Despite the lifting of travel restrictions in the UK, these days not many of us in Delft have had the chance to stroll around Hyde Park in London.
However, like anyone keeping up with the architectural press, I have recently been meticulously told, by writers of literally every single British paper, about the experience of encountering one of the most controversial architectural installations in years: the Marble Arch Hill.
Now, because of our editorial inexperience and our lack of self-confidence, we at Bnieuws are usually very timid when it comes to criticising architecture, a profession in which we’ve all have very little professional involvement. Because of this, I personally felt very liberated when I found out about the Marble Arch Hill, a building so clearly dreadful that it was offered to me on a silver plate for a comfortable intellectual massacre. Readers that were also recently in touch with the British press will know how the pavilion managed to attract criticism from every possible disciplinary angle . With that said, a few things are there to discuss...
I will avoid a meticulous explanation of the failure of the pavilion’s construction, something that can be easily found through a quick Google search. The pavilion, an artificial hill situated between Marble Arch and Hyde Park’s speaker’s corner (once the temple of democratic debate and, funnily enough, public criticism towards authority), was advertised by MVRDV as a lush, dense and ‘realistic’ ridge. Instead, on opening day the building looked more similar to low-res, triangulated blob, so clearly appalling to be eventually closed after just two days, to allow for further refinement
What instead deserves even more criticism is the premise of the project itself. Proposed by Westminster Council as a sort of ‘public magnet’. Aiming at attracting people back to shopping in the adjacent Oxford Street (the most important shopping street in the capital), this is just another example of public money (6 million pounds, to be precise) spent on an eye-catching but ephemeral object, directly serving the right to consume-and-share, rather than the right to genuine commercial public space. “Build a hill and they will come” stated The Guardian last month. To be precise, it looks more like ‘build an image of a hill, and people will come’, with renders of the lush urban mountain travelling around the internet long before construction, in an attempt to build excitement around the installation. The public’s harsh judgment on the project has, in fact, resulted from a misalignment of its look with their expectations. The fact that the top of the hill is not publicly accessible, but requiring a ticket up to 8£, made things even worse.
“What a joke!”, I imagine many of the Londoners saying when approaching this unrefined object, after having booked in advance. A joke, for sure. But is it at least an intentional one?
Winy Maas defended the project by affirming how it serves to “prompt a discussion” on urban forestation, by making a statement through its stark contrast with the found condition of the site, which exists as an intense traffic archipelago around the arch, dating back to the 1960s. And, as we all know, a certain provocative and context-revealing approach to buildings is very much part of Dutch architectural thinking in the last few decades. While some have directly described early MVRDV work as humorous, it is clear that any attempt to explicitly expose the complexity of a neoliberal society requires a degree of irony. The idea of sarcasm as a tool to unmask ambiguity was indeed promoted by Rem Koolhaas since his early cinematic attempts (under the influence, in his view, of writer Willem Hermans’s), before becoming an integral part of his architectural agenda.
However, despite its double-dealing ambition, the sarcastic building was always at the service of its commissioner, namely any party wishing for hyper consumer-space. Complicit shall we say? Maybe, but, to me, more similar to a joker at the service of the monarch, making a monkey of their chief while being well aware of the tipping point at which his head would be cut off.
Now, given the fact that architectural sarcasm can be achieved either through some “context-fucking” opposition (in OMA’s case, with all its consequences) or self-reference (Po-Mo for instance, both old and new, either Dutch or foreign), the typology of the pavilion results as a particularly significant subject of discussion. As in the case of MVRDV’s Hannover Expo pavilion, it’s a typology that often offered us certain exaggeration of architectural language and disregard for tradition, so to create a degree of tension around the specific argument that the pavilion itself wishes to suggest. Needless to say, when dealing with its potential humor, its relevance stems from its temporality. In fact, specific humor is generally appreciated as long as it is temporary. After a while, the same joke will always stop being funny. The same happens with the temporary pavilion, which allows for the architect to avoid being the kind of petulant child that doesn’t drop their joke.
Actually, the idea of the urban and commercial pavilion as a temporary ‘moment of fun’ or a ‘quick laugh’ is very much part of a way of thinking about the urban experience in an abstract sense. This was, at least, the idea behind radical projects such as Archigram’s Instant City, where, in the case of Peter Cook’s proposal, imaginary sets of mobile infrastructures allowed a british village to “become a city for a week” by bringing urban-pop-everything (including certain ‘metropolitan’ humor) to those villagers considered illiterate about the wonders of the city. According to Cook, the project was an analogy to the idea for which “everybody can be famous for five minutes”, one that is very much current to social-media fame, which also operates on how humor is a valuable asset in exchange for attention.
The Instant City reveals to us a specific relationship between commerce (particularly the economic value of the image) and the temporal aspects of a pavilion as an experience rather than a building. But while the project existed in itself as a set of images, the way Marble Arch Hill goes to “prompt” discussions is through the actual handling of material, a “recycled” green which is nonetheless unnaturally mobilised, and the spending of a significant amount of public money that could be used to create actual forestation. The pavilion, proposed in such way, might not even make any more sense as a building, especially in a time where the very significance of construction and material consumption is being increasingly reconsidered.
In this circumstance, the only thing that is prompted might be a questioning on whether the laugh is really worth the joke.