Despite being one of London’s most loved bridges, Waterloo is also the Thames bridge that was never quite finished. In 2021 – 82 years after its construction first began – Waterloo Bridge will finally receive a site-specific artwork, as originally intended by the bridge’s architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
An unrealised commission
Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) always wanted his concrete beam bridge to be completed by art, incorporating four significant plinths for sculpture at the footings on either side of the river. In 1947 five sculptors – Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Frank Dobson and Eric Kennington – were invited to compete for the plinths of the newly completed bridge. The London County Council-run competition asked for proposals for figure groups in Portland stone, with silhouettes to be seen from a distance and forming ‘part of the lines of the bridge design’. The commissions were never realised.
In 1947 Hepworth submitted four designs for Waterloo Bridge’s two pairs of plinths on either side of the river – three drawings and one scale model in Portland stone. The drawn designs ‘The Sea’ (above), and ‘The Valleys’ were intended for the South Bank plinths whilst the ‘The Hills’ was intended to be placed in front of Lancaster House. The modelled design ‘The River’ was intended for the plinth in front of Somerset House. According to the report Hepworth submitted alongside the plinths, “the groups [had] been considered in relation to the sun, the architectural and natural background and the diverse levels from which they would be seen”. These designs are now held in the Tate’s collection.
Ten years after Barbara Hepworth submitted her designs for the plinths, in 1957, the south side of Waterloo Bridge acquired an iconic harlequin sign as part of the National Film Theatre development. The signage was designed by Norman Engleback (1927–2015), lead architect of the South Bank complex including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the National Film Theatre. After going unlit for several decades, this epoch-defining piece was renovated in 2018 and will be complemented by Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River artwork in Spring 2021.
Leo Villareal’s artwork for Illuminated River
The new Illuminated River light artwork for Waterloo Bridge by artist Leo Villareal will incorporate a line of colour that shifts and blends across the bridge, adjusting to the constantly changing riverscape. Celebrating the modelled form and innovative engineering of the concrete bridge, Villareal’s evolving colour palette is inspired by the spirit of the Impressionist and English Romantic painters who memorialised this stretch of the Thames in many variations of colour, tone and light – including Claude Monet who painted John Rennie the Elders’s previous Waterloo Bridge over 40 times in the period 1899–1901.
Villareal’s artwork for Waterloo Bridge references the language of light employed at the Millennium Bridge (illuminated in 2019) but extrapolates it by applying colour – extending the aesthetic continuity of the artwork upstream and visually linking the bridges with complementary artworks. As with the Millennium Bridge, Villareal will explore a single line of light but at Waterloo will introduce colour in fine bands, which travel 379m across the bridge’s parapets above the lines of its monumental arched beams. The sculptural surfaces of the bridge’s undercrofts will also be emphasised for the first time in soft washes of coloured light.
In addition to its strong ties to Romantic, mid-century and contemporary art and design, Waterloo Bridge also features prominently in popular culture. Since its official opening in December 1945, the bridge has frequently been referenced, featuring in the films Alfie (1966) and Trainspotting (1996) as well as being immortalised in the 1967 song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks.
A Feat of Architecture and Engineering
- The construction of Waterloo Bridge was largely executed by a female workforce, during WWII, earning its nickname: ‘the Ladies’ Bridge’ Despite the setback of direct bomb damage during its construction (Waterloo was the only Thames bridge to be damaged in the War), the Portland-stone clad bridge was first opened before full completion in 1942.
- In 2015 the Grade II* bridge was re-listed by Historic England to recognise the important and previously officially unacknowledged role of women in its construction.
- Waterloo Bridge was the first reinforced concrete bridge to cross the Thames in central London. The beam bridge was ground-breaking in its approach to reinforced concrete, and as a project was formative in demanding new levels of inter-disciplinary collaboration between engineers, architects and contractors.
- The bridge’s architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, also designed the K2 red telephone box as well as working on Thames power stations Bankside (now Tate Modern) and Battersea. Although the design of Waterloo Bridge looks simple, it was difficult to implement and advice was sought from reinforced concrete pioneer Oscar Faber (1886–1956), who had devised a new method of calculating shear forces in reinforced concrete beams.
- The bridge’s civil engineers, Rendel Palmer & Tritton, also worked on the current Chelsea Bridge (1937) and the Thames Barrier (1982)