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Illuminated River project launches with LED artwork across four London bridges

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The £12 million first phase of the project has been completed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and American artist Leo Villareal

The first phase of Illuminated River was launched last week, with four bridges lit up as part of a commission that will eventually see up to 15 bridges lit along the river.

The bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – are now lit up in unison, with sequenced LED patterns subtly unfolding across each unique structure.

The artwork celebrates the architecture and heritage of London’s historic bridges, and will encourage more people to enjoy the riverside at night – the artwork for the first four bridges is predicted to be seen more than 60 million times a year.

Illuminated River is a philanthropically funded initiative supported by the Mayor of London and delivered by the Illuminated River Foundation. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: ’The project will showcase creativity, boost life at night and transform the way we think about the Thames.’

Gif illuminated river cannon street bridge gif © james newton

For Illuminated River Villareal has used connected LED lighting to ‘paint with light’ and has drawn on colours influenced by the palettes of Impressionist and English Romantic painters. Shifting hues mimic the London sky during sunset, moonlight and sunrise, and gently generate patterns inspired by the social activity of the river.

Illuminated River is the biggest single planning application ever made without an act of Parliament, and the result of a complex delivery working with seven different local authorities (City of London, Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Southwark, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Wandsworth). It is the first time the Thames bridges have been cohesively lit in an artistic way.

Designed by Atelier Ten, the lighting minimises direct light spill on to the river and aims to reduce energy consumption. Illuminated River’s connected LED lighting will be switched off at 2am every night. It is hoped that the new artwork will last for at least 10 years.

The project has been developed in consultation and collaboration with over 50 organisations on and around the Thames, including the Port of London Authority, Historic England, Transport for London, Network Rail, London Wildlife Trust, the Zoological Society of London, Cross River Partnership, and the seven local authorities who have granted 30 planning permissions and 18 listed building consents.

Site works for this first phase of the project began in January, closely following planning consent. Once complete, Illuminated River will span from Albert Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. It will be the longest public art commission in the world at 2.5 miles in length, along 4.5 nautical miles of the Thames. Phase two is due to complete in autumn 2020 and includes Blackfriars Road, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee Footbridges, Westminster and Lambeth bridges.

The Illuminated River Foundation has also announced an extensive public programme with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Composers have been commissioned to create original scores inspired by the heritage, architectural context and Villareal’s artwork.

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and Villareal’s scheme was picked as the winning entry in an international competition organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants in 2016. Their design beat rival bids from 105 practices across the world, including David Adjaye, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Sam Jacob Studio, Lyon-based Les Éclairagistes Associés and AL_A.

Embargoed 440 illuminated river london bridge 06 © james newton

Artist’s view 

With Illuminated River, the largest artwork I’ve ever conceived, I’m hoping to follow in the footsteps of Monet, Turner and Whistler and reveal the truly unique, inspiring and poetic character of the Thames. Studying the river and the history of London for the last three years was a fantastic experience that changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist. The integrated nuances and motions across the bridges create a unified piece that celebrates and enhances the river as a continuous living entity. I’m both delighted and humbled by the completion of this initial phase and I can’t wait for the public to experience the first four bridges.

Leo Villareal

Embargoed 440 illuminated river london bridge 02 © james newton

Architect’s view

This arts project will illuminate not just the river but also the history and architecture of our wonderful city by revealing its iconic bridges in a new light. The art subtly reveals their beauty and in some cases their muscularity, transforming even the humblest railway bridges into iconic forms. Of particular interest to me is that transformative quality – with literally the lightest touch, the art alters our view of our city and unites the river as never before.

Alex Lifschutz, founding principal, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Embargoed 440 illuminated river 04 © james newton, from one blackfriars

Client’s view

We wanted to create an enduring public artwork which reflects the capital’s ambition and creativity, and celebrates its role as a cultural leader on a global stage. Illuminated River is the result of one of the most detailed and extensive planning processes the capital has ever seen. It has produced pioneering environmental and engineering surveys and data, and encourages joined-up thinking and connectivity on an unprecedented pan-London project.

Neil Medoza, chair, Illuminated River Foundation

Illuminated river plan 250619

The Illuminated River

Map of vantage points

Project data

Start on site January 2019
Completion July 2019 (phase 1); 2022 (full project)
Form of contract Standard JCT contract with CDP elements 
Cost £12 million (phase 1: £3 million per bridge); £45 million (full project)
Artist Leo Villareal Studio
Architect Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
Technical lighting design Atelier Ten
Cost consultant Core Five
Community engagement Iceni
Contractor FM Conway
Lighting supplier Signify (formerly Philips Lighting)
Environmental impact assessment Temple Group
Ecology Thomson Ecology
Planning Montagu Evans
Structural engineering Price & Myers
Marine engineering Beckett Rankine
Measured survey MSA Ltd
Bats and birds survey The London Wildlife Trust
CAD software MicroStation

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