New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Jonathan Gittins

Monday 26 April 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor meets Jonathan Gittins of Atelier Ten to talk bridges, girders, and rivets; lighting, fish and seahorses as the Illuminated River scheme he worked on switches on its second phase...

Jonathan Gittins
Hi, David. 
 
David Taylor
How are you doing?
 
JG
Good, thanks. 
 
DT
So, let's kick off! You've launched the second phase of The Illuminated River now, as of last week: Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and some of the other bridges including the Golden Jubilee Footbridges and Lambeth as well. If I can ask you a general question about working on this project, how's it been?
 
JG
It's been fun! I mean, it's been fantastic! Because to work on a project, which is so noticeable to so many people… I cross London Bridge every day as I go to work, so I see the bridges every day. To have a project that is so in the heart of London has just been brilliant. 
 
DT
What has been the main challenge in getting it all together?
 
JG
It’s actually been quite good in terms of things having gone to plan. I think that for us, because we were involved from the competition, we've kind of known where we wanted to get to, from the beginning. And one of the main things for us was making sure this was a really sensitive lighting scheme. I mean, it’d be very easy to put light on bridges. It's an artwork, but we were very keen that the lighting behind the artwork was done as carefully and sensitively as it could be. And so, for us, we did that from the outset. So, we’ve followed our plan and got there. I mean, obviously with the lockdowns that's caused all sorts of challenges, logistically, but we've worked through those…

Image: Blackfriars Bridge - Illuminated River © James Newton 
DT
In terms of getting the ‘parts’, as it were?
 
JG
Well, there's all sorts! In terms of install - everything, in fact! I mean, the light fittings were harder to get hold of because of various restrictions with COVID and different factories not being open; that sort of thing… 
 
DT
Really?
 
JG
Yeah. Signify (https://www.signify.com/global) were supplying all the lighting, and I think they've managed it very well to be able to keep up with the deliveries. But at the beginning of the lockdown, there were all sorts of worries about the various factories, because the light fittings or components have come from all around the world. Various factories were shutting. But they’ve managed to keep the supply coming, so we've actually stayed on program, which is incredible.
 
DT
And in terms of the sensitivity required, is it correct that fish and the species in the Thames – that's a key consideration in terms of light spill, from your perspective?
 
JG
Very much so. I mean, in fact, from the beginning of this project, we've had ecologists involved, and they've shown us that there are over 125 species of fish in the river, which I just didn't realize at all. There are even tiny little seahorses around the Millennium Bridge, which, when you look at the river, you wouldn't expect there to be that kind of life there. It was really important that we don't do anything to disturb that.

Image: Waterloo Bridge - Illuminated River © James Newton 
DT
And sorry, really naive question – how does light, or too much light, presumably, affect fish?
 
JG
Supposedly, if the light penetrates the water, it creates a barrier. The fish will see that as a barrier and will not want to go through and under the bridges. And with some of these, particularly in the shallows, it's their spawning route. And so, if you put a barrier of light there, they won't spawn the way they would normally spawn.
 
DT
Oh, right.
 
JG
And you can interfere with the whole breeding cycle of the fish. It's incredible, this side of things. It's not just lighting. We were very, very conscious that we didn't want to disturb the patterns of what was spawning, and just the way they migrate and use a river. So, we've been very careful not to put light into the river.
 
DT
And you did a luminance study before all of this; what did that inform you? What was its chief finding?
 
JG
Well, when we started out, we wanted it to be sensory; we wanted to make sure that the lighting fitted, or the brightness of the bridges fitted, within the surroundings. And at that time, we had no real references, or reference information to work with. So, we did the survey, which was basically surveying the brightness of the banks from one end to the other, of where the bridges were going to be. That enabled us then to know how bright all the surroundings are, how bright the landmark buildings like St. Paul's and Palace of Westminster are. We were then able to set a target so that we could say that if we lit our bridge to a certain luminance, you'd be able to see it against this background, but it wouldn't be so bright that you’d overpower the surroundings or, more importantly, you don't overpower any of these landmarks that are so important to London.

Image: Golden Jubilee Footbridges - Illuminated River © Jason Hawkes
DT
Where do you think London stands in terms of the light polluter scale? Are we better or worse than our European counterparts or beyond?
 
JG
I wouldn't want to make judgments beyond. I know from the survey that we actually found quite a lot along the Thames where levels were a lot higher than guidance and regulations.
 
DT
Really?
 
JG
Surprisingly high, actually.
 
DT
From buildings leaving their lights on at night?
 
JG
From offices leaving lights on, and actually some of the facade lighting was actually a lot brighter than you'd have expected. So, I mean, what we're hoping is that this study can then be used for other purposes to hopefully encourage people to bring down the brightness of their buildings. Because what we've realized is that if everybody reduced their brightness, everything could go down more, and you wouldn't lose the impact. We found this with the bridges that some of the surroundings, particularly as you go west, there's a lot darker surroundings and we don't have to use anything like as much light as the guidance would let you use. You can really bring it down, but you won't lose the punch because you're obviously set against the darker background. And if do that through the centre of London. everyone would save energy but not lose out on the impact.

Image: Westminster Bridge - Illuminated River © James Newton
DT
Brilliant. Well, that's a really good lesson for the for the city to learn in a sense from this project, I guess.
 
JG
That's the hope; that other things will come out of the project, not just the artwork on the bridges.
 
DT
So: last question, because we're up to time. What's your favorite of the bridges lighting schemes and why?
 
JG
Blackfriars and Southwark, I think, are two of my favorites in there. They’re girder bridges. We've managed to really kind of conceal the light within the girder structure, and it really brings out stuff that you never even knew was there. You see all the rivets on the bridge. It's just really lovely, because it just picks out the actual structure of the bridge that was unseen previously.
 
DT
Yeah. So shadow is as important as light, in other words…
 
JG
Absolutely!
 
DT
Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for your time. That was a fascinating journey. I'm in London this week, so I'm going to have a look if I can.
 
JG
Yeah, do. It’s quite a long walk if you go from one end to the other, but a pleasant walk!
 
DT
(laughs) Thanks again!
 
JG
No problem. Cheers. Bye!

Image: Lambeth Bridge - Illuminated River © Paul Crawley 

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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