The Silly Season has started with a bang...
2 August 2021, Paul Finch
Perusing newspapers, magazines and websites, it is easy to imagine that alongside everyday life there is a strange parallel universe, where irrationality and prejudice are promoted by people who are supposed to defend enlightenment values of objectivity and fair-mindedness.
The judge who declared planning approval for a Stonehenge traffic tunnel was illegal is a case in point. He seemed to have overlooked the support of both English Heritage and the National Trust for the Highways England proposal, which should have marked the end of 40 years of nonsense about the best way to respect a critical piece of this country’s heritage (we don’t need Unesco to tell us it is important).
Suggesting that the tunnel proposal has not properly considered the effect on the stones is a piece of nonsense. The reality is that tunnelling the A303 would result in the restoration of rolling countryside unsullied by cars and lorries. It would be magnificent, a recreation of a wider site with other burial mounds currently severed from Stonehenge itself. The small group of professional zealots (unelected and unaccountable) who have persuaded the judge otherwise should be ashamed of themselves. It is the road that is the problem, not the tunnel.
Landscape and the design of ‘natural’ features seems to be at the heart of current Silly Season stories, partly because of the Stonehenge debacle, but also because of the mound that has part-arisen, at Marble Arch. Designed by MDRDV, it is supposed to attract tourists to start shopping in Oxford Street again. I have news for Westminster Council, which is paying for all this: shoppers are already back.
The idea of the mound, which is an insult to the Marble Arch memorial, is supposed to give visitors and Londoners unrivalled views of the West End and the Royal Parks, but would better be described as a municipal folly. I don’t blame the architects since they did not write the dozy brief.
It is all reminiscent of the initiative by Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, to ‘mark’ the 2012 Olympics with some grandiose Roman Empire gesture. Apparently the stadium, the aquatics centre and the velodrome, all terrific architectural set pieces, were not enough.The call went out to various folk to come up with ideas. When asked about budget, the answer was that it didn’t really exist. Eventually there was a budget, courtesy of those well-known cockneys, Arcelor-Mittal, which paid for the embarrassing pile of junk in the middle of the site, which has now been turned into a helter-skelter. A poetic idea from Anish Kapoor about sky and views could not easily be translated into a sculpture because it was a building. The two are not the same.
Interestingly, one idea for the site (in the absence of a budget) could equally well have been deployed at Marble Arch in the interests of economy and re-use. The idea was simply to design properly a large scaffold structure, using builders’ hosts to transport paying customers (£1 a time was suggested) who could enjoy views from a deck for a fixed period, before returning to ground from hoists on the other side of the structure. A classy lighting scheme would add zest.
Once the public had tired of paying their pounds, the scaffolding would be dismantled and used elsewhere.
What is happening at Marble Arch is essentially the same thing, but with the addition of grass and planting. The latter is of course redundant, since if you want greenery, all you have to do is cross the road into Hyde Park. My advice to anyone who wants to see London from height echoes what Stephen Bayley pointed out in very funny column in The Times last week – go to the Monument or the Shard. He might have added the Walkie-Talkie, which has the advantage of being free.
If Westminster Council wants to do something useful instead of indulging in vanity projects, it could think about measures to restore flow to its roads, instead of deploying increasingly bizarre tactics aimed at reducing road capacity at a time of increasing demand, thanks to delivery vehicles and concerns about using densely occupied public transport.
Reducing capacity at a time of increasing demand is stupid beyond belief, but then who needs fuddy-duddy ideas about ‘predict and provide’? Unfortunately, abandonment of the latter strategy usually has disastrous consequences. It certainly explains the housing shortage that is undermining social stability and the living conditions of the young and the poor.
Actually that Marble Arch site would be a good one for the provision of temporary homes, which are sadly lacking in Westminster, once famed for its architectural patronage of social housing (Powell & Moya at Churchill Gardens, Darbourne & Darke at Lillington Street).
Those were times when Westminster citizens were regarded as more important than tourists.