New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Sarah Gaventa

Thursday 28 May 2020

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor: Hi Sarah! How are you? 

Sarah Gaventa: Hi! I’m fine!

DT: Tell us a little bit about your situation. Where are you?

SG: I’m in Somerset, and have been since lockdown began. I’m with my mum but I am coming back to London in a week’s time because we start on site in July.  And also, someone’s got to see my son through the last month of his remote schooling! I think Dom’s done it on his own enough, really.

DT: In the Barbican?

SG: Yeah, yeah. So the boys have been having a boys’ time in the Barbie and I've been looking after my mum and working remotely down here.

DT: How has that been as an experience?

SG: It’s been good. Although she has threatened to call the domestic abuser helpline a couple of times…(laughs)… I’m confident that my marriage will be in a good place after lockdown because I gave my husband the best anniversary present ever, which was not seeing me for eight weeks!
DT: (laughs) So: Illuminated River. How has it been in terms of still maintaining its importance if you like, given a background of the health and COVID crisis etc? Has it been easy maintaining its prominence as an important thing for London?

SG: Well, interestingly enough I think it's become more prominent because sadly so many things have been cancelled, postponed, and so much of our arts have been curtailed. The fact that The Illuminated River is still happening, that we're still on time and particularly for London when we want to be able to say we are due to illuminate in Spring next year. It is the perfect timing, probably, for saying, hang on, London's open for business. You know, we want people back; we want people to be enjoying the city, we're moving forward and it's free and accessible and it's outdoors. All of which again means you can be socially distanced and enjoy Illuminated River. We have certainly found all our partners have been bending over backwards, and that includes people like TfL who have got so much on their plate at the moment. Westminster City Council and City of London Corporation have also been so proactive and helpful because they see that this is more important than ever, really. To be something that is a positive, joyful, free, and accessible, and a marker to say that London is creative and moving.

DT: What is your personal favourite element of the project - either one of the bridges or an aspect of the project?

SG: I think for me it’s about focusing on what the role of the bridges is. They are not just to get you from one side to t’other but they're also a place. I think you forget that they're part street and part architecture instead of just a useful thing to get over the water. And anything that encourages people to stop and linger or when you're allowed to stop and linger…The bridge is in a way the bit that has been forgotten. There have been so many improvements to our public realm but not our bridges. Very few of them have any seating,  a lot of them are not particularly pleasant to walk across especially at night, or walk up. If you walk up from the South Bank up to Waterloo bridge it is pretty horrible in terms of how dirty it is and how badly lit and also then you know get this massive bonus which is when you're halfway across and you can stop and admire the Illuminated River or just the bridges anyway you're looking at the biggest public space in London and the one that the fewest number of children have ever been on in the city, which is incredible and that's the Thames. So I think that part of the project, if you’ll pardon the pun, is illuminating our relationship with the river and also the bridges across it, which is why London exists in the first place. And the strangest thing for me when we were doing the project was the lack of data around the prominence of the river, around the ecology, around the role of light in our city. We had to do the first luminance study along each side of the River and had to do the first bat/bird survey along central London in probably the busiest, most high profile part of the river. These things had never been done, and you suddenly realised that it's the back end of each local authority’s borough and the bit that they don't really think much about because they think it's okay and it all works. And when you start looking at it, you realise the public realm is incredibly degraded. It's very different in different areas, it’s not particularly accessible, and there's a whole raft of things that you could do. And in a way Illuminated River has been a focus of bringing, for example, all the bridge owners together for the first conversation that they’ve ever had about their bridges. Even though they own the most important structures and most iconic structures in our capital! So for me it is much more than it being an art project. It is a wonderful art project but it’s also a public realm project, it’s a community project, it's a social justice project. Because we've uncovered all this evidence to show that one in 10 children in central London have never seen the Thames.

DT: Is that right?

SG: You can't go on it for free unless you fall in, you know, so it's not really a public space. Which is why we made our boat tours only 50p more than commuting, to encourage people to be able to experience it. Young families don't go on the Thames. People on low incomes don't go on the Thames. Even children in Westminster, partly because of the way that we have created barriers against the River half of the time on Westminster’s banks you can't even see the Thames. So it's provoked lots of wider conversations about how we engage with our river and our bridges, how we create artwork that's free and accessible and highlights the architecture that's already there and then you know the role of light. People criticise us for putting lights on to the bridges, when in fact ours are 50 to 75% less bright than what's already there and have no spill into the river. We've got the wrong name, really: we should be called Illuminated Bridges not Illuminated River because we are actually taking light off the river. When you do a luminance study you realise it's actually the Walkie Talkie that's one of the most polluting buildings along there, it's not the bridges. And then we are starting to have individual conversations with building owners like Sea Containers House, explaining to them that fish do not like to have sex with the lights on…

Don't throw light into the river. Nobody is a villain in this piece. It just makes me realise that there's a complete lack of education about the role of light and light levels and what is right and what is suitable and what isn't, and everybody over-lights or there may be a competition between the north bank and the south bank. As soon as we said to the Sea Containers house about the fish they were like: ‘right, ooh, we didn't know. We’ll do something about that’. 

DT: Well, fish sex is important…
SG: Yeah! Well, there’s 135 species of fish in the river and we want to make sure that it stays at that level and doesn’t go back to the awful times when they weren’t procreating. I mean they literally put disco lights by the Thames Barrier to keep fish away and they don't like disco either! So we’ve learned an awful lot about the ecology and the delicate infrastructure and ecosystem that surrounds central London. 

