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The Illuminated River project shines a light on the capital’s riverside evolution writes Sarah Gaventa

Change has always been at the heart of the Illuminated River project, which is transforming our perceptions of the Thames and, more importantly, the bridges that cross it in central London.

Illuminated River is a long-term free art installation, supported by the Mayor, which transforms the capital at night with an orchestrated series of light works that currently includes nine bridges. In spring 2021, the original four bridges were joined by another five in the political and cultural centre of London, from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge. The project’s subtly moving sequences of LED light symbolically unify London’s Thames bridges, drawing inspiration from the spirit of the river and from the architectural and engineering heritage of its bridges.

The artwork is created by internationally renowned New York-based artist Leo Villareal, working with London-based project architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. It draws attention to the bridges across the Thames and brings to life aspects of the city after dark.

Programming his artwork on site like a plein air painter, Villareal’s light compositions mimic the ever-changing movement of the river, using shifting hues drawn from the London sky at sunset and by moonlight. The artist takes inspiration from the natural and social activity of the Thames; boats and barges moving people and cargo, the traffic surrounding the bridges, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Translating this atmosphere using custom created software, Villareal’s patterns are organic and ever- evolving, never repeating or resolving into a single image. Once the nine bridges are all complete, the artwork will be 3.2 miles in length, making it the longest public art project in the world, seen more than 90 million times in a normal year.

Led by the Illuminated River Foundation, the project involves a unique and long- lasting collaboration of statutory bodies, local authorities and communities. The artwork is the result of one of the most detailed and extensive pan-London planning processes the capital has ever seen, involving five different bridge owners and spanning seven boroughs and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster. It has been developed in consultation and collaboration with over 50 organisations on and around the river, and seven local authorities from whom 30 planning permissions and 18 listed building consents have been granted. Unlike HS2 or Tideway, this was achieved without the benefit of an Act of Parliament!

We hope the project will enrich the experience of travelling along and across the river at night and encourage Londoners and visitors to use the river – currently the city’s most under-used artery - as a means of transport, as commuting tends to decrease dramatically after dark. We were very surprised by research that showed how many children in London have never been on, or even seen the Thames. In Westminster alone, one child in ten has never seen it and low-income families do not visit it. This is partly because, though the Thames is London’s biggest public space by far, it cannot be accessed for free. To address this, we set up the cheapest boat tours possible, which are the same price as commuting, and offered free ones for local communities, which may only be a few streets back from the Thames but no longer feel connected to it.

Community engagement has played a vital role in the development of the project. We gathered feedback from commuters, river and bridge users and visitors, and conducted numerous one-to-one meetings with a variety of stakeholders including heritage and ecology groups, local resident associations and civic societies. We also did research on luminance levels, creating the first ever luminance survey of the Thames, to assess current levels of brightness on and around the river and identify where light spill, glare and pollution is occurring. During the research process, we found that Albert Bridge throws out as much light as a motorway! It turns out most of the light spill is from surrounding buildings which are often lit way over the recommended levels, and we have been approaching owners who have been shocked by our findings. The view we have of London at night, particularly around the Thames, is directed by facilities managers (commercial buildings tend to be the most brightly lit), rather than a curated approach which respects the historic environment. This is something we would like to see change and we have instigated a project with Centre for London about how we can all share best practice to create a more holistic and sustainable approach.

Thanks to Google Arts & Culture 360, the artwork can be viewed remotely (the first night-time project to be included), offering an immersive experience of the artwork and encouraging millions of virtual visitors to stroll the banks of the river Thames and learn about its history and heritage. We have also commissioned original musical scores inspired by the first four Illuminated River bridges from students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and more are planned for the following five bridges. These pieces can be downloaded for free along with audio guides, including one specially created for people with sight loss. The project has spawned dedicated rambling, night kayaking, mud larking, sketching, photography and other activities which we hope will increase post Covid-19. 

Installing the Illuminated River project was already challenging and the pandemic added to the frisson. The Thames is a busy working river, a wildlife superhighway that must be respected. It has complex health and safety issues and our work had to be programmed around Tideway’s activities. We had to take into account the management of river and road traffic. Not only that, but we were also dealing with a rail bridge on which disrupted services could be expensive and chaotic. Though Covid-19 has added more challenges to the installation, including delays to manufacture of kit, capacity issues due to furlough amongst key partners and managing socially distanced sites, we were well prepared and remain on schedule to complete on time. 

The pandemic has shown that we need good public spaces even more than ever, pleasant places to walk in and around and spaces that support our mental health and well-being. The outside has become the new inside, the streets our new restaurants, public realm our new art galleries, so we are pleased that Illuminated River, with its soothing and gently kinetic artwork, has provided some comfort to people during these testing times. If we can create something that is enjoyed and remains in place for a decade or more, something that changes people’s perceptions of the bridges, encourages them to notice the changing tide and ow of the Thames, to pause and look around at what has become so familiar that it is often ignored, then we will know that the challenge of creating this project will have been well worth it. 

Sarah Gaventa is director of The Illuminated River Foundation An Hon Fellow of both RIBA and the Landscape Institute, she is a public space and public art expert and curator, and was previously Director of CABE Space at the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment. She was Chair of the Elephant and Castle Regeneration Forum for five years.