Sarah Gaventa

26th June 2019

As phase one of the Illuminated River project is set to be unveiled, we met up with Sarah Gaventa, Director of the Illuminated River Foundation, to chat about the project, and the importance of quality public realm lighting.

After more than two years of planning, the first phase of the Illuminated River project – an initiative that will see up to fifteen bridges along the River Thames adorned with new light installations – will be unveiled this summer.

Featuring artwork by renowned artist Leo Villareal, the project will become the longest public art installation in the world once complete, with the aim to “use light art to reconnect people to the bridges and their histories, and to celebrate their role in London”.

Leading the project is Sarah Gaventa, Director of the Illuminated River Foundation. Before joining Illuminated River, Gaventa was previously the UK government’s advisor on public space at the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment (CABE), working as Director of CABE Space – the public realm element of the commission – for four years.

Prior to this, she was trained as an art design historian, getting her Masters at London’s Royal College of Art, and has a background curating shows and exhibitions on public art. 

Having experience in both the art world and the public realm means that Gaventa is ideally placed for the Illuminated River project, as she says: “This job seemed right for me, in that its about trying to do something that is about bringing that marriage of art and architecture, and it’s something that is for the public benefit as well.”

Despite not coming from a lighting background, Gaventa is readily aware of the importance that light plays in creating a pleasant public space, thanks to her work with CABE. “I’m no expert, but I’ve always had an appreciation for it,” she said.

“CABE gives a lot of advice for how one were to design a public realm, and obviously lighting is a key part of that. We used to produce research and guidance, and light obviously has a massive impact on how people feel about a place. 

“So there was always an element about finding the right kind of light that encourages people to use a space. Understanding how light is a psychological aspect in terms of how it makes people feel, understanding the role and significance of light, which is so important, was always an element within the wider scope of what we did when trying to improve our streets and public spaces and making them people-friendly.”

Taking a similar approach for Illuminated River, Gaventa was keen to ensure that the project did more than just illuminate the bridges, but to improve the surrounding areas as well.

“I knew that when we did this project, there was absolutely no point in just concentrating on where the light went on the bridges and not thinking about the quality of the lighting environment along the river,” she said.

“We’ve walked both the south and north bank with the lighting teams of both Southwark and City of London, who have both been very supportive, and just looked at the light levels, the light temperatures – which are quite interestingly much higher than the light levels of our artwork – to try and get some kind of continuity, not in colour terms, but so that there’s a quality environment for the public, and that they’re not going from light to dark to over-bright spaces.”

To back up this approach, Gaventa and the Illuminated River team conducted the first illuminance study of Central London along the river, analysing and looking at where all the light is coming from that is not needed. “I suppose in a way our project is focusing people’s attention,” she said. “Walking with the lighting team of Southwark, we realised that every third lamp was out, or it was a different colour temperature. 

“So when you take the time to look, you realise what a patchwork it is and that really, it needs a bit more coordination, which local authorities are now trying to do, and there hasn’t been much coordination for example between the north and south bank. They are separate local authorities all the way along, and they don’t talk to each other about their lighting strategies. If you’re in the middle of a bridge and you look north, then you look south, the environment you’ll see in terms of the way it is lit will be completely uncoordinated and disparate.”

However, while the Illuminated River project will no doubt create a more unified lighting scheme across the Thames, Gaventa says that this was not a direct aim for the project, but instead a happy by-product of it. “It’s one of those things that once you start getting into this project, you realise that if you’re going to do one thing, you need to do the other, and this seemed like the most intelligent, thorough way of doing it,” she said.

“There’s nothing worse than when you go and see one project, and there’s another next to it and you think ‘well they didn’t talk to each other’, so a lot of it is about the dialogue, about discovering what’s possible.

“The only local authority with a public lighting strategy in London is the City of London, nobody else has one. And I do hope that as a result of Illuminated River, there will be more thought about that, and that there is a more coherent lighting strategy along the Thames.”

In her role as Director of the Illuminated River Foundation, Gaventa is responsible for coordinating the team, from the consultants and the support staff to the winning design team – Leo Villareal and architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands – as well as putting in place a timeline, budgets, and everything else needed to make the project a reality.

This also included the extensive planning and consultation process – something made all the more difficult because of the number of local authorities involved. “Last year we received 30 planning applications and eighteen listed building consents, delivered a programme of community consultation, which has been an incredibly important part of it, making sure that we’re not doing anything that’s bad for the environment, trying to reduce all the light spill that there currently is, reduce the light levels and energy consumption – it’s been quite a slog!

“And then we’ve been working with seven different local authorities – apparently we did the biggest single planning application outside of Crossrail and Tideway, and they both had acts of parliament. I think I must have had 24 pre-app meetings too. So it’s quite hard to do a pan-London project when there are so many different boroughs because you have to approach each separately.”

A huge boost in this process was the support of the Mayor of London’s office, something Gaventa believed was “crucial” for its acceptance with local authorities.

The idea for the project, Gaventa said, came from the Lord Rothschild, and was supported by the Greater London Authority (GLA) as they sought a cultural legacy project following on from the 2012 Olympics that spread across the city.

