San Fran’s Bay Bridge Lights artist wins ‘Illuminated River’ contest to ‘enliven’ the Thames

Central London’s bridges are going to get a lot brighter and prettier, thanks to a winning design from American artist Leo Villareal – who created The Bay Lights on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge – and British architecture practise Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. The team has won a competition to light-up 17 of the Thames’ crossings in a grand city-wide art/design project billed as “a design commission on an unprecedented scale.”

Villareal and LDS’s pretty magical three-stage idea – which looks a bit like an Aurora-borealis-on-Thames – was selected from a shortlist of six (see videos of the full shortlist here), and aims to “enliven the Thames using dynamic light”.

American artist Leo Villareal came to prominence through his celebrated project, The Bay Lights, which lit San Francisco Bay Bridge for two years. Due to its extraordinary popularity, the installation has been revived this year as a permanent element of the cityscape. He trained as a sculptor and has been working with light and computer code for more than a decade, creating major installations, sculptures and public projects that have captivated audiences all over the world. His work is in the permanent collections of museums including MoMA New York and the National Gallery of Art Washington. Most recently in London he participated in the Hayward Gallery’s acclaimed exhibition, Lightshow.

Award-winning architects, design consultants and urban planners, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, have worked on major projects across London including the Golden Jubilee footbridges and have a 25-year relationship with communities and businesses in London’s South Bank, having created the area’s urban design strategy and worked with the Coin Street Community Builders to regenerate the area through the development of co-operative housing, and commercial ventures to support new urban realm initiatives.

The Illuminated River Foundation has a pretty strong panel of heavyweight supporters from both public and private sectors, including the Mayor of London and the City of London Corporation, Cross River Partnership, Historic England, London & Partners, Network Rail, Port of London Authority, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Southbank London, Tideway, Totally Thames, Thames
Estuary Partnership, Transport for London and Westminster City Council.

The plan is to raise funds for the costs of the project from private and philanthropic sources rather than the public purse. The Foundation has already announced the first pledges totalling £10m in November (including £5m from the Arcadia Fund (Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing) and £5m from the Rothschild Foundation).

Here’s how the design team describes the three stages of its winning plan: “First, Villareal’s ambitious composition integrates light and colour on the 17 bridges, from Tower Bridge to Albert Bridge, creating a sensitive, interactive and site-specific interplay with the river. Second, a strategic scheme along both banks will control commercial lighting and introduce the setting for future cultural projects. Third, additional proposals include a ground-breaking partnership between the MBNA Thames Clippers and artists Random International, immersive installations by Japanese technologists teamLab and other opportunities that foster community and diversity.”

Leo Villareal: “I’m delighted and humbled by the fact that the jury went with an artistically-driven vision for the Illuminated River. The whole team shares a belief in the power of large-scale public culture and art to enrich our cities. We are deeply committed to this project. In order to nuance the concept design and create presence and legibility, we intend to take time to study the river in all its manifestations. We want to listen to Londoners in developing the scheme to deliver at all levels of art and light, urban design and architecture, the environment and sustainability. Our aim is for a lighting masterplan which reduces pollution and wasted energy, is sensitive to history and ecology and subtly rebalances the ambient lighting on the river to provide a beautiful night time experience for residents and visitors.”

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London: “We saw an incredible response to this fascinating competition, showing that London continues to inspire creatives from around the globe, and is open to all. There were some spectacular ideas, and I can’t wait to see the winning design light up the Thames. Huge congratulations to Leo Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands on this fantastic achievement.”

Hannah Rothschild, Chair of the Illuminated River Foundation: “Leo Villareal’s proven ability to paint with light matched with Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ direct experience of building bridges over the Thames was an irresistible and inspirational combination.

“Their scheme is beautiful, ambitious and realisable but always considerate to the environment, lighting levels and energy conservation. The jury is convinced that the winning team will transform the centre of London while remaining true to the spirit and integrity of the Thames and its communities.”