Incorporating nine bridges, from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge, stretching 3.2 miles in length, Illuminated River will be the longest public art commission in the world. We won an international competition to develop the project with American artist Leo Villareal, who uses the latest LED technology to ‘paint with light’. Taking influence from the natural and social activity of the river, the project produces sequenced patterns that play across each bridge, creating a unified artwork that references the river as a continuous living system.
Our role has been to lead the project, working with the artist and a host of other experts to jointly conceive the design and technical solutions, address the heritage issues (including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and deal with the complex ecological concerns around river creatures, fish, birds and bats. We headed the negotiations with seven boroughs and over 100 owners and stakeholders submitting and gaining consent for over 40 listed building and planning consents.
In addition to the artwork, Illuminated River is an opportunity to explore and address issues of increasing lighting pollution and energy inefficiency in London, and to leave a positive environmental legacy for the city. The design of the new light fittings and their shields will refocus light on the bridge surfaces and not into the river or surrounding areas (as happens now), reducing direct light spill by 75% and removing it entirely where possible. Using the latest LED technology, the project also has the potential to reduce existing energy consumption by as much as 50% on a number of bridges. Working closely with agencies that include London Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, the Zoological Society of London, Thames Estuary Partnership, the Bat Conservation Trust, and the London Biodiversity Forum, the project seeks to improve natural habitats for flora and wildlife.
Villareal’s art is programmed to be site-specific, so there will be opportunities to dim it at certain times, responding to spawning, shoaling and migration. And through pioneering luminance and wildlife surveys of the Thames area between Tower and Albert Bridges, together with constant monitoring and assessment of the installation and its environs, the project will contribute to London’s growing understanding of its river environment. In addition to the initial Illuminated River artwork, we are pioneering an initiative not just to light the bridges but to pick out all the other unlit monuments that remind Londoners of their history, at the same time pressing for unnecessary floodlighting to trivial buildings to be extinguished. Beautiful, vibrant and mysterious, Illuminated River will remind Londoners and visitors what a unique environment the Thames is, and celebrate its diversity – both natural and built – for the benefit of generations to come.