to a neighbouring plot, smaller footprint, steeper slopes and a lower peak.

Public interventions it was supposed to mirror such as the Crown Fountain in Chicago and closer to home Quintain’s piazza and events space in front of Wembley have been referred to, however the result here (and to be here no longer) has led to that Council’s Deputy Leader resigning (his role in this, not his elected Councillor position) and 6 months after opening, the ticket price was scrapped. 

So what now?  What some see as the only positive outcome, a rapidly diminutive skeletal mound of  …. scaffolding!  So reports Architects Journal (AJ) on the dismantling/end/demise/shock of what in my eyes is a fine example of why public bodies should stick to what they are statutorily expected to deliver, not dable with “extraordinary” pet projects. 

Westminster Council’s own internal review was issued last October and found “several failings” with its delivery and that failures of managing the project were “avoidable” and “particularly devastating.”  Usual check and balances for projects such as this were “circumvented to facilitate the timetable and in order to obscure the actual costs for delivering the Mound.”  In effect, the project team tried to omit critical aspects from the project to try and meet the budget allocated whilst also pumping up the expected revenue from visitors with no good reason for doing so.  The closure costs (now being expended) were also not included in the budget.  It is reported that these critical elements were added back into the  project later, but by this time it had far exceeded the original authorised budget.

Responding to this report Westminster’s Chief Executive, Stuart Love, gave a fairly neutral response, stating, “The report is clear on two points. First, that our processes are robust but, in this case, those processes were circumvented – driven by the desire to open the Mound as soon as possible. This is unacceptable, and we are taking action to address these findings.”  Mr Love chose not to comment on many other aspects the report raised.

Reflecting on the year’s impact, last month a spokesperson informed AJ that success should be attributed to the project, namely that, “We are pleased that, with (MVRDV’s) support, the Mound has done what it was built to do – drawn crowds and supported the recovery in the West End. Central London’s economy has suffered more than any other area during the pandemic. With footfall slashed and near-total loss of overseas tourists many businesses have faced oblivion.

‘MVRDV’s unique, creative concept helped to ensure that over 250,000 visitors came to Westminster to see the Mound and the terrific light exhibition inside. Those visitors have gone on to spend money in shops, bars and restaurants across the West End – helping local businesses to get back on their feet.”

I profess to be a town planner.  I do not profess to be an architect or doctor and therefore do not get involved in these subject areas.

Whilst I have dabelled in other areas (outside my profession) these have not and will not in the future involve the spending of £XXXX millions of public money, nor indeed my client’s money.

Make of it what you wish, rest assured, in 3 weeks time there should be no physical evidence that this project ever materialised, and Westminster Council will shortly have to consider how to make up a shortfall of £4m in its forthcoming 2022-2023 budget.

Sources include, “AJ,” “IanVisits” and “EGi.”

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