Steven Woodward - Sculptor

Illumination Project / Bridge Houses / Chicago River

Site History:

One hundred years ago, Chicago was the busiest port city in the world. The bridges developed to allow these ocean-going vessels to navigate the river-port also had to serve the multitudes of pedestrian traffic crossing the same river each day. To meet these complex needs, Chicago developed a unique style of lift-bridges that now only open occasionally for recreational ships although they remain instrumental to crossing the river by millions of its citizens every year.

The Bridge Houses constructed to operate these bridges were scaled to very modest proportions that now contrast sharply with the towering skyscrapers surrounding them. These architectural icons offer beautiful examples in styles, ranging from the Beaux Arts, Neoclassical to Modern. They rise two stories from street level and each features a continuous row of windows on all four sides, allowing clear sight lines for the bridge operators to view traffic in all four directions. Although located in the heart of the city, these monuments to the city’s heritage now stand darkened and seemingly abandoned.

Project description:

My idea is to brightly illuminate the interior of these structures using the latest in LED lighting technology. Light sensitive switches would activate these lights at dusk and turn them off again at sunrise the following day. The windows would be covered inside with sheer translucent screens to evenly diffuse the light, flooding them with a warm uniform glow. Throughout the long nights of winter, these Bridge Houses would be transformed into magic lanterns, lighthouses literally, for visitors to and the residents of this bustling urban environment.

Poets and storytellers for the young and old alike have long recognized the humble image of a hut as a foundational archetype. Often seen at a distance, with a light in its window, it is one of the most enduring images of our collective psyche. Situated within the extremely modern environment of towering skyscrapers, these Bridge Houses would become beacons to the past illuminated for the present day.


The citizens of Chicago own these Bridge House’s, they are public property whose operation is managed by the Department of Public Transportation. The rather soft touch that this project represents; no object or permanent infrastructure created for its implementation, is well suited to the tight monetary restraints of the City and I believe could only be accomplished under the auspices of the arts.

A project of this complexity also demands a private and public partnership that the City of Chicago is known for. Individual companies would be asked to donate lighting equipment, window treatments and expertise in return for acknowledgement and the prestige of enhancing this public space. Various departments of the City of Chicago would be asked to supply staff and labor to facilitate proper installation in the early Fall and removal in late Spring to allow for their uninterrupted use during summer months.


The enhancement to the community surrounding these iconic monuments of light would be significant. In addition to the hundreds of thousands crossing the bridges every day, thousands more would enjoy this installation from their offices and condominiums within the skyscrapers that line the river’s bank. Chicago’s Board of Tourism recently announced another record setting year, and I believe they would be happy to add this winter river walk to their itinerary for visitors.

This type of project would also provide an educational opportunity for the students attending the various art schools in Chicago. I would reach out to these institutions and explore avenues to work with interested students and faculty. Certainly the historical, cultural and fine art museums of the city would support this additional enhancement to the fabric of the city’s urban environment.

Personal Background / Public Sculpture:

Thirty years ago I created my first public artwork on the streets of Chicago, unifying elements of nautical, domestic and religious architecture in a massive sculpture. A brightly lit window offered a view into the structure necessary for their union, acting as a bridge between the interior and exterior of the work. Last year, my family and I moved back to Chicago. The powerful insights I received thirty years ago have led me to this project, the illumination of these iconic structures of art and industry, located less than a mile away from my original sculpture.

Through years of exploration of the process of art making in my studio and the public realm, I have found that the most practical is often the most poetic. Chicago is known around the world for its lasting impact on the development of modern Architecture. This legacy would be well served by a contemporary art installation of these rather modest proportions highly charged with symbolic content. To celebrate the past using state of art techniques would serve to further highlight the river district’s unique blend of industrial, cultural, and natural heritage.

Outreach and Funding:

To help fund this project I applied to Creative Capital in 2014, a national organization dedicated to innovative public art projects that strengthen the communities they serve. At that time I also wrote to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the cultural commissioner of Chicago, Mary Boone. This resulted in a meeting with Daniel Schulman, the head of Special Programming and Visual Arts for the City of Chicago and after presenting my idea he looked up and said simply “I love this”.

As it turned out, Creative Capital chose not to fund this project. Currently I am applying to other sources for funding and would welcome the assistance of any organizations or individuals interested in helping me transform this idea into a reality.

Thank you.

Steven Woodward

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