Lighting London bridges

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London’s Tower Bridge. (Flickr/Simon & His Camera)

Kristen Richards’s indispensable website today has a cry of outrage (“Are They Serious?”) from a lighting designer who is disturbed by that profession’s exclusion from a panel of judges for a design competition to light up 17 bridges crossing the Thames in London.

Consider me outraged, too!

I am not sure how these bridges are lit now, but the idea of changing the lighting according to the whims of a panel of people who, according to lighting expert Joachim Ritter, have “opinions” but not “expertise” on lighting is, as he puts it, “gross negligence.”

I feel Ritter’s pain because I assume that the purpose of the competition is to transform the bridges’ lighting from largely functional within a traditional ornamental context to some sort of artistic, interactive light show. This is a bad idea, and perhaps having a bona fide lighting expert on the panel can put the brakes on the judges’ aspirations. Not sure, but Ritter’s complaint seems to arise from within the reign of aesthetic sanity. He writes:

[In the] Call for Proposals the boundary between lighting design and light art seems to be more blurry than is helpful. The competition claims to be looking for a public art installation, while the strategic priorities contained in the brief give the impression that it is a lighting design they are looking for. To be honest, it is hard to decipher exactly what the expectations are.

I am not sure that London’s bridges have not already been turned into a ridiculous expression of lighting as “art.” Maybe a commission just wants to replace that with a different but equally idiotic scheme whose sole benefit is that its members can claim credit for it.

Lighting is one of those relatively inexpensive ways that cities can reinforce the strength of their character. Lighting can be used to highlight aesthetic features and to assure that those walking or driving on a street or a bridge have enough light to do so safely. In Rhode Island, the town of Barrington improved its appearance just by erecting elegant period lampposts at close intervals along County Road. It had a remarkable effect.

Two notably beautiful streets in Providence, Benefit and Westminster, each has a different set of period lampposts. The Victorian type, on Benefit, sheds an amber light that deepens the street’s historical ambiance at night. At the time, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for the New York Times, called the lamp posts “faux.” Her contempt proves that they were quite nice. And they still are. The more urbany acorn style of period lamp post does the same for Westminster, though without the charming golden glow.

Providence recently muffed an opportunity to signal developers in a new economic development zone to offer superior architecture for their projects. Instead, the city planted cobrahead highway lamps along the streets of the zone, in effect asking the developers to build ugly. In recent years, the city has treated its street lighting system as a mechanism for saving money rather than for beautifying the city. Penny wise, pound foolish!

I hope Ritter manages to get himself or a colleague on the panel of judges for the London bridge-lighting competition. Shed some sense on light, please.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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