‘The worst thing I’ve ever done in London’: Is Marble Arch Mound the new Millennium Dome?

The city was promised a hill-with-a-view visitor attaction. It got a €2m heap of scaffolding

Advance publicity for the Marble Arch Mound, London’s newest visitor attraction, suggested that an Arcadian landscape would be created in the middle of the city, with spectacular views over Hyde Park.

A huge artificial hill, 25m high, would rise at one end of Oxford Street, London's busiest shopping area. Costing about £2 million, or about €2.35 million, it would, according to design renderings, be covered in lush trees, and visitors would be able climb to the top – and "feel a light breeze" against their skin.

The mound has been widely mocked online as more of a folly than a dream – a pile of blocky scaffolding covered in patches of vegetation that look in danger of slipping off, and not even high enough to look over the trees into Hyde Park

The hill was part of a £150 million plan by Westminster Council to lure visitors back into the centre of the city after the pandemic. In May, Time Out, London's main listings magazine, described it as "visually arresting/bonkers". The reality has turned out to be somewhat different. Since opening on Monday, the mound has been widely mocked online as more of a folly than a dream – a pile of blocky scaffolding covered in patches of vegetation that look in danger of slipping off, and not even high enough to look over the trees into Hyde Park.

“It’s a monstrosity,” says Carol Orr (55), a tourist from Glasgow visiting the mound on Wednesday, who has decided not to even attempt a climb. “You can’t see anything up there,” says Robby Walsh, who climbed to the top only to get a view of a Hard Rock Cafe and nearby buildings. “It was the worst 10 minutes of my life,” he says.

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The complaints, including that it is a waste of taxpayers' money, have been so strident that Westminster Council on Monday offered refunds to those who had booked tickets, which start at £4.50. "We are aware that elements of the Marble Arch Mound are not yet ready," it said in a news release. "We are working hard to resolve this over the next few days." (The council did not respond to a request for comment.)

The council also said it would offer anybody who had booked a visit during the first week another ticket free of charge so that they could enjoy “the full experience” – once the landscape had “had time to bed in and grow”.

Winy Maas, a founding partner at MVRDV, the Dutch architecture firm behind the project – the firm has previously won acclaim for work promoting green cities – says "it's a big pity" that the hill does not appear to be finished. The vegetation is "a bit modest, to put it politely". The dream behind the project had been to create a space that would make people think about how the city could be made greener and used to combat climate change, but that message seems to have been lost this week.

Some of the problems were created by changes to the plan, according to MVRDV. The company had initially hoped to build the hill over the 19th-century Marble Arch. But the firm had been told that covering the arch for six months would risk damaging it, so it had to redesign the hill, making it smaller and steeper. Having steeper walls made it harder to plant proper vegetation.

On Wednesday, not everyone at the mound is critical. Alison Nettleship, accompanied by her children, says she has heard the bad reviews but decided to visit anyway. “We were prepared for a disaster,” she says, “so it was fun for a laugh.” Her 14-year-old son, Thomas, says he loves buildings and enjoys being able to see the scaffolding up close. “People are impatient,” he say of the complaints. The family intend to return in the autumn, after the trees have changed colour, Nettleship says.

The mound is not the first tourist attraction in London to have been met with mockery. The Millennium Dome, the giant white tent erected in the east of the city to celebrate the turn of the millennium, is now home to several successful music venues but was widely vilified after it opened in 2000.

Boris Johnson, now Britain’s prime minister, was editor of the Spectator magazine at the time; he suggested the attraction should be blown up because it was so bad. “There must be some form of public humiliation,” he said. “I’d like to see all those responsible for the contents of the dome eating humble pie.”

Maas, the architect, says he hopes the Marble Arch Mound will soon be improved. But at the moment is is clear that whatever happens next will be too late for some.

Emma Wright (39), a director of a public-relations firm, says she visited the attraction Monday because she loved the idea of getting a new view over London. She so loves London’s skyline, she says, she has a tattoo of one view of the city on her arm. But instead of a stunning view over Hyde Park, she could see only the park’s existing trees and neighbouring building sites.

On Twitter, she expressed her displeasure, saying that the attraction was "the worst thing I've ever done in London." "I love going to things that are so bad they're good," Wright says. "But this isn't even that." – New York Times