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Last edited 15 Nov 2021
Sir Christopher Wren
|St Paul's Cathedral, aerial view. Image by Roman Grac from Pixabay
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is one of the giants of English architecture. Yet he did not train as an architect or engineer, nor as a painter, sculptor or mason. Having finished at Westminster School in London at the age of 15, he went on to become an assistant demonstrator at the College of Surgeons, after which he went to Oxford to pursue his interest in science.
During those years, no less than 53 inventions, theories, technical improvements and discoveries are accredited to him. Many had wrestled with the central problems of astronomy, physics and engineering.
At the age of 25, having built a reputation as a mathematician, he was made a professor of astronomy in London and four years later (1661) in Oxford. In 1663, at the request of Oxford University, and with little experience of designing, he presented a model of the Sheldonian Theatre (completed in 1669). Although the timber roof shows some signs of 'genius', the building generally attests to his lack of design experience.
Wren’s second building was Pembroke Chapel, Cambridge (1663-66) for his uncle, Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely. By this time, having spent six months in Paris to study architecture, the subject had fused in his mind with engineering, mathematics and physics.
He was soon to be consulted on the alterations to the old St Paul’s cathedral. But it was the Great Fire of London in 1666 that gave Wren the opportunity to use his wide-ranging talents for the rebuilding of London. This may have been the spur that made him choose architecture as his specialisation.
As a member of the Royal Commission to rebuild London, he was soon tasked with designing numerous churches for the city and in 1669, he was appointed surveyor general by Charles I. His first step was to prepare a general plan for laying out the now devastated city: a rational plan of almost grid-like parallel streets with main routes up to 20m wide converging at main points.
Wren was also asked to prepare new designs for St Paul’s Cathedral although the first few were rejected. Work finally began in 1675 and the first service was held in December 1697, even though the building was yet to be fully finished: the Barouque towers on either side of the front elevation were designed sometime after 1700 and the dome’s lantern completed in 1710. Full completion of the building did not occur until around 1720 at a total project cost of £730,750. The building is regarded as Wren’s masterpiece and is a skilful blend of the classical and the Baroque styles, with the dome regarded as one of the most perfect in the world.
Prior to design work on the cathedral, