London is about to throw a lot of money into the Thames

London is about to throw a lot of money into the Thames


Comment by Joachim Ritter

See the complete results and shortlisted works of the Illuminated River London here.

At the risk of not being allowed to cross British borders in future, I simply cannot hold back my open and honest opinion, which many people will no doubt share anyway. The Brexit referendum was already a fiasco, but it seems we are in for an even greater fiasco if you look at what is being considered as the winning lighting schemes for London’s bridges over the Thames. Whoever dared to believe “it won’t be that bad” is in for a shock. The jury is destined to fail collectively when selecting “the winners”!

A few months ago, experts from the field pointed out that a lighting design competition involving significant prize money and focussing on a project of the calibre of London’s bridges over the Thames should not take place without including a representative number of qualified lighting designers in the jury. And yet all this advice achieved was to invite a few lighting professionals to take part in the preliminary review of the submissions. I am not sure if Speirs & Major, for example, had any influence on the jury’s decisions through their part as preliminary reviewers. To be honest, I can’t imagine it. It simply doesn’t fit into the philosophy of this world-renowned practice to allow a river of the standing of the Thames to be so maltreated by light. And I also find it hard to believe that the shortlisted designs were selected from more than one hundred submissions from 20 different countries. If these are supposed to be typical of the status of the quality of lighting projects in this day and age, then we are taking a dramatic step backwards. I cannot believe that. This is an insult to the professional lighting design community and can only mean that some of the approaches taken have nothing to do with lighting design. On closer inspection of the submissions and the jury, I can only come to the conclusion that the outcome is due to ignorance as to how lighting design is defined. The results are not representative of good lighting design – which is pretty inconceivable when you consider that jury members apparently included the likes of James Turrell.

Defining searchlights as a design element for the City of London and describing this as a way of saluting the night is really not on. It is an open attack on the darkness of the night. This was a topic for discussion some time ago, and should be considered as resolved. To even refer to this approach as “Synchronizing the City: Its Natural and Urban Rhythms” is nothing less than insensitive. I will refrain from going any deeper on searchlights and their link to military operations. Sorry: this was really the wrong choice, and does not fulfil the actual task, which was to illuminate the bridges, some of which are definitely architecturally interesting. Why were the inherent qualities of the bridges themselves not sufficient for the team to focus on? Was it really necessary to salute anything?!

Blurry Boundaries: London Bridge wallpapered in light. The structure is nothing more than an object that can deliver a surface for a blurry concept, ultimately termed “invisible ripples”. The latter were rendered visible with all the might and main that light can possibly impose. What happened to the respect for the architecture and engineering? And for the way the bridge is designed to function? Lighting design is not a fashion issue. Waterloo Bridge has received a kind of art nouveau treatment, becoming a decorative element in its own right that dissolves the bridge and, if realised, would force the bridge to adopt a secondary role. Inacceptable. Westminster Bridge incorporates the most promising approach. Digital, a discreet reference to history, and with an interesting time component touch. The design concept that sets this bridge apart unfortunately leaves one questioning what on earth the idea behind the Chelsea Bridge concept was. The colour design is apparently arbitrary – certainly not based on a clear concept. What has this to do with blending in with the urban environment? Master plan – no chance. Overall appraisal of the team: instead of a clear concept, Blurring Boundaries marks the escape from design to art, which is hard to take lying down.

The concept for “Current” is at least based on the idea of a master plan, which is good for a start. And it has been realised in a consistent manner. Unfortunately, it only works on paper and in drawings. In reality, from the human perspective the bridges come across as a series of blotches of colour. Nothing seems to be related to anything else; there are no references to enable anyone to recognise an overall concept. The work therefore loses any sense of meaning and ends up an unexciting mystery. It’s only Westminster Bridge that appears to be more human-oriented and accessible, because the historical essence remains intact.  Interesting! And Chelsea Bridge is acceptable, to say the least.

Thames Nocturne. In the case of this design the meaningfulness of light has not been addressed at all. What is the intention? To cover the Thames in lightwaves? Design approach aside, this concept smacks of armchair reasoning. It is absurd to even believe that this could ever be realised. Every beginner in the lighting design world knows that light is only visible when it is reflected by a surface. But summer nights are dry – no humidity to speak of, no visible light! What about the boats on the Thames – they would interrupt the light, wouldn’t they? And there doesn’t seem to be an end to the belt of light. Is someone going to stop it at some point? Including this in the shortlist is nothing less than embarrassing for the jury!

River Ain’t Too Much To Light. At least some thought appears to have been put into this one. Realised by creating lighting effects on the bridges. Of course, anything is possible, but gobos, quite honestly, are a bit superficial for this kind of application! It’s difficult to fathom what exactly the designers wanted to realise here. Maybe the architectural design of the bridges differs too greatly to draw any comparisons. As a consequence, Chelsea Bridge is way too bright. And planting street lanterns in the river is truly a “do without”. Good way of saving energy, I suppose!

The Eternal Story of the River Thames. A concept with a meaning at any rate. The Thames breathing through light. The embankments are lit depending on the water level of the river. If it is possible to ensure the lighting is designed to be relatively discreet, this could indeed lead to an interesting and good outcome. In this concept, the bridges play a modest but crucial role. Not as a colourful festival-like backdrop, just bridges lit in white light. If the designers opt for the right colour temperature, this could also be developed to become a good solution. Care needs to be taken with regard to flora and fauna when realising such a project. The designers and the client may need to reach a number of compromises.

Perhaps the result of this competition is an indication of the fact that light festivals and light art can indeed hamper the development of good lighting solutions in the public realm. The results are to a large extent nothing more than a chance for the designers to draw attention to themselves and how versatile they can be with light. Some of the concepts submitted treat the architecture as if it were of secondary importance. That has little to do with lighting design.

See the complete results and shortlisted works here.

(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and Adjaye Associates
(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and AL_A
(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and Leo Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and Les Éclairagistes Associés
(c) Malcolm Reading Consultants and Sam Jacob Studio and Simon Heijdens