This spring, the launch of an additional five bridges in the Illuminated River artwork will create the world’s longest public art commission. Blackfriars Road, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee, Westminster and Lambeth Bridges will be illuminated by New York-based artist Leo Villareal’s subtle display of slowly moving light sequences, joining the four bridges already lit in 2019.
Completing on time and on budget despite Covid-19 restrictions, Illuminated River will transform the Thames at night, offering a cultural experience that is open air, free to view and accessible to all. With no ticketing or queuing, this monumental installation provides visitors with the opportunity to enjoy the architectural beauty of London’s bridges and gain understanding of their relationship with the river flowing beneath them.
Spanning the cultural, financial and political stretches of the Thames, the launch marks the culmination of five years’ work by the Illuminated River Foundation. The installation is the result of a uniquely collaborative initiative bringing together an American artist and a British architecture practice with a multi-disciplinary delivery team of 18 different specialisms. Illuminated River’s extensive network of more than 50 stakeholders and project partners includes seven London boroughs, Transport for London and Network Rail as well as organisations such as Historic England, the London Wildlife Trust and the Cross River Partnership. Funded almost exclusively by donations from four major benefactors, the ambitious project demonstrates an unprecedented level of collaborative working across the disciples of art, design, engineering, technology, planning and construction, informed by expertise including ecology, sustainability and community engagement. To embed learning from the project for the benefit of future generations, the Foundation is making its in-depth research freely available as a public resource.
To celebrate the completion of this significant chapter, a public engagement programme for 2021 will be launched by the Illuminated River Foundation, creating new and innovative evening activities for different audiences (in line with potential tier restrictions). A number of digital initiatives will form part of the programme, including a second collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama inviting student composers to create new musical scores inspired by the bridges and the artwork, which will be free to download.
Villareal’s vision is to create a unified series of evocative lighting sequences across the bridges, reflecting their cultural and historical contexts. His approach draws on the spirit of Impressionist and English Romantic artists such as Monet and Whistler, who when painting London’s river and its bridges often worked, as Villareal does, ‘en plein air’.
A gentle combination of rosy colours will extend across the arches of Blackfriars Road Bridge, citing the warm-hued remaining columns of the adjacent railway bridge. Waterloo Bridge, the longest bridge in central London, will be enhanced by a simple line of light, introducing subtle washes of colour to illuminate its central spine. Across the Golden Jubilee Footbridges a monochromatic scheme will complement the walkways designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands in 2002, mirroring Villareal’s approach to the other pedestrian bridge in the artwork – Millennium (illuminated July 2019).
Westminster and Lambeth Bridges bookend the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Palace of Westminster. Westminster Bridge’s latticework undercrofts will be illuminated in soft green tones referencing the benches of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. Similarly, the red glow to adorn Lambeth Bridge is a nod to the benches of the House of Lords’ chamber and mirrors the red accents of the bridge’s railings and arches.
The first four Illuminated River bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – made their debut in 2019 accompanied by a rich programme of engagement. The project was granted UNESCO patronage for its contribution to culture, science, architecture and heritage. Since their launch the four bridges have been creating an evocative display every evening from dusk until 2.00am.
Throughout 2021 the Illuminated River Foundation will continue, through its Community Fund and other partnerships, to work closely with local authorities, community and business groups, and residents to support the embedding of the artwork and to create an ongoing programme of events. In 2020 the Foundation successfully collaborated with Coin Street Community Builders on initiatives including virtual art workshops and the delivery of Christmas care packages to local people in need with the help of FM Conway and their E-cargo bikes used during the installation of the artwork. The Foundation has also organised free walks especially for NHS workers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ – a programme that will be expanded as distancing restrictions are lifted.
Lord Mendoza, Chair of the Illuminated River Foundation:
“Despite the many obstacles we faced in 2020 as a country, as an industry, and as a project, we’re delighted to announce that we’re on track to deliver this monumental cultural experience for London. As we complete this chapter of the artwork, we hope the public will enjoy this amazing installation, and we will keep working to continue its legacy. We hope that Illuminated River can act as a ray of light, pointing towards a hopeful future for the UK’s arts and culture sector.”
The Illuminated River Foundation recognises the significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, and the necessity for philanthropists to divert much of their arts funding to urgent COVID-related support. The opportunity to extend the artwork beyond the nine bridges will be based on funding becoming available in the future, when current pressures are eased.