Rio Iluminado Connects a City to Its River

Client MissionWWP LOGO

To recapture the waterfront of the Willimantic River by developing an urban waterfront and whitewater park...including creating a green space and recreation hub for the community; increasing safe access to the river for residents; restoring the river's migratory fish populations and other wildlife; becoming a resource for environmental research; serving as a welcome center for hikers and cyclists; celebrating the river's cultural history; and supporting the growth of a downtown trans-cultural arts and enterprise zone.

Rio Iluminado was chosen by the selection committee as the winner because the design emerged out of a thoughtful community engagement process and reflects (both literally and figuratively) the hopes and aspirations of the people of Willimantic for this new place with a timeless and elegant regenerative sculpture.

site ecologyresource efficiencyhealth biophiliaequity inclusivitycultural placemakingcarbon drawdown



Willimantic Whitewater Partnership sought to reimagine the edge of the Willimantic River through remediation and the development of a new whitewater park. The non-profit organization partnered with LAGI—the Land Art Generator Initiative to create a public art sculpture that generates energy. Pirie Associates won the LAGI Willimantic competition with Rio Iluminado—a proposal that was designed to restore and illuminate the connection between the City, the river, and all of the communities that call Willimantic home. 

Rio Iluminado has two purposes, one aspirational and the other practical. The first purpose is drawn from the design team’s interaction with the residents of Willimantic and WWP: to connect people to the river and to each other. The second purpose is practical: to generate energy in a demonstrative and beautiful way.  The point where these purposes intersect defines the spirit of Rio Iluminado: to create an exuberant, ever-changing landmark that is forward looking and embodies the spirit of this place.



We believe that an environment is much more than a static container. The places we make represent the living, breathing embodiment of the user’s aspirations for their community. Our role as designers is to give form to those intentions. To do this, we must have genuine, deep conversations with the community to elicit their innate wisdom and encourage them to think beyond pre-conceived solutions. In our discussions and exercises with the residents of Willimantic, we encouraged everyone to explore how this new place could be an active participant in the success of their community. Done well, the result of this process is a place that is mission-aligned for today and can actively focus the community toward their desired tomorrow.

In all, our team spent over 20 hours on site and over 3 months listening to the feedback of the community. After our first interaction with the site, we formulated our initial responses based on active perception of what the site “had to say”. This is not a literal dialogue, but a multi-sensory observation of the elements, land, animals, plant life, and the general disposition of these components. We then researched the history of the site, including geological configuration, ancient inhabitants, animal and plant species, and human-driven development. From this we understood the earth and its formation in this area, and how human interaction changed the flora and fauna, the land/river configuration, and the natural resources of the area over time.  

Next we investigated the demographic and health statistics of Willimantic to understand what needs were pressing on the human community.  From this we understood that Willimantic is challenged with high levels of unemployment, obesity, diabetes, cigarette smoking, and automobile deaths.  No immediate remedies appear from this research, but this information impacted our design solution’s focus on restoration, balance, health and well-being, decreasing isolation, and simply creating opportunities for joy.

Prepared with this background, and consciously setting it aside for the next bit of time, we engaged the community in three days of “Coffee Shop Hours,” an evening community introduction and discussion, and a Saturday design charrette. This intensive community engagement tested our initial reactions to the site and the community’s needs, and drawing out the wisdom that only residents have and creating the foundation for our design response. The most compelling feedback we received across the board is that Willimantic teenagers are under-engaged, especially over the summer months, and that people feel disconnected from the river and other cultures within the city. Additionally, we consistently heard that the solution should be forward-looking and forward-thinking and provoke action toward what’s next for Willimantic. Perhaps ironically, this prompted us to look to at what is fundamentally true about the place now, and has been forever: that this place is governed by the cycles of the sun and the rhythm of nature, and that humans are part of this system. To restore and reconnect residents to this—to something which is eternal and bigger than any individual—is a gateway to creativity, inspiration, innovation, healing, and growth.

In the end, our highest design priorities were to:

  • illuminate the connection between nature and the community
  • generate the greatest amount of energy in the smallest reasonable footprint
  • create a place to encourage joy and interaction, restoring a balanced, reciprocal relationship between all of the communities that occupy this place
  • become a model for other communities to engage their unique assets and create an exactly-suited solution to embody their aspirations


Tying together a concept

Our solution is Rio Iluminado — a place-making sculpture that has three primary attributes. First, it uses the sun to generate energy and to mark the passage of the seasons, the rhythm of the day, and the movement of river-related species. Second, it brings the river up into the park where a broad cross-section of people can interact with the water. And third, it playfully reflects the river, its species, the people, and the city, illuminating the life of Willimantic in an ever-changing mural.

