Artist Leo Villareal presents Illuminated River at City Hall

17 December 2018

On Thursday 29 November, artist Leo Villareal presented a free talk about Illuminated River, a major new public art installation that will light up to 15 of central London’s bridges. In June 2016, Villareal, along with London architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, won an international competition that attracted over 105 worldwide submissions, to transform the Thames at night.

Jo Baxendale (Senior Policy Officer for Visual Art, City Hall) opened the talk, marking two years since the Mayor’s Office first endorsed the project; ‘The Illuminated River project will act as a catalyst to improve lighting conditions, cultivate new opportunities for the use of the riverscape, and define the bridges as renewed civic spaces for Londoners.’ (Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan).

The Illuminated River Project by artist Leo Villareal

His inspiration and previous work

Villareal shared some of his early artistic influences, from James Turrell to the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd. However, it was through a chance encounter with a set of LED’s at Burning Man Festival that Villareal discovered he could use software and light to create an entirely new sculptural language. From that point forward, Villareal’s beautifully sequenced patterns of light have mesmerised audiences across the globe. 

The artist presented past works, including at New York’s MoMA PS1 and, most recently, The Bay Lights on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. To create these site-specific light installations, Villareal spends months observing his surroundings. Whether the kinetic activity of the city or the unique interplay of light, water, wind, fog and human motion in the case of The Bay Lights, Villareal’s skill lies in capturing an atmosphere and translating it into captivating light compositions, organic and never repeating.

Sitting by the banks of the Thames, Villareal will draw on the natural and social activity of the river: barges and boats moving cargo, people, cars, pedestrians and the rising and falling tides. Using artist-created custom code, he will subtly change the frequency of his lights, producing sequenced patterns that play across the bridge structures.

Through this process, which Villareal describes as ‘painting with light’, he joins a tradition of artists who have taken inspiration from the Thames. Villareal said he wishes to follow in the footsteps of Monet, Turner and Whistler, blending art and science, rendering light through the mixing of colour, and using shifting hues drawn from the light of the sky during sunset, in the moonlight and at sunrise.

Southwark Bridge


His vision and plan

Villareal explained how he works in collaboration with architecture, seeking to ‘invigorate and activate without overwhelming’. For Illuminated River, Villareal will engage specifically with the site of each bridge, revealing their distinctive architectures and respecting their histories. Westminster Bridge, for example, will be a composition in a soft green, honouring the bridge’s hue that matches the green seats of Westminster’s House of Commons (Lambeth Bridge is red to match the seats of the House of Lords). 

Architectural details such as the intricate latticework underneath the bridges will be enhanced, and long forgotten statues such as those by Drury and Pomeroy on Vauxhall Bridge will be given a new life. A horizontal wash will embrace the sweeping length of Waterloo’s ‘Ladies Bridge’, built by women during the conscription years of WWII. The Thames bridges are social and historical markers, and Illuminated River will reclaim them as essential places to enjoy in the public realm.

In achieving this new public artwork, Villareal stressed that he would be using ‘only the minimal amount of light to make the bridges legible’. The latest LED technology, he says, provides an opportunity to reduce light pollution, provide a better environment for wildlife, and replace outdated lighting such as halogen lights on Albert Bridge (which throw out as much light as a motorway). 

Villareal also addressed concerns about flora and fauna, explaining the teamwork with partners including ZSL and the London Wildlife Trust, and custom-designed fittings will reduce direct light spill (very harmful to fish) by 75%, removing it entirely where possible.

London Bridge

His hopes for London

Describing his light installations as ‘digital campfires’ that draw people in and create community, the Illuminated River project aims to be a catalyst for conversations about improving London’s public realm, making it more attractive, sensitive, sustainable and accessible for everyone.

He finished his talk by expressing gratitude to London and saying he hoped Illuminated River, which will be viewed over 200 million times per year, would be a gift to the city; ‘bridges are very powerful tools to connect people. This project will hopefully be an opportunity for people to see the city in a different way’. In San Francisco, members of the public campaigned to make The Bay Lights a permanent fixture. We have high hopes that Londoners will love Illuminated River just as much.

Apart from an initial investment from the Olympic Reserve towards the costs of the initial competition of £250,000, Illuminated River is committed to raising the remainder of funds from private and philanthropic sources, with no further public funding being sought.

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