“An art-based project that would be seen by a lot of Londoners is quite a big ask, but the idea of lighting the bridges had been floating around for some time,” she said. “Nearly 20 years ago, when Lord Rothschild was Chair at Somerset House, he asked James Turrell to come up with a scheme for Waterloo Bridge. So this idea that had been floating around for a long time suddenly found its moment with the Mayor was looking for something, and it came from that.”

The designs for the project see Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands create a unified, consistent scheme across the fifteen bridges, something that Gaventa was very keen on: “They’ve put together a very compelling proposal, which has a continuity between each of the bridges, whereas some of the other entries had completely different schemes with no coherence,” she said.

“We wanted something that felt curated, that there was a synergy between because currently, all of the bridges that are lit have no relationship with each other, in terms of the way that they’re lit, how they’re used or the approach that they’ve taken.”

The winning designs were chosen by a jury after more than 100 entries were submitted. However, while Mark Major was involved in the technical panel, the project came under criticism from some in the lighting community due to a lack of lighting professionals on the jury, something that Gaventa puts down to the fact that “every lighting designer in Britain went in for the competition, so it wouldn’t have worked very well if they were on the jury!”

Following the selection of Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Illuminated River has been working closely with the ILP, getting young graduates involved with the project, while Atelier Ten are also on board, providing lighting engineering and design expertise.

The project has also collaborated with official connected lighting supplier Signify to create the Illuminated River apprenticeship – an initiative that will invite students to work with both Signify and the Illuminated Rivers team over the course of two years.

Indeed Gaventa was full of praise for the role that Signify has played in the project, stating that it is “more than just a supplier, they’re a partner. They’ve gone above and beyond”.

“They’ve been really good partners for us, and they’ve worked with us from day one. We have fortnightly project team meetings and they’re always at those as well, with whole day planning meetings. They’re more than a supplier, they’re on site with us because it’s their responsibility, and it’s obviously a high profile project for them as well.”

The collaboration with Signify extends beyond the provision of lighting products too. Illuminated Rivers is working with Signify on an app that allows them to look across social media and find out not only what people are saying about the installations, but also to see where viewers are taking photos. “This helps us to see where people are standing, and whether these spaces are appropriate in terms of how well they’re lit and whether they’re accessible,” Gaventa explained.

“Leo [Villareal] did something similar for his Bay Lights scheme in San Francisco. They collected similar data and found that the favourite place to take the best photograph of the artwork was actually a car park, so that eventually got transformed into a piece of public realm with a café.”

Throughout her career, Gaventa has shown a strong passion for public realm regeneration, for improving the quality of our living environment and creating spaces for the public to enjoy, and this passion has been further strengthened with the Illuminated Rivers project.

“For me, public spaces are the only democratic spaces we have left,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what income you have, what background you’re from, we’re all equal in a public space and they’re also vital for our mental wellbeing and health.

“I always think of a Ruskin quote that says ‘The measure of any great civilisation is its cities and a measure of a city’s greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares’, and I think doing a project like this is another way of saying that we’re investing in people and giving something to the many rather than to the few.

“I’m also very keen on public art. The exhibition that I curated at Historic England looked at post-war public art. This was in the days when they’d build social housing estates and put a Henry Moore in it because it was felt that every person deserved to have the best quality experience of art, so for me this is another way of saying so.”

Gaventa added that she is hopeful that the new installations will attract more visitors of all ages to the Thames, while it might make some locals see the beautiful architecture that is already on their doorsteps in a whole new light.

“We have some data that says that younger people don’t see the Thames as an attraction or as a place to go. And we think that by bringing something as interesting as these artworks and light sculptures to the river, that would encourage younger people to use it.

“This is one of the wonderful things about light, if it encourages people to come, and if it encourages people to walk across bridges that they might have otherwise got a taxi or a bus over.

“When you walk across London Bridge, everyone has their heads down. They’re looking at their screens or they’re looking at the ground. If this makes a few people stop on their evening commute and just look at this amazing public space and look at the light sculptures – if it gives people this pause, that’s one of the things that light can do, it can give you a moment out of your busy day.

“I think with light we can reclaim the bridges, and if we can encourage people to enjoy them, then they have some of the best views of the city.

“This was one of the things that attracted me to the project. As soon as I realised it was more than just an art project, that it had some public benefits, I was much more interested in it.

“Because of the project’s longevity, it felt like something that could be worthwile, that could be of benefit to Londoners. It’s about using light to reveal the beauty of what’s already there, but it’s also nice to have something that’s a bit joyful in these times, and that’s the power of light really, it can do that.”

While the first four bridges are scheduled to be illuminated this summer, the work doesn’t stop for Gaventa and her team, with preparations already well underway for the next five bridges, due to be illuminated next year.

And she’s hopeful that the work of the Illuminated River Foundation will inspire other cities to follow suit and create similar installations: “I hope other people will then look at their own lighting plans, and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned,” she said. “I’m hoping that this will be seen as an example of how to do it well, and how you need the best lighting professional expertise to create a project like this.”