Illuminated River, UK

23rd August 2019

Following more than two years of planning, the first phase of the Illuminated River project was finally unveiled in July.

The project – an ambitious new art commission for London that will eventually see up to fifteen bridges along the River Thames bathed in new light installations – is the result of an unparalleled collaboration between London-based and international creative talent, local authorities and partners. Free to view, and accessible to all, Illuminated River hopes to act as a symbol for London’s creativity, ambition and spirit.

The artwork aims to celebrate the architecture and heritage of London’s historic bridges, and will encourage more people to enjoy the river and the riverside at night. Artwork for the first four bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – is expected to be seen more than 60 million times each year, by Londoners and visitors alike.

Conceived by internationally-acclaimed artist Leo Villareal alongside architectural practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Illuminated River is a philanthropically-funded initiative supported by the Mayor of London and delivered by the Illuminated River Foundation. Working with seven different local authorities, Illuminated River is the biggest single planning application ever made without an act of Parliament, and is the first time that the bridges along the Thames will have been cohesively and artistically lit.

The Foundation, led by Director Sarah Gaventa, developed the project in consultation and collaboration with more than 50 organisations on and around the Thames, including the Port of London Authority, Historic England, Transport for London, Network Rail, London Wildlife Trust, the Zoological Society of London and Cross River Partnership, alongside the seven local authorities, who have granted 30 planning permissions and eighteen listed building consents.

The first four bridges of the scheme are now lit up in unison, with sequenced LED patterns subtly unfolding across each unique structure. Villareal’s artwork replaces outdated and inefficient lighting on the bridges, providing a more long-term, sustainable solution for lighting the Thames. Designed by Atelier Ten, the lighting will minimise direct light spill onto the river and reduce energy consumption. While the former lighting ran all night, from dusk until dawn, Illuminated River’s connected LED lighting from official lighting supplier Signify will be switched off at 2am. 

Villareal’s artwork continues in the footsteps of generations of artists who have been inspired by the Thames, using Signify’s connected LED lighting to ‘paint with light’, drawing on colours influenced by the palettes of Impressionist and English Romantic painters. With shifting hues that mimic the London sky during sunset, moonlight and sunrise, and gently kinetic patterns that are inspired by the natural and social activity of the river, Villareal’s artwork celebrates the Thames as London’s living artery.

The artwork has also been sensitively developed, paying attention to heritage, wildlife and the location of each bridge, respecting and revealing their individual histories and architectural features. The dynamic public artwork refocuses attention on the Thames bridges as social, historical and architectural landmarks, and celebrates their role in London’s global identity.

Signify’s Color Kinetics LED luminaires have been used to illuminate the bridges. Colour Kinetics Graze luminaires have been employed to light up the sides of the bridges, while the underneath features Colour Kinetics Reach Elite fixtures. Elsewhere, Colour Kinetics Blast luminaires have been used to light the bridge piers. These are all controlled using Signify’s Interact Landmark system, which will centrally manage the new connected lighting for all fifteen bridges.

Once completed, the project is expected to feature more than 22,000 LED light points, all monitored remotely by the Signify control system

Site works for the first phase of the project began in January 2019; two years after the winning team was announced by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and closely following the granting of planning permission. The Foundation is on track to complete phase two by Autumn 2020, which will include Blackfriars Road, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee Footbridges, Westminster and Lambeth bridges.

Once completed, Illuminated River will span from Albert Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. At 2.5 miles in length, along 4.5 nautical miles of the Thames, it will be the longest public art commission in the world, and is anticipated to be viewed over a billion times during its ten-year lifespan.

Coinciding with the launch of the first phase, the Illuminated River Foundation also announced an extensive, UNESCO-endorsed public programme. From boat and walking tours to exhibitions and new music commissions, the initiatives have been devised to celebrate the bridges and help reconnect people with the river.

At the centre of the engagement programme is a collaboration with Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Composers from both the Composition and Electronic Music Department of Guildhall School have been commissioned to create original scores inspired by the heritage, architectural context and Villareal’s artwork. The compositions have captured the character of each bridge, with some arranged for orchestra, and others using spoken work poetry, found sound and electronica to tell the story of the structures.

Listening to the pieces, audiences will be transported to past eras, to the time of Medieval candle makers of Candelwrichstrete (Cannon Street), or to the hustle and bustle of London’s frenetic Victorian streets. All the pieces act as an homage to the ebb and flow of the river, and the bridges that have enabled the city to thrive.

With each piece responding to one of the bridges, the Illuminated River Foundation has worked with various partners across London, including VocalEyes, who produce audio descriptions for blind and partially sighted people, to make the compositions accessible and available to the general public.

Hannah Rothschild originated the idea of lighting the bridges, and is a trustee of the Illuminated River Foundation. A supporter of the project throughout, on the launch of the first phase, she said: “The River Thames is London’s liquid history and its beating heart, and the bridges are the arteries connecting north, south, east and west. But at night these extraordinary structures, each with a unique history and style, evanesce into darkness and obscurity. This project, one of the world’s longest and most ambitious cultural commissions, will transform a snake of darkness into a ribbon of light, threading art through the heart of the city.”

Sadiq Khan added: “From the Fourth Plinth to art on the Underground, our city has a rich heritage of showcasing public art, and I am delighted that Illuminated River is bringing more free and accessible artwork to Londoners. The Thames has played a key role in the growth and development of our capital for centuries, and this unique artwork will help Londoners and visitors see it in a whole new way. The Illuminated River will celebrate the unique architecture and heritage of our bridges, showcase creativity, boost life at night and transform the way we think about the Thames.”

Leo Villareal continued: “With Illuminated River, the largest artwork I’ve ever conceived, I’m hoping to follow in the footsteps of Monet, Turner and Whistler and reveal the truly unique, inspiring and poetic character of the Thames. Studying the river and the history of London for the last three years was a fantastic experience that changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist.

“The integrated nuances and motions across the bridges create a unified piece that celebrates and enhances the river as a continuous living entity. I’m both delighted and humbled by the completion of this initial phase, and I can’t wait for the public to experience the first four bridges.”

Finally, Alex Lifschutz, Founding Principal of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, exclaimed: “This arts project will illuminate not just the river but also the history and architecture of our wonderful city by revealing its iconic bridges in a new light. The art subtly reveals their beauty and in some cases their muscularity, transforming even the humblest railway bridges into iconic forms. Of particular interest to me is that transformative quality – with literally the lightest touch, the art alters our view of our city and unites the river as never before.”

Pic: James Newton