Matthew Pearson

Illuminated River: What's It All About?

What is Illuminated River?

Illuminated River is a large-scale public art piece, rolling out along the River Thames over the next few years. It will transform the look of the city’s main water feature each night, lighting up the bridges that cross it with illuminations. Once completed, it will be illuminating up to 15 bridges on the River Thames. The illuminations for each bridge are individually conceived. Some will reflect the story behind the bridge, while others will emulate the bridge’s design and engineering. Some of the illuminations are styled to mimic the flow of the Thames on that particular stretch of the river, while others will reference the communities north and south of the river that are joined by the bridge. Illuminated River will make each bridge that crosses the Thames stand out as an individual landmark with its own interesting history, purposeful design and important surrounding communities. At the same time, the art project will link the London bridges together into a single art piece with the Thames as its stage. You can see a very lovely visitation of how Illuminated River will look once completed here.

So I have to wait a while to see it?

Nope. Phase one of Illuminated River is already completed, with four bridges getting lit in Summer 2019. London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges. Go see for yourself. Or check out just how gorgeous they’re all looking on Instagram these days. Phase two of this ambitious project is due to be wrapped up by autumn 2020 and includes Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster, Golden Jubilee and Lambeth Bridges. The rest will (funding permitting) be completed by 2022. When it’s done, the piece will stretch from West London’s Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge. That’s a 4.5 nautical mile section of the River Thames that’ll be a part of this public art piece, the longest in the world. So as far as artworks go, it’s definitely doing more than most to bring the city together.

Weren’t the bridges lit up before?

Some of them, yes. London and Southwark bridges were both previously lit up at night. Others not yet given the Illuminated River treatment currently have light displays of their own. However, the new lights are much more ecologically sound, cutting down on light pollution and spill into the river. Also, they automatically switch off at 2am, unlike previous displays that shone the whole night through. The illuminations are programmed to shimmer and shine in individual patterns, with a tone of light much more pleasing to the eye than what was up before. So yes, they’re more eco-friendly and they’re prettier. And now each bridge will be lit individually, but be a piece of a whole. Singing their own part in a shared hymn.

How can I see Illuminated River and how long will it last?

Go down to the river at night and it’s there. It’s totally free and accessible to all. Take a stroll down the Thames to see a few on a single jaunt, or simply take a riverside seat to soak in the illuminations of one. They are designed to make the River Thames a more enjoyable place to be at night, whether you’re crossing a bridge, walking down the footpath that follows its course or just popping down on a bench for a bit. Remember, the illuminations switch off at 2am. Also, there are plenty of planned events running in conjunction with Illuminated River, including boat tours, kayak trips down the Thames, London taxi tours and riverside walk n’ talks. Check in with the What’s On part of the Illuminated River website to find out what’s happening when you plan to visit. In the long-term, Illuminated River is supposed to last 10 years. The lights apparently have a lifespan of 20 years. After 10 they will be gifted to the operator of each bridge who will then be responsible for their care and upkeep. So 10 years minimum. Maximum, who knows.

Who came up with the idea?

Illuminated River is a joint piece by artist Leo Villareal and architectural practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. Their plan was selected after an international design competition held by the Mayor of London. They got an initial investment from the public purse, but are now reliant on private investors and partnerships in order to bring the artwork to life on the scale originally imagined. They’re on track so far.

What have people been saying about Illuminated River?

Response online has been very positive. Anyone who’s got an Instagram to tend is going to like these stylish, subtle, characterful illuminations. And they make night photography that little bit more fulfilling. To end, here’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announcing the project and ruminating on public art in London: “From the Fourth Plinth to Art on the Underground, our city has a rich heritage of showcasing public art... I am delighted that Illuminated River is bringing more free and accessible artwork to Londoners. The Thames has played a key role in the growth and development of our capital for centuries, and this unique artwork will help Londoners and visitors see it in a whole new way. The Illuminated River will celebrate the unique architecture and heritage of our bridges, showcase creativity, boost life at night and transform the way we think about the Thames.” Looking for more ways to admire the Thames? Have a look here.

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