According to the glossy renders, the Marble Arch Mound was to be a lush green hill offering visitors spectacular views of Hyde Park. But the reality turned out to be rather different, writes Amanda Baillieu.


At the time of writing, the artificial hill remains closed after being labelled “the worst attraction in London”. On social media and in the press, the renders by the architect MVDRV, were once again in the dock for painting an overly optimistic picture.

Criticism of CGIs is nothing new. Ever since they became the standard way to communicate a project before it’s built, visualisers have been accused of ignoring the more complex story about cites.

Some of this criticism is unfair. The visualiser’s job is to allow the architect’s vision to be seen and understood in a way that drawings and even models cannot achieve. But there is no doubt that the most sophisticated CGIs go well beyond this. Rather than aiming for 100 per cent accuracy, they are closer to works of art, all the better to provoke feelings of emotion and even desire.

In their defence, visualisers argue that projects increasingly need a ‘wow’ image and can be the difference between a project being viable or not. Certainly this seems to be the case with the mound, where the timetable was tight with the extra challenge of needing to open just as social distancing came to an end.

Ben Davies, who co-founded the design agency Neighbourhood and is a non-exec board director of Hayes Davidson says the problem often comes when timescales are tight and the stakes high. “CGI’s are often rushed through. At this stage in the process, the design is often just a set of concepts and ideas, so the ‘drama’ is pushed to disguise the ‘hard edges’ and lack of resolution” he says.

He also points out that in our fast-paced, image statured ‘likes’ culture, “an image needs to grab our attention very quickly”.


MVRDV’s Marble Arch Mound was part of a wider vision to revive pandemic-hit Oxford Street with installations, pedestrianisation and pop-ups

But architects’ reliance on renders to explain more complex projects than the mound is looking increasingly old-fashioned, especially given the seismic shift in the way we now find and consume content and our desire to interact much more with it – to explore, to move and even be part of an immersive experience.

There are also the huge repercussions of the pandemic, one of which has been to change the way we engage. Society has not only switched to using technology at a greater rate than ever before, people have become more aware of their surroundings – the lack of outdoor space for example or noise and pollution – and are keen to see change.

Add to this the Prime Minister’s clear directive to “build, build, build” with the promise of “the biggest programme of public investment ever” alongside his flagship reform of the English planning system, mean that architects and developers will need to become more creative in the way they communicate new projects and places if they are to win peoples’ trust.

For this to happen, project teams will need different kinds of skills in order to create stories that people can engage with, not simply as part of the public consultation, but all the way through the project. These skills could include filmmakers, animators, visual-effects artists, musicians, artists and even poets.

This might sound like wishful thinking. But there are signs this is already happening with major developers leading the charge. One such project is the 100ha Thamesmead Waterfront development whose team includes architect Jayden Ali who works at “the intersection of architecture, urban strategy and performance” and culture experts like Place Bureau and Tracey Sage. The developer Lendlease says it wants “new perspectives and ideas” as it starts to engage with the local community.

The proof as always is in the pudding. But only these multi-disciplinary teams offer the diverse perspectives and expertise that can challenge conventional project communication. This is not to say static images won’t play a role – they will, but alongside film, digital products and immersive experiences using different platforms to extend the reach.

This was some of the thinking behind the £10,000 Davidson Prize launched this year. Set up in memory of Alan Davidson, an early pioneer of architectural computer graphics, Alan was a visual thinker and storyteller and the founder of visualisation studio, Hayes Davidson. The prize was won by a team comprising architects Haptic, creative studio Squint/Opera, sound designer Coda to Coda, bio-design specialist Yaoyao Meng and poet LionHeart for its HomeForest concept. One of the judges, Narinder Sagoo said “in terms of presentation and communication, it’s in a world of its own”.

Few architectural projects bring together the worlds of physical and digital space, sound, academic research and poetry as HomeForest managed to do, but this is surely the future. That’s why the Alan Davidson Foundation is now supporting a new award for ‘storytelling’ to celebrate those projects that are pushing the frontiers of communicating unbuilt architecture and places. We look forward to seeing the entries.

The Alan Davidson Award for Storytelling is now open for entries. All proceeds will be donated to the Alan Davidson Foundation which supports a wide range of causes with a strong focus on MND research.