Four of the Thames’s most famous bridges have been transformed with the launch of the first phase of Illuminated River – an ambitious new art commission for London.

Illuminated River is the result of an exceptional collaboration between London-based and international creative talents, local authorities and partners. Accessible to all and free to view, Illuminated River is a symbol of London’s creativity, ambition and spirit.  The artwork celebrates the architecture and heritage of London’s historic bridges, and will encourage more people to enjoy the river and the riverside at night. The projects will eventually see up to 15 bridges lit along the Thames.

Originated by Hannah Rothschild, trustee of the Illuminated River Foundation, the project has been conceived by internationally-acclaimed American artist Leo Villareal, and British architectural practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. It is a philanthropically-funded initiative supported by the Mayor of London and delivered by the Illuminated River Foundation.

Illuminated River London

Leo Villareal | Photography: James Newton

Leo Villareal’s work is focused on stripping systems down to their essence to better understand the underlying structures and rules that govern how they work. He is interested in lowest common denominators such as pixels or the zeros and ones in binary code. Starting at the beginning, using the simplest forms, Villareal begins to build elements within a framework. The work explores not only the physical but adds the dimension of time combining both spatial and temporal resolution. The resulting forms move, change, interact and ultimately grow into complex organisms that are inspired by mathematician John Conway’s work with cellular automata and the Game of Life.

The first four lit up bridges of the projects are London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridge. Every bridge is lit up with sequenced LED patterns subtly unfolding across each unique structure.

Illuminated River London

Illuminated River – London Bridge | Photography: James Newton

Site works for this first phase of the project began in January 2019; two years after the winning team was announced by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and closely following the granting of planning permission.  The foundation is on track to complete phase two by Autumn 2020, which will include Blackfriars Road, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee Footbridges, Westminster and Lambeth bridges.

Illuminated River - Southwark Bridge

Illuminated River – Southwark Bridge | Photography: James Newton

Designed by Atelier Ten, the lighting will minimize direct light spill onto the river and reduce energy consumption. While the former lighting ran all night, from dusk to dawn, Illuminated River’s connected LED lighting from Signify (formerly Philips Lighting) will be switched off at 2am. The new artwork will be in place for at least 10 years.

Once complete, Illuminated River will span from Albert Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. It will be the longest public art commission in the world at 2.5 miles in length, along 4.5 nautical miles of the River Thames, and will be viewed over a billion times during its 10-year lifespan.

Villareal’s artwork replaces outdated and inefficient lighting on the bridges, providing a more long-term sustainable solution for lighting the Thames. Designed by Atelier Ten, the lighting will minimize direct light spill onto the river and reduce energy consumption. While the former lighting ran all night, from dusk to dawn, Illuminated River’s connected LED lighting from Signify (formerly Philips Lighting) will be switched off at 2am. The new artwork will be in place for at least 10 years.

Artist Leo Villareal said: “With Illuminated River, the largest artwork I’ve ever conceived, I’m hoping to follow in the footsteps of Monet, Turner and Whistler and reveal the truly unique, inspiring and poetic character of the Thames. Studying the river and the history of London for the last three years, was a fantastic experience that changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist. The integrated nuances and motions across the bridges create a unified piece that celebrates and enhances the river as a continuous living entity. I’m both delighted and humbled by the completion of this initial phase and I can’t wait for the public to experience the first four bridges.”

Villareal follows in the footsteps of generations of artists who have been inspired by the Thames, using the latest connected LED lighting to ‘paint with light’, and drawing on colours influenced by the palettes of Impressionist and English Romantic painters. With shifting hues that mimic the London sky during sunset, moonlight, and sunrise, and gently kinetic patterns that are inspired by the natural and social activity of the river, Villareal’s artwork celebrates the Thames as London’s living artery.

Illuminated River - Millenium Bridge

Illuminated River – Millenium Bridge | Photography: James Newton

The artwork has been sensitively developed, paying attention to heritage, wildlife and the location of each bridge, respecting and revealing their individual histories and architectural features. The dynamic public artwork refocuses attention on the Thames bridges as social, historical and architectural landmarks, and celebrates their role in London’s enduring global identity.

Founding Principal of architecture practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Alex Lifschutz said: “This arts project will illuminate not just the river but also the history and architecture of our wonderful city by revealing its iconic bridges in a new light. The art subtly reveals their beauty and in some cases their muscularity, transforming even the humblest railway bridges into iconic forms.  Of particular interest to me is that transformative quality – with literally the lightest touch the art alters our view of our city and unites the river as never before”

Illuminated River London - Cannon Street Bridge

Illuminated River – Cannon Street Bridge | Photography: James Newton

Illuminated River has been developed in consultation and collaboration with over 50 organisations on and around the Thames, including the Port of London Authority, Historic England, Transport for London, Network Rail, London Wildlife Trust, the Zoological Society of London, Cross River Partnership, and seven local authorities (City of London, Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Southwark, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Wandsworth) who have granted 30 planning permissions and 18 listed building consents.


Illuminated River Plan

Illuminated River Plan

For more facts and statistics in relation to the Illuminated River Foundation’s environmental please visit:

Project team
Artist: Leo Villareal Studio
Architect: Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
Technical Lighting Design: Atelier Ten
Cost consultant: Core Five
Community engagement: Iceni
Contractor: FM Conway
Lighting Supplier: Signify (formerly Philips Lighting)
Environmental Impact Assessment: Temple Group
Ecology: Thomson Ecology
Planning: Montagu Evans
Structural engineering: Price & Myers
Marine engineering: Beckett Rankine
Measured survey: MSA Ltd
Bats and birds survey: The Wildlife Trusts