DT: I remember when I came on your boat trip, one of the questions I had to you was about all those buildings along the Thames that seemingly had their lights on all night for no apparent reason, and the obvious issue that that provokes. Have you had anything to do with any of the other building owners beyond Sea Containers? Is it something you are taking across the length of the Thames? I think you mentioned that was one of your plans at the time.

SG: Yes. We had a meeting at Terry Farrell building above Charing Cross Station, which is one of the most brightly lit buildings on the North bank and the facilities manager there had no idea that it was well over the recommended limits, because our luminance tests, which are all on our website, show that. I asked him why he put it on so brightly at night given that it was the offices of Price Waterhouse Cooper and therefore not a place you needed to go to at night, you know, it's not a public venue. And he said it’s to compete against the South Bank. We are certainly talking to others about looking at better curation for light in London.

We had planning permission to light the bridges from dusk till dawn because that's what they always had and my question was: why are they lit ‘til dawn? I was told by the City that that was set in the 70s, which we all know was an era of great eco sensitivity... So I said: why don't we just turn them off at 2? When we did our work on this last summer, we were out all night and I can tell you, even on a nice summer’s night, it is not exactly buzzing at 4:00 o'clock in the morning. So we'll keep that planning permission but turn the lights off at 2. That saves energy and also gives a bit more darkness to the river and it is Tennyson’s Dark River, so we want to keep it dark, and nobody has complained about it at all. We’re using LEDs and they are very, very energy efficient as well. I think no-one had thought about it - that's not because they’re thoughtless, it’s because they have got a lot more on their plate. It’s different when your entire job is just to think about the bridges and light and access to them and each walkway of the Thames, which you know, is owned by so many people it's really hard to have any consistency. And they've never had a champion. So I suppose we have been an honest broker, a champion. And we have been able to have some really interesting conversations, which I think it is part of the legacy of the project, really. I think any project in the public realm has to be more than the effect it brings in terms of the art; it’s the joining up that it needs to do because there is a lack of it.  

We have a brilliant night czar, Amy Lamé, who is looking at the night time in terms of not only the economy but also light as part of her brief. But we don't have a champion for the Thames.
DT: Last question: public space. Would you agree with the premise that public space is at a premium, even more so than its perhaps ever been given the importance given to it - because of this pandemic and the need for fresh air and distancing etc? And that, therefore, the design of public spaces should be of paramount importance at the moment? And if you agree, perhaps it is time to reform CABE Space of which you are director?  Is that something that you agree with and chimes with you?

SG: Yeah, again it’s just joining up, isn’t it? Public space is wonderful to have in the best of times but it is essential in the worst of times.  We know that because of the effect it has on our mental health and the huge number of people in London who don't have access to space - we need that green space. I think the thing is though, that we need to loosen up. I was very disappointed by over-reactions – I even saw a picture on Twitter of a log of that had some safety ‘do not sit on this’ paper on it. It was just a log in a park and some jobsworth had put some sticky tape across it to say ‘do not sit here’. I'm really pro- what we've been seeing in terms of more space being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and joggers but we know that the Coronavirus if it's expelled through the lungs of somebody who is exercising is more likely to go further. And so I think how do you, until this thing goes away, keep the joggers from your elderly pedestrians? They all sort of share the same space, so I think if I was running parks now, I'd be looking at different routes for different users. I think the idea of a shared space is something that we both tried for and CABE Space led the way on, but maybe that's not great for some of our more vulnerable people who are still going to be out when the rest of us are wandering around, and who feel that there's not many places that they can go. I would like to see a much more intelligent and thoughtful approach thinking about designing our spaces for the most vulnerable of our users and not the fittest. Because we know that there are people with underlying health conditions - how are they going to manage on a pavement when they have got a jogger coming towards them? I think they won't go out. What we need to do is look at how we design our public spaces so that everyone feels that they’re included.  I think it is incredibly important and maybe looking at parks or maybe even different user groups -  we all have a network of green spaces in London and I think with a little bit of jiggery pokery, we could find ways to actually make some of those quiet spaces just for people to be quiet in. If you want to jog, go a different way because that's the clearest space for people who really want to test their bike or really want to jog, etcetera. 

So it's not what we all planned because we were all going to live happily together, but I think we can make our spaces work harder with a little bit of thought like that, temporarily. I think there's some temporary things we need to do fast, especially over the next two to three months until the end of the autumn. And that will allow people who are much more vulnerable and might not have an outside space feel like there are places that they could go to and routes that they can take. We’re looking at how the bridges can be part of that because you get the freshest air. I have known that through the winters it is much colder and windier in the middle of the bridges but hey, during this particular event I think to have some space? We need more greenery.

DT: Well, maybe we need something like, I don’t know, a garden bridge? (laughs)

SG: (laughs) Ha! We decided to do everything the opposite to what the Garden Bridge did. But I think, again, we should be getting out on the river, and we should be looking at the really wide, wonderful spaces to go to and really explore a lot more.  x

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


A new kind of BID


A new kind of BID

Magali Thomson RIBA, Project Lead for Placemaking at Great Ormond Street, advocates greening London's streets collaborat...

Five minutes With... Bill Webb


Five minutes With... Bill Webb

David Taylor talks to Bill Webb of Able Architects about the rabbit warren-themed Wonderland his practice created for Wa...

Building a better future through place shaping


Building a better future through place shaping

Ryder Architecture talked with Graham Kelly, Managing Director at Okana, about how Okana is driving technological and en...

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

Billing type:
All prices exclude VAT
View options for Personal membership