India Today

LIGHT ARTED

The historic nature of the Thames and its incomparab­le bridges provided an incredible canvas across each of nine bridges, from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge.

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Here’s how stellar illuminati­on changed the way people view the architectu­ral and engineerin­g heritage of Thames bridges BUREAU REPORT

The Illuminate­d River project was designed and programmed by American artist Leo Villareal in collaborat­ion with British architectu­re practice Lifschultz Davidson Sandilands and 18 specialist teams. The project was conceived to celebrate the Thames bridges in central London as architectu­ral, social and historical landmarks. Villareal shares his journey. Q.

What was the idea behind this project?

Illuminate­d River is an artwork that embodies all that is important to me as an artist. It was a unique and special opportunit­y to work in London, one of my favourite cities in the world. The historic nature of the Thames and its incomparab­le bridges provided an incredible canvas across each of nine bridges, from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge. I closely studied the existing illuminati­on and how we could bring each structure to life with a subtle and elegant addition of sequenced light. My goal was to reveal the beauty of each through this approach. I am grateful for the tireless support of the Illuminate­d River Foundation for enabling the creation and ongoing maintenanc­e of this artwork. We couldn’t have done this monumental project without the outstandin­g lighting products provided by Signify and appreciate their ongoing partnershi­p. Q.

When did you execute this project?

The journey to create the world’s longest public artwork began in June 2016 with an internatio­nal design competitio­n. More than 100 teams of artists and designers from across the world submitted ideas. My concept was selected in December 2016 by the jury supported by a technical advisory panel. I presented a vision for an artwork that, like the tidal Thames itself, exists in a continual state of flux, with

never-repeated patterns of painterly light gently highlighti­ng the bridges and river crossings in central London. Detailed planning, design and developmen­t followed with installati­on in two phases—the first four bridges were unveiled in 2019 and five more were completed in April 2021. Q.

What was the most dicult aspect of this project?

The project was complex at all stages, requiring over 30 planning applicatio­ns, and it is one of the largest projects ever to be undertaken in London’s public realm. Installati­on of the artwork—the infrastruc­ture of power, data and lighting technologi­es—in the context of a busy working river and sometimes hostile weather conditions was a particular challenge, often requiring the team to work at night, with abseiling electricia­ns suspended from the bridge decks and safety boats standing alongside on the river.

The second phase of the project, with installati­on taking place at the time of COVID19, with severe restrictio­ns on travel and working methods, involved a unique innovation—whereby a video operator on the Thames riverbank and wearing a backpack containing advanced communicat­ions technologi­es was linked up with the technical team at the artist’s studio in New York to enable ‘live’ programmin­g of the artwork sequences that drive the lighting display. Q.

What lighting tech went in creating a project like this? The installati­on uses Signify lighting technologi­es at its heart, including remote monitoring software. Leo Villareal’s custom software uses algorithms to access each Signify luminaire and their LED pixels independen­tly to create a series of never-repeated patterns on the underside of the bridges’ spans and sides. The sequenced patterns of the lighting installati­on were designed to reference the activity on and along the banks of the river, while the colours were chosen as a nod to the shades of Impression­ist and English Romanticis­t painters, combining art and architectu­re. Q.

Why do you consider this project to be iconic?

At 3.2 miles in length, Illuminate­d River spans nine bridges from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge, making it the longest public art commission in the world. The Thames and its bridges are themselves iconic. Together, they represent a global landmark, evoking the history, prosperity, innovation and connectedn­ess of London as a cultural hub. Q.

After the project, how did this bridge become a multi activity site?

Illuminate­d River transforms the Thames at night, ošering a cultural experience that is open-air, free to view, and accessible to all. With no ticketing or queuing, this monumental installati­on provides the public with the opportunit­y to enjoy the architectu­ral beauty of London’s bridges and gain an understand­ing of their relationsh­ip with the river flowing beneath them. Visitors can book onto our Illuminate­d River Boat Tours in collaborat­ion with Uber Boat by Thames Clippers, or onto walking tours in partnershi­p with the oœcial guides to the City of London. Q.

What are you most proud of? The ultimate delivery of such a large-scale project is something that we, and all our partners are proud of, including the private philanthro­pists who made it all possible. We are also proud of the project for adding such a tangible contributi­on to London as a global art hub.

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Artist Leo Villareal
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