The Thames’ days as a night-time ‘ribbon of darkness’ may be numbered. Six proposals to light 17 of its bridges have been shortlisted
What is it with London and its bridges? In the 1960s it sold one to a town in Arizona which thought it was buying Tower Bridge, and procured a wobbly one 30 years later; now it’s knee deep in Joanna Lumley’s Garden. It did recently run a competition for the Nine Elms bridge, which Scandi designer Bystrup and architect Robin Snell won in the end, beating a host of weird proposals. Despite being in a planning wrangle, that outcome gives me hope for this latest bridge-themed competition, ‘The Illuminated River’, an international call for ideas to light up the 17 crossings between Albert Bridge and Tower Bridge in the hope of turning what’s currently ‘a ribbon of darkness’ into ‘a celebration of the river’, reflecting ‘the growing importance of London’s night-time economy’.
The Illuminated River Foundation is an independent charitable fundraising organisation working with the Mayor of London, London boroughs, the Port of London Authority, TfL, National Rail and other partners to bring the reported £20m project about. It is chaired by the National Gallery's Hannah Rothschild; no surprise there, as the Rothschild Foundation has stumped up half of the £10m currently pledged to kickstart things. Judging by the bold nature of some of the propositions running six nautical miles along the river, the budget is probably an underestimate – but in the post-Brexit drive to portray London as a 24/7 global city with a Night Tube and even appointing a new ‘Night Czar’, who’s counting?
At the launch showcasing the six shortlisted projects, which you can see at the Royal Festival Hall until 22 November, Rothschild reminded us that the etymology of the name ‘Thames’ came from ‘Temesas’, the Celtic word for ‘dark’. She implied this was of itself problematic but it left me wondering why we’d want to illuminate the bridges at all: could it be, in doing so, that we’re going against the river’s very nature and the mystery that led the ancients to name it as they did? It’s almost a counter-argument for throwing the switch on the Thames for good.
And that’s before we even get to the bridges themselves, though Rothschild did her best to big them up. Paris’ Seine and Rome’s Tiber were mentioned in the same breath as London, but I can’t picture a 10 minute end credit roller paean to our bridges as per Paulo Sorrentino’s ‘Great Beauty’ in Rome, or indeed any of ours having the timeless elegance of the Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts or Pont Alexandre. I’ve genuine fondness for Hammersmith and Putney but they’re too far west and not part of the plan; so apart from the elegant Millennium, we’ve the bookends of Tower Bridge’s iconic cod gothic, and Albert Bridge, which looks like a bad fairground attraction – day or night. The rest one could describe as having a certain utilitarian elegance, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Of course, we’re told, they all have stories; but we all have stories. I just don’t know if I’d want mine lit up in IP66-rated LED. Turns out Hungerford Bridge narrowly escaped being blown up, Chelsea Bridge is a ‘trembling lady’ when ranks of soldiers break step over it and Waterloo Bridge was rebuilt by women as part of the war effort. Romantically, of course, we have the dreamy languor of The Kinks ‘Waterloo Sunset’ to fall back on, but even a bunch of stoned rockers had the good sense to sing about a view from a bridge rather than of it.
The shortlisted projects are all shown below so I’ll leave you to peruse; you can comment on them at www.illuminatedriver.london. For what it’s worth, given that I like my nocturnal riverside the way I like my coffee – black, unsweetened and thick as the Styx – the winner for me is the one that does least to disturb it. AL_A’s proposal responds to the Thames’ tide, lighting the bridges’ undersides as it falls and elevation as it rises; it has design contiguity, gives them a slowly changing presence, and offers something to the human experience of crossing or passing beneath them. It at least has a level of discretion, which is more than you can say for most of the proposals.
Of course, this might all be fiddling while Rome burns. Given that another big business related decision – to build a third runway at Heathrow – has just been made and UK plc’s true sustainability colours are showing (despite signing up to the Paris Agreement to cut emissions which came into force last week), how we choose to light up Southwark Bridge might be the least of our worries. Whoever is announced winner on 8 December, one hopes detail design will see the motherboard positioned far above water level to avoid future short circuits as sea levels rise. Because if climate change continues unabated, we’ll be wishing they’d spent the money on flood defences.
Adjaye Associates with Cai Guo-Qiang, Chris Ofili, Larry Bell, Jeremy Deller, Philippe Parreno, Richard Woods, Mariko Mori, Lorna Simpson, Teresita Fernández, Joana Vasconcelos, Angela Bulloch, Thukral & Tagra, Katharina Grosse, Glenn Ligon, Doug Aitken, Tomás Saraceno, onedotzero digital consultants, Plan A Consultants, DHA, Hurley Palmer Flatt, AKT II, AECOM, Arup, Sir Robert McAlpine, Tavernor Consultancy, DP9, Four Communications, Hayes Davidson digital visualisers, Bosch and iGuzzini.
The Eternal Story of the River Thames
AL_A, Asif Kapadia, Simon Stephens, SEAM Design, Arup, GROSS MAX, Mark Filip, Soundings and DP9.
Synchronizing the City: Its Natural and Urban Rhythms
Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Oliver Beer, Arup, Copper Consultancy, L'Observatoire International, Penoyre & Prasad, Jennifer Tipton and Transsolar.
Leo Villareal with Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and Future\Pace, Atelier Ten, Beckett Rankine, Bradley Hemmings, Core Five, Futurecity, Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, MBNA Thames Clippers, Montagu Evans, Pentagram, Price & Myers.
A River Ain't Too Much To Light
Les Éclairagistes Associés (LEA), ecqi ltd and Federico Pietrella in association with GVA Lighting Europe and ewo srl.
Sam Jacob Studio and Simon Heijdens with Studio Dekka, Daisy Froud, Elliott Wood, Jackson Coles and Professor John Tyrer.