Leo Villareal Transforms London’s Bridges

Illuminated River is an ambitious, new public art commission in London which transforms the capital at night, which will eventually light up to 15 bridges on the River Thames. Once complete, it will be the longest public art project in the world. The first phase has opened and features the London Bridge, Cannon Street Railway Bridge, Southwark Bridge and the Millennium Bridge.

Conceived by internationally-acclaimed artist Leo Villareal and British architectural practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, and delivered by the Illuminated River Foundation, the artwork has been sensitively developed, paying attention to heritage, wildlife and the built environment to create something exceptional – a transformation that celebrates the role that the Thames bridges play in the enduring global identity of London, and encourages people to enjoy the river and riverside at night.

Villareal has created temporary and permanent light sculptures for public spaces and museums throughout the United States and across the world, including the famous Bay Lights on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. For Illuminated River, Villareal is working with cutting edge LED technology to ‘paint with light’, producing sequenced patterns that subtly unfold across the Thames bridge structures. He engages with the site of each bridge, respecting and revealing their unique architectural features and historic identities, while the artwork across the fifteen bridges references the river as a continuous living system.

Villareal joins a long tradition of artists who have been inspired by the Thames. Programming his artwork on site, Villareal’s light compositions mimic the ever-changing movement of the river, using shifting hues drawn from the London sky during sunset, in moonlight, and at sunrise. He takes inspiration from the natural and social activity of the Thames; barges and boats moving cargo and people, the traffic surrounding the bridges, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Translating this atmosphere using custom created software, Villareal’s patterns are organic and ever-evolving, never repeating or resolving into a single image.

For Illuminated River, Villareal reactivates Foster & Partners ‘Blade of Light’ inspired by comic book hero Flash Gordon, on Millennium Bridge. Architectural details such as the intricate latticework underneath Westminster Bridge (historically painted green to match the Parliament’s House of Commons seats) will be revealed, and the oft-overlooked Victorian bronze statues by Drury and Pomeroy that adorn the faces of Vauxhall Bridge will be reanimated.