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Illuminated River: flashy, architecturally considerate and visually poetic

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The six shortlisted Illuminated River proposals turn the architecture of the bridges into dramatis personae but what do they have in common with historic ideas, asks Jay Merrick 

The six design proposals for the 17 bridges in London’s Illuminated River project are a distinctly mixed-bag. David Adjaye has clearly gone for the Wow Factor home-run, packing his team with notable contemporary artists. Their blatantly dazzling scheme will collar most of the picture-splash media coverage. 

Adjaye’s splash-it-all-over riot of colour will, in the short term at least, be very useful to the Illuminated River Foundation’s chair, Hannah Rothschild, and director Sarah Gaventa. This is a public-private project which needs publicity; so far, the only significant pledged funding is £5m from the Arcadia Fund and £5m from the Rothschild Foundation. 

Rothschild suggests that the Thames becomes ’a ribbon of darkness’ at night, which is not strictly true. But she is right in saying that Illuminated River has the potential to encourage new forms of leisure and business activity around the bridges between Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge, and strengthen London’s image as a world leading centre for the arts. It’s less easy to see how the organiser’s aim to link the Illuminated River projects to the Olympic Legacy will actually play out. 

London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is a key supporter of Illuminated River; but its success will depend on those capable of exuding serious levels of financial largesse, and they will have to add this project’s begging-bowl to those already held out by the equally hopeful organisers of the £185m Garden Bridge and the £278m concert hall for the London Symphony Orchestra. 

The six shortlisted Illuminated River fall into three categories: flashy, architecturally considerate and, in one case, visually poetic. 

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by Adjaye Associates

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by Les Éclairagistes Associés

Adjaye commands the art-bling high ground: Chris Ofili’s Invisible Ripples light-treatment of London Bridge, and Jeremy Deller’s Day-Glow Southwark Bridge are beyond startling. Les Éclairagistes Associés’ also favour polychromatic drama and would clothe some of the structures in pin-pricks and leopard spots of coloured light. 

Sam Jacob and Simon Heijdens’ offer is distinctly low-FAT; their Thames Nocturne imagery is sombre, subtle, and more or less monochrome – a designed atmosphere whose detailed outcome is hard to gauge. 

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by Sam Jacob Studio and Simon Heijdens

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by Leo Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

In the deference-to-architecture category, we find Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and Leo Villareal, with delicately modulated washes of lusciously coloured light; A_LA’s scheme is presented as aerial views and collages – samples of ideas that are, at this stage hard to judge; and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose approach is the antithesis of Adjaye’s and Les Éclairagistes Associés: they have gone for a pure graphic clarity via very striking use of big light sabre beams reminiscent of Blitz searchlights. Their idea to create an ethereally lit water-curtain carrying wording under one of the bridges is the most original – and technically challenging – idea in all of the proposals. 

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by AL_A

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Shortlisted entry by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The project videos shown at the Illuminated Rivers launch created very different vibes. Adjaye’s was as visually suave as an ad-reel; Sam Jacob’s promised multi-planar weaves of horizontal light connecting the bridges; Les Eclairigistes was charmingly clunky, suggesting a techno-pagan ethos; Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands accentuated the arch geometries and key structural features very effectively in densely soft colourations; A_LA were more purist and restrained in the way they sought to revivify the bridges’ historic architectural auras; and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s light sabres seared upwards to splash against clouds, and make playful angles with each other, and this video contained the most detailed visualisations of specific bridge lighting treatments.

These visual strategies turn the architecture of the bridges into dramatis personae, and John Betjeman’s ghost is surely looking on with great interest. When the poet saw Albert Bridge decorated with 4000 light-bulbs as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, he remarked: ’Shining with electric lights, grey and airy against the London sky, it is one of the beauties of the London river.’ 

The architectural, historical, and cultural qualities of London’s bridges is obscured by the cars and people flooding across them

It’s harder to think of most of the central bridges of the Thames as beauties today. Our sense of their architectural, historical, and cultural qualities is largely obscured by the daily hurly-burly of cars and people flooding across them. The Illuminated Thames design schemes will re-brand the bridges as living postcards for tourists; but which of the design teams can achieve this without erasing their historical auras? 

How many people know that, in the Tudor period, the 19 Kentish ragstone Gothic arches of Old London Bridge carried more than 200 tenements and shops up to seven stories high, and lasted 600 years? Or that the ruins of Old London Bridge – near the positions of its 1821 and 1973 successors – featured in an 1872 etching, The New-Zealander, by Gustave Doré. 

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

The New-Zealander, by Gustave Doré (1872)

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

Print that appeared in Ackermann’s The Microcosm of London (1808)

How many know that Chelsea Bridge was Britain’s first self-stabilising tensile steel suspension bridge? Or that the large cohort of women workers who helped to build Waterloo Bridge during the war were not acknowledged by the deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, who praised only the male workforce when he opened the structure. 

The bridges have often played roles in social history. Blackfriars Bridge, for example, was part of a significant historical moment in 1791, when Albion Mills, at its south end, was gutted by fire: the burning mills and part of the bridge were portrayed in a dramatic 1808 print that appeared in Ackermann’s The Microcosm of London. William Blake lived in north Lambeth at the time, and the incident may have inspired his vision of ’dark Satanic mills’ in his poem, Jerusalem

Why was the original Vauxhall Bridge demolished in 1898? Because the areas around it failed to develop as prosperous suburbs. How superbly obdurate was Victorian bridge engineering? A train on Hungerford Bridge was bombed during one of the 14,000 Blitz raids on London in 1940. Sir John Hackshaw’s 1864 nine-span wrought-iron railway structure, which still sits on the brick buttresses of Brunel’s earlier bridge, survived. 

The roles of artists in the Illuminated River design teams continues a centuries old tradition

The roles of various artists in the Illuminated River design teams simply continues a tradition many centuries old: the bridges of the Thames have always attracted artists. In the 17th century, Abraham Hondius’s Frozen Thames, Looking Eastward towards Old London Bridge, is extraordinarily atmospheric. In 1746, Canaletto produced his first view of Westminster Bridge. 

John Constable painted The Opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1832. Part of Westminster Bridge appears in JMW Turner’s painting, The Burning of the House of Parliament, and at the end of his life, he observed sunrises and sunsets from the roof of his home in Cheyne Walk, and witnessed daybreak through the structure of the Albert Bridge. 

Illuminated River

Illuminated River

The Burning of the House of Parliament by JMW Turner

Nicholas Grimshaw’s forebear, John Atkinson Grimshaw, produced a characteristically shimmering Victorian view of a moonlit Thames and Southwark Bridge. And in the 21st century, Anita Austwick’s take on the Millennium Bridge is a riot of psychedelic oranges, yellows, reds, and violets. 

Will the Illuminated Thames attract artists, or selfie-stickers? Do the fundamental architectural virtues (and vices) of the Illuminated Bridges matter less than their contribution to the increased monetisation of a central segment of London that is inexorably becoming a place of entertainment largely for tourists and the wealthy. 

The proposal by Les Éclairagistes Associés is titled: A River Ain’t Too Much To Light. Oh, but it is. The winning scheme should vividly illuminate the ’liquid history’ of the Thames, as the working class Victorian and Edwardian MP John Burns put it, without obliterating it. 

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