The Illuminated River artwork was officially switched on this evening on Blackfriars Road, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee, Westminster and Lambeth Bridges. The unified, subtly moving installation by US artist Leo Villareal now extends across nine Thames bridges, from London to Lambeth, to form the longest public art commission in the world.
Illuminated River reframes the Thames at night, offering a cultural experience that is open air, free to view and accessible to all. An estimated 90 million people a year will see the artwork over its minimum ten-year lifespan.
This visionary public art installation demonstrates how London continues to be a creative and imaginative capital. In spite of the challenges of the past year, Illuminated River has completed on time and on budget. The illuminations will transform perceptions of the Thames at night, with every bridge in the installation having a different, never-repeated lighting algorithm. Illuminated River offers the public the opportunity to enjoy the beauty and calm of the Thames and its bridges and observe the varied architectural and engineering heritages along London’s river.
The Illuminated River Foundation and its core project team have overcome many obstacles to complete the project during COVID-19 restrictions. In the midst of the pandemic, Villareal was unable to travel to the UK to programme the artwork in person. Instead, the artist used LiveU streaming technology to view and adjust the light sequences in real time from his New York studio. This provided a precision and accuracy almost equal to physical proximity, transmitting footage with less than a second in time delay and allowing Villareal to fine-tune the artwork as if ‘en plein air’. Illuminated River is the first completed art project in the UK to use LiveU streaming technology from a remote location.
The launch marks the culmination of one of the largest and most detailed planning processes London has ever seen, with 30 planning permissions and 18 listed building consents granted. Over the past five years, the Illuminated River Foundation has orchestrated the collaboration between its American artist and British architects, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, in conjunction with 18 specialist teams. An extensive network of more than 50 stakeholders and project partners includes seven London boroughs, five bridge owners, Transport for London, Network Rail, as well as organisations such as Historic England, the London Wildlife Trust and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Funded almost exclusively by philanthropic donations from four major benefactors, this impressive project demonstrates an unprecedented level of collaboration across the disciplines of art, design, lighting, technology, planning and construction, informed by expertise including ecology, sustainability and civil engineering. To share learning from the project for the benefit of all, the Foundation is making its extensive and ground-breaking research and learning freely available as a public resource.
To celebrate the completion, a new public engagement programme for 2021 will be launched by the Illuminated River Foundation, with innovative evening activities created for different audiences (in line with potential tier restrictions). A number of digital initiatives form part of the programme, including a second collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where student composers have created new, free-to-download music inspired by the bridges and the artwork. Blind and partially sighted people are invited to engage with the artwork through descriptive audio guides. Created in collaboration with the charity VocalEyes, the downloadable tracks interweave descriptions of the artworks and the bridges with cultural, historical and social references while evoking the atmosphere of each piece.
Villareal’s vision was to create a unified lighting concept to refocus attention on the Thames bridges, illuminating their separate identities while respecting the architecture and engineering of each structure. His approach draws on the spirit of artists from English Romantics to Impressionists, referencing for example Monet and Whistler whose paintings immortalise London’s river and its bridges in washes of colour and light.
A gentle combination of rosy colours extends across the arches of Blackfriars Road Bridge, citing the warm-hued remaining columns of the now removed old railway bridge. Waterloo Bridge, the longest bridge in central London, has been enhanced by a simple line of light, introducing pastel washes of colour to illuminate its central spine. Across the Golden Jubilee Footbridges, a monochromatic scheme complements the walkways designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands in 2002, mirroring Villareal’s approach to the other pedestrian bridge in the artwork – Millennium (illuminated in July 2019).
As ‘bookends’ to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Palace of Westminster, Westminster and Lambeth Bridges occupy sites of deep significance to the constitutional history of Britain. Since 1970 they have celebrated the two-chamber political system in the colour of their paintwork, reflecting their respective proximities to the upper and lower houses of parliament. Enhancing this theme, the artwork illuminates Westminster Bridge’s latticework undercrofts in soft green tones, referencing the benches of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. The red glow adorning Lambeth Bridge is a nod to the benches of the House of Lords 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 wide programme of engagement, which was granted UNESCO patronage for its contribution to culture, science, architecture and heritage. Since their launch, the four bridges have been creating an evocative experience every evening from dusk until 2.00am.
To embed the artwork into the cultural fabric of London, the Illuminated River Foundation will continue to work closely with local authorities, communities and partners throughout 2021. Through its Community Fund and other partnerships, the Foundation has organised many successful initiatives with residents and stakeholders, including free walking tours of the artwork for NHS workers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, which will restart this week.
Hannah Rothschild, who originated the idea of lighting the bridges and is a Trustee of the Illuminated River Foundation, said:
“The Thames is our liquid history, spanning London’s two millennia. Its bridges, each unique and essential, are the arteries connecting north, south, east and west; carrying many millions of people and goods from one shore to another, day after day. For too long, the Thames and its bridges have been under appreciated. Now Leo Villareal’s brilliant and imaginative design, the world’s longest public artwork, has transformed a snake of darkness into a vibrant and beautiful ribbon of light running through our midst, which will transform the bridges, boost the local night-time economy and foster a sense of wonder in these idiosyncratic and vital structures.”
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