Last summer, MVRDV's installation Marble Arch Mound dominated the news in the United Kingdom following considerable negative visitor reviews. The British press had a field day: the criticism was endless, as were the number of journalists who rushed to cover the story. In Dutch we have a saying, “those who are being shaved must sit still”. While the barbers of Fleet Street had their razors out, and until officials completed their investigation, we refrained from responding. The report, which prompted a politician to resign, has now been published, and in it MVRDV is hardly mentioned. Nevertheless, in this statement, we wish to provide our account of the events, while also critically examining our role in this and publicly acknowledging our mistakes.
Anyone who visited the Marble Arch Mound installation in London was no doubt severely underwhelmed. Instead of an inspiring experience offering sweeping views over Hyde Park to provoke contemplation on the value of nature in cities, what visitors actually encountered was disappointing, to say the least. The sedum on the hillside had dried out in places, appearing as though it hadn’t been watered in months. Some of it dried up during the week of intense summer heat that plagued London during the project’s (first) opening. It was never replaced. Some planting from MVRDV's design was not completed at all, with the sad low point being on the west side, where plastic sheeting offered a pitiful stand-in, as if we’d run out of plants. The elevator at the crest of the mound was unfinished and stuck out like a sore thumb above the hill. The vegetation’s irrigation system was flawed, spilling water into the street. Yes, the art installation within merited a visit, if visitors could look past the debacle of the Mound itself, but the overall impression of it was that it had been left to rot in the middle of London's most important shopping district.
As a practice, we have rarely seen such a loveless execution of our designs. To make sense of what happened, we need to return to the autumn of 2020. Westminster City Council (WCC) was looking for a solution to entice people back to London's most famous shopping street: Oxford Street. The idea was to make the area simultaneously green, smart, and sustainable. Looking for a temporary installation that would represent these values, WCC turned to MVRDV: they had seen photos of our installation, The Stairs to Kriterion, designed to celebrate 75 years of Rotterdam's reconstruction after WWII. The installation had been a huge public success, and WCC were hoping for a similar impact.
MVRDV had a small budget for the design phase: £10,000 GBP. For us, this implied a significant loss on the project with staff hours alone far exceeding this. As a rule, we don't work under such conditions, but for installations with a social imperative, we sometimes make an exception, especially in the context of the pandemic. So, the design team went to work on various options. Soon, alongside the client team, we’d generated a spectacular green hill concept that would embrace Marble Arch itself, forming a protective, 25-metre-high roofscape from which visitors could look out over Hyde Park and down Oxford Street. An internal staircase would draw visitors closer to the monument and see it in a way they never could before. The design would reconnect Hyde Park and the monument, now isolated on a traffic plaza. It would be an homage to the park’s former glory and sustainable thanks to the fact that all the materials and plants would be reused. Further, it would offer a serious message about the need to enhance green spaces in the city. The cost of the whole project would be £1.25 million, of which 0.8 percent, the £10,000 mentioned, was set aside for the design.
Then came the process of realising our vision. This is the point that things first started to go wrong, partly due to what we believe was a lack of vision and transparency. English Heritage and Historic England decided that, in their opinion, the installation should not sit directly above the monument. During the virtual presentation in London, both institutions demanded investigations into the effects of the installation. This deliberately delayed its realisation, and threatened feasibility to such a degree that WCC surrendered and moved the hill to the side, away from optimal sightlines. Later, safety requirements for the structure were increased. These changes, though certainly reasonable, gave the MVRDV design team less than a week to deliver modifications to the proposal that had been previously revealed to the public. The resulting design incurred a smaller footprint with steeper slopes and a lower peak. As a result, the lush grass and shrub slopes initially proposed gave way to sedum and flowers. This we considered an acceptable compromise as sedum, if properly maintained, can remain completely green, even forming beautiful cushions. The other advantage of sedum is that it is completely reusable.
WCC commissioned FM Conway to realise the project and then barely looked at it again. FM Conway brought MVRDV on board once more as lead designer, this time for a fee of £40,000. At first, this led to positive developments, such as improving the design with more trees, but over time we were systematically excluded from communication with the executive architect and landscape architect. Through a mixture of budget constraints and a lack of communication, many details concerning the mound’s construction were decided without our involvement. A few pictures of the progress of the installation and the claim that everything was going marvellously was all that we had to work with in Rotterdam. Travel was not possible due to Covid measures, so the team could not check progress on site, and frequent communication efforts from our side toward WCC were increasingly ignored.
As the official opening date approached, this attitude from WCC only worsened. Warnings from our side about a possible premature opening were ignored, as were press requests from quality newspapers to visit the installation. The Marble Arch Mound was opened while still unfinished, and London was aware. Visitors who paid £8 the first weekend were so insulted by the experience that they rightfully complained via social media. Journalists were shocked and voiced their critiques loudly. In short, Marble Arch Mound went viral, but not in a good way. The nonsensical decision to open the facility prematurely was nothing short of a disaster. WCC also realised this: the mound closed temporarily – although they told us not to use the word “closed” in our communications with the media – and the first visitors got their money back. A few weeks, hundreds of articles, and thousands of angry social media protests later, and admission fees dropped to zero – something MVRDV had advocated from the start.
Throughout this media storm, we adhered to WCC’s request to remain silent because they assured us the hill would be restored, re-planted, and improved. There would be a grand opening, a proper one this time, where the media would get a tour and Londoners would get a chance to enjoy the hill in a new way. Though we never expected the mound to fully overcome its poor first impressions, we hoped the project could find a modicum of redemption, and the possibility of a gift to the city still appealed to us.
The outcome of WCC’s promise is well known: a civil servant resigned for mismanagement, and an official investigation into the project process ensued, for which MVRDV submitted the requested evidence and ultimately was not deemed responsible for the debacle. The Marble Arch Mound’s costs escalated to £6 million, an inexplicable budget increase of almost £5 million for which we never received an adequate explanation. It was only natural that the media hounded the story and public outcry abounded: this is the same civic body that was simultaneously cutting the maintenance budgets of existing parks, as several newspapers have fairly pointed out.
As architects, we held our nerve against our better judgment: nature needs time to grow, plants would get healthier with a little rain, the hill, after all, was freely accessible. But when we were finally able to travel and see the project for ourselves, the deception was obvious: there had been virtually no maintenance, making the waste of money complete. What should have been a celebration of London became a loveless installation that, with a few nice green plants here and there, provides a glimpse of what might have been. In our thirty years of practice, MVRDV has never before experienced such nonchalance and laxity with our design work.
Of course we are also responsible in this equation. Perhaps we should not have worked for a fee so low that it allowed the client to sidestep the usual procedures. Perhaps when we were pushed out of the construction process we could have stepped out because we couldn't guarantee the project’s quality. This is certainly our greatest sin: we should have ended our participation precisely at that moment. Finally, perhaps when the criticism began to mount, we could have voiced our own concerns, instead of complying with WCC’s clear preference for ambiguity.
But among all these mistakes, we stand by our initial design. The Marble Arch Mound adheres to the MVRDV philosophy concerning the densification and greening of cities. That philosophy broadly includes the strategy of creating artificial nature in dense cities, as a means of raising awareness and changing perspectives on the way we perceive our built environment and the mixing of functions. This is a project we will never step away from and we commit to continuing on this course. Unfortunately, the application of this strategy in this particular structure is not as we would have wished – and for our role in this, we offer our sincere apologies.