Along the Thames

Gillian Darley

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Winter walks in the city don’t offer a lot of options and these damp dark evenings even less so. But, without fanfare, something is transforming the Thames in central London. Illuminated River – a rolling scheme, still in its early stages – is proving to be a quiet and magical addition to the urban scene.

Fourteen bridges, from Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge, will eventually be lit; the first four, from London Bridge to the Millenium Bridge, were finished last year. The next tranche – Blackfriars to Lambeth – will follow in mid-2021. It’s a project of devilish complexity, involving countless agencies, authorities and owners. An international design competition was launched in 2016. The winning team was made up of the architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and the American lighting design artist Leo Villareal, whose work includes the Bay Lights, on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Walk south from St Paul’s Cathedral, itself gloriously lit but merely corroborating what we already know and admire of it, over the Millennium Bridge and east along the south bank of the Thames to see the revelatory sequence of Southwark, Cannon Street and London Bridges. Formerly either blanked out by nightfall or dully picked up in a single wash of yellow or blue, they now unpeel in front of your eyes along the riverbank, linked by their calibrated tones and shifting timing, subtle painterly effects achieved by LEDs and computer programming. (The Illuminated River Foundation also commissioned students from the Guildhall School of Music to compose sonic interpretations of each of the four bridges.)

To judge from the first four examples, the programme – which aims to become ‘the longest public art project in the world’ – will for the next decade give the Thames a measure of unity while maintaining the individuality of each bridge. The illumination of the Millennium Bridge, suitably for its modernist credentials, is based on a single blade of white light, in part activated by pedestrians crossing it. But who had lingered to look at humdrum Cannon Street railway bridge before? No one had thought of lighting the heavily rivetted panels that enclose the train tracks, yet it’s now become a transformative screen animated by its traffic and warmed by a wand of shifting colours. Beyond it, bland 1973 London Bridge is lit as if a descant to it. The water provides an additional, reflected canvas, but only incidentally.

The outright scene stealer, for the moment, is Southwark Bridge. All the coffering and multi-foiled bracing in Ernest George’s 1921 reworking of an older structure, which looks so laborious and clunky in daylight, becomes an intricate story, shifting from arch to arch, from one bank to the other, while relating chromatically to Cannon Street, necessarily reticent in comparison.

As my friend and I walked along the river last month, there was a gust of music from the water, get-up-and-dance kind of music, surprisingly coming from a heavy working riverboat, tugs fore and aft, with a band playing cheerfully on deck. Nobody else. The mesmerising illuminations and that moment of ghostly pizzazz did wonders to lift our mood in shutdown riverside Southwark.