New London Architecture

Saving the Night

Tuesday 27 April 2021

SIGN UP TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Alex Lifschutz

Director
Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

The completion of the Illuminated River on the 13th April marked the culmination of a fertile collaboration between our practice and New York-based artist Leo Villareal to light 9 central London bridges creating an epic public art commission. Illuminated River reframes the Thames at night, offering a cultural experience that is open air, free to view and accessible to all. An estimated 90 million people a year will see the artwork over its minimum ten-year lifespan. 
 
Our competition pitch for the project, back in 2016, proposed not only the lighting of the iconic river bridges but also a significant reduction in illumination in the surroundings. We had become aware of the drastic increase in sources and levels of illumination on the river since our 1994 scheme for Oxo Tower Wharf and, for obvious reasons, we thought the Illuminated River artwork should stand out.

Saving the Night, picks up on this - it’s an initiative by our practice and Speirs + Major to rethink and rebalance the lighting of our cities at night for the benefit of those who use them and for the ecology that nurtures us. The accompanying images show how we could renew the aesthetic of the urban night, its sense of enjoyment and safety, at the same time responding to our planet's need for a lighter tread. 
 
Prohibition of advertising on the river in the 20th century had generated the Oxo tower - an empty concrete shell with windows spelling the meat cube name, lit in neon and plonked on top of the industrial building. When we came to repurpose the building in the late 1980’s we took samples of the broken neon tube and had them analysed to get the matching red colour. As the Thames advertising ban still stood there wasn’t any other advertising or significant illumination on the water. 


Oxo Tower Wharf © Chris Gascoigne
The situation is very different today. From Canary Wharf, moving upstream to the Palace of Westminster, commercial buildings have internal lights on through the night and/or their facades lit very brightly. In contrast London landmarks like St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedral, the RAF Memorial and Cleopatra’s Needle are insufficiently illuminated or in darkness. The urban grammar has been disrupted - conjunctions and prepositions are in bold, subjects and objects in smaller, fainter fonts.
 
Mathew Frith at the London Wildlife Trust and Jonathan Gittins of Atelier Ten provided the technical backup to Leo’s subtle rhythms of natural light - the Illuminated River artwork uses LED sources that are energy-efficient and kind to the ecology. A typical bridge uses the equivalent of 5 or 6 domestic fan heaters for its energy and the artwork is switched off at 2am. The corollary to this is that all-the-while the illumination of other buildings is constantly growing. Efficient LED sources may be becoming the problem rather than the solution, as building owners capitalise on their low maintenance and low running costs to promote their real estate; or leave office lights fully on for cleaning staff.

Northbank ∏ Speirs & Major © James Newton
Covid-19’s lockdown has taught us how we can re-focus on essentials and begin to create a virtuous circle - addressing the climate emergency and destruction of wildlife. By turning off lights in over-lit offices we can stop disrupting bird migration, by deflecting light away from rivers we can stop harming fish spawning cycles, while cutting energy consumption substantially in the process. Our appreciation of, and ability to navigate using our cities’ heritage as landmarks would be so enhanced if we could reduce the amount of light on unimportant things and improve the quality of light on the public realm.  


SIGN UP TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Alex Lifschutz

Director
Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands


Culture

#NLACulture


Related

Five minutes with... Jonathan Gittins

News

Five minutes with... Jonathan Gittins

David Taylor meets Jonathan Gittins of Atelier Ten to talk bridges, girders, and rivets; lighting, fish and seahorses as...

The world is full of light

Video

The world is full of light

Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects talks about the influence of light on his work in this interview with Peter Murray. The...

Watch video

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

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