The three attributes are purposefully cyclical and visceral — temporal without the human concept of time; emotional without the need for formal knowledge. Experience connects visitors to the cycles of nature and its inherent balance and reciprocity — where humans are but one part of the whole. In reaching back to enduring and fundamental cycles, we hope to illuminate connection and interdependence — not only among human cultural communities, but of the place, nature, and the world at large. In this way, Rio Iluminado is timeless: it is not connected to a specific era or a point in history, but to the qualities that humans experience when we connect to something greater than ourselves.

The physical form of Rio Iluminado has 4 components: the River Well, the Spiral Channel, the River Platform, and the Solar Arch.

  • The River Well draws underground water from the riparian edge through the use of a submersible well pump. The River Well is located in the proposed Tree Copse. The Tree Copse is located in the least disturbed area of the site, never having been developed. This symbolically represents the healing impact of nature, and the source of the water that moves through the River Well into the rest of the site. The River Well only runs when sunlight powers the pump. That means when the solar collectors are actively generating energy, the pump is running. When the solar collectors are not generating energy (night time) the pump is
  • The Spiral Channel takes the water from the River Well to the River Platform. The Spiral Channel is concrete, is close to the surface of the ground, and has varying depths and widths. When the river water flows in the Channel, park visitors may interact with the water: splash in it, sit along the edge of it, or dip their toes in it. This offers visitors a chance to interact with the river water, especially those who may not otherwise be able to navigate the trails, steps, or hike down to the actual river edge.
  • The River Platform is the destination of the Spiral Channel. The River Platform is a 3400 square foot concrete slab with a minimal slope. On the surface of the River Platform there is a shot-blast interpretive design pattern that identifies riparian species, grouped by the timing of their migratory paths around the site. The minor slope of the Platform means the water fills the Platform from one side to the other based on how much water is flowing from the River Well. This gradual fill feels like a tidal rise, gentle and descriptive of time. Once the Platform is full, the water will be retained to a depth of a few inches after which it will flow into a two stage bio-swale system where it will be cleaned and returned to the river. In the winter months, the water will be retained to create an ice-skating surface, making the River Platform exciting for year-round use.
  • Lastly, the Solar Arch rises above the River Platform and has practical, poetic, and urbanistic functions. The Arch collects and converts solar light into useable energy on site. Its geometry and orientation are specifically suited to the location to generate approximately 25.5 MWh per year with the 900 square foot array. The interior of the Solar Arch is finished with polished stainless steel panels. The surface is shaped specifically to reflect, overlay, and merge the river, the River Platform, the people, the site, and downtown beyond. The purpose of the reflective surface is poetic and playful: it’s meant to simultaneously capture the river, the site activities, and the city in one “parallaxical” composition, superimposing and joining the LIFE of the area into one active, changing mural of connection. The detail, form, and scale of the Solar Arch use the path of the sun to mark the solar cycle, to frame the natural environment, and be a landmark visible from the downtown district. The “inverse” gnomon, locate don’t eh southern edge of the Solar Arch, illuminates the general time of day, the season of the year, and the migrating species of the riparian community. The scale and reflective surface of the Solar Arch is meant to capture the attention of trail-users and Main Street pedestrians, creating a landmark on the edge of nature and urban center.

The remainder of the site is developed as an urban outdoor activity park. The park is a nexus of trails through the area and introduces the trail head for a proposed riparian trail. At the Bridge Street end of the site is a put –in for kayaking activities and at the opposite, easterly end of the site, near the proposed riparian trail, is a take-out, also for kayaking and for fishing along the river.  Along the northern edge, we placed an earthen building which houses restrooms, office and kayak storage, and a public space that will act as a shelter in the summer and a warming hut in the winter.


Measurable Sustainable Impact

The two aspects of Rio Iluminado’ s potential environmental impact are 1) its materials and embodied energy, and 2) its direct, physical impact on the site. 

From a resource, embodied energy and recyclability standpoint, Rio Iluminado is very responsible, as its major materials are some of the most recycled materials in the US: Steel, aluminum and glass.  The Solar Arch’s sheathing is FSC, formaldehyde-free plywood, and no toxic finishes or treatments are used.  The concrete of the Spiral Channel and River Platform have no environmentally preferable alternative; however the design is intended to minimize the amount of concrete used and to incorporate fly ash to offset Portland cement use and encapsulate this industrial byproduct.

From the standpoint of site impacts, Rio Iluminado balances minimal impact on the site to create a place with its role as a landmark. The site is net positive, generating as much energy as possible within the smallest reasonable footprint. In addition, the location of the River Platform and the Viewing Terrace continue to cap the remediated ‘hot spot’ on site. The bio-swale will clean the river water brought up to the site, and paving will be permeable and not require structured storm drainage infrastructure. Last, all lighting shall be “Dark Sky” compliant.