The Exhibitionist: Ed Vaizey on the Illuminated River Project

By Ed Vaizey

3 years ago

If you go down to the Thames this spring you’re in for a light surprise

Artist Leo Villareal will transform five more London bridges this spring with the Illuminated River project, featuring light installations on the Thames inspired by each bridge’s unique history and location. 

Illuminated River

illuminated river

View from One Blackfriars, © James Newton

The promise of a public art lighting installation to lift our spirits is a good reason to visit the Thames in central London this spring. New light artworks on five of London’s most famous bridges will be unveiled as part of Illuminated River, an ambitious public art project that is transforming the Thames.

The five bridges – Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster, Golden Jubilee Footbridges and Lambeth – will join London, Cannon Street Railway, Southwark and Millennium bridges that were lit as part of the first phase of the Illuminated River project in 2019. It is estimated that 90 million people a year (Covid permitting) will see the artwork during the project’s ten-year lifespan. At 3.2 miles, it will also be the longest public art commission in the world.

Conceived by New York-based artist Leo Villareal in collaboration with London-based award-winning architects, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, following a public competition, site- specific artworks will show a subtle display of slowly moving light sequences along the Thames.

Artist Leo Villareal will transform five more London bridges this spring, with light installations on the Thames inspired by each bridge’s unique history and location

Listen to Ed Vaizey and Charlotte Metcalf’s Break Out Culture podcast today

illuminated river

Cannon Street bridge, © James Newton

Villareal’s vision will be apparent the moment you wander down to the river. Here he has created a unified series of evocative lighting installations that reflect each bridge’s cultural and historical context, drawing on other artists’ visions of the Thames, most notably Monet and Whistler. The historic, warm-hued columns that remain from the original railway bridge at Blackfriars Road Bridge have inspired the gentle combination of rosy colours across its arches. A monochromatic scheme across the Golden Jubilee Footbridges will mirror Villareal’s approach to the other pedestrian bridge in the artwork, the Millennium Bridge.

Westminster and Lambeth Bridge bookend the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Palace of Westminster. Referencing the nearby benches of the debating chamber of the House of Commons, the unexpected (and often overlooked), detailed latticework undercroft of Westminster Bridge will be illuminated in a soft green. Lambeth Bridge will have a red glow in a nod to the benches of the House of Lords’ chamber as well as mirroring the red accents of the bridge’s railings and arches.

The vision for this philanthropically funded project has been made possible almost exclusively by four major benefactors, including Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Reuben Foundation and the Rothschild Foundation, with the support of the Mayor of London. Over the past five years, in spite of the challenges of 2020, the Illuminated River Foundation, led by director Sarah Gaventa, has managed to complete this bold project on time and on budget, an impressive feat.

There is also a network of more than fifty stakeholders and project partners, including seven London boroughs, Transport for London and Network Rail, as well as organisations such as Historic England, the London Wildlife Trust and the RNLI. There has never been a better reason for taking a walk along the Thames – and it’s free and open!

Subscribe to the What’s On newsletter for more cultural must-sees