Illuminated River: artist Leo Villareal on lighting up the Thames

Nancy Durrant
·6-min read
<p>Westminster Bridge</p> (James Newton)

Westminster Bridge

(James Newton)

As you’re walking down the river this week on your way to or from whichever chilly outdoor revelries you’ve been indulging in, you might get a pleasant surprise. At some point - and I’m not allowed to say exactly when, in case of Covid-insecure gatherings - the nine bridges from London Bridge to Lambeth Bridge will be lit up, completing a project that has been in progress since 2016. Cutting edge LED technology and custom software will subtly animate the structures, drawing attention to their form and elegance, in a kinetic programme devised by the American artist Leo Villareal called Illuminated River. Four of the lighting programmes are already in situ, but this week marks the end of the second phase and will result in what he calls a “meditative, tranquil” experience along the river.

It’s a far cry from Villareal’s first ever light project, which, he tells me as we politely shiver over a mediocre coffee next to Westminster Bridge after several days of isolating on his part (he has just arrived from New York), was created “just so I could get home at night” at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert in 1997.

Lambeth BridgePaul Crawley
Lambeth BridgePaul Crawley

“It was an array of 16 strobe lights,” he explains, which sounds very different from the subtle, non-polluting lighting that he’s affixing to London’s bridges. “I'd gotten so lost [at Burning Man] in years past, because it's the desert, there are no streets - this was in the early days - I needed a beacon for myself. But it turned out to be a lot more. It turned out to be a very potent artwork that shifted my whole [way of] working. A lot of the things I've learned at Burning Man, in terms of creating these kind of communal experiences, have seeped into what I do.”

Villareal is an old hand now at this kind of public projects - his biggest to date was probably The Bay Lights, a vast and complex project which involved covering the western span of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge (all 1.8 miles of it) with 25,000 white LED lights up to 500 feet high. Illuminated River, though, is by far his most ambitious project.

“This is even more complicated. The bridges are all very distinct. This idea of activating the river and kind of, bringing it to life was very intriguing, but very, very challenging as well. How do you create cohesion across these very disparate structures? So we've worked really hard to understand where light can be placed, and then creating a sense of connection [between the bridges]. But there's a lot of variation - Westminster and Lambeth are are very monochromatic, they’re colour but just in a certain range. Golden Jubilee is using all white light but with different colour temperatures - warm light and cool light. Waterloo is using colour, as is Blackfriars. But each one takes a different approach.”

It’s not just a matter of stringing up some lovely fairy lights either. “The scale, you know, the planning - it was just a huge amount of conference calls,” Villareal says, with feeling. He recalls endless meetings with architects and lighting designers and planners, and “it's been a very high tech project. We scanned the bridges, created virtual reality models of them all, placed the lights, but then you realised, ‘oh, you can't put that there’. Because the actual bridge is different than the model, right? Or, you know, a bird would be nesting in the location where we wanted to put a light, so we have to wait for the baby birds to be born. Along with a lot of studies of the ecology of the Thames, with the eel people and the bird people...”

I’m sorry what? The eel people?

“Yes! There's a lot of concerned citizens,” he says. “And it's kind of great that people care so much about the Thames. So the project that we've done is very sensitive to the ecology and putting light only where light should go. We're also using very energy efficient LED fixtures, which we can point with great accuracy. So it's reducing the light pollution to the sky or into the water.” The eels and the birds will remain blissfully undisturbed, it is hoped.

Waterloo to Lambeth BridgesJason Hawkes
Waterloo to Lambeth BridgesJason Hawkes

Villareal started out as a sculptor, but got interested in the opportunities afforded by technology in the early Nineties. “It’s inspired by James Turrell, Dan Flavin - these light and space artists, but with computation in the mix. It was the connection of software and light that was very exciting for me. So when I made my first piece, I went down to the lowest level, where zero is off, and one is on, and I had 16 lights, and I was able to sequence those lights.” He was surprised by the result, he says, “the ability that even that small amount of information had to communicate [something] much more complex, almost a language. It is very minimal, but it's incredibly engaging. You wouldn't think that with just cold hard LEDs and software, you'd be able to connect with people on such a deep level.”

London’s river, then, is affording him a unique opportunity to bring to the fore something that perhaps Londoners don’t always notice - the river itself. “I'm interested in nature, and the movement of water, and the sunset and all these things that we respond to as humans, but how to recreate these things using code. So it's accessing some really deep place that creates a sense of or connection to the sublime.”

He hopes that the project will provide moments of tranquillity and pause as people go about their business along the river, and perhaps even bring people together. “Even before the pandemic, there was such a sense of polarisation. Not to be too cliché, but bridges are these things that connect us - emphasising those moments, I think, is really important.”

Blackfriars BridgeJames Newton
Blackfriars BridgeJames Newton

He doesn’t mind, he says, that it will become part of the fabric of the city, and that most of the 90 million-odd people a year who will see it will never know his name.

“I think of it as really a gift to the city. The patrons of the project are amazing to have the vision to do this” - the project has been supported by a number of charitable and philanthropic organisations, including the Rothschild Foundation, the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Reuben Foundation and the Arcadia fund - “but it's also really not about the ego, it's about just making this really elevated experience here on the Thames. I'm excited for people to come and see it.”

Illuminated River will go live this week and will be visible after dark.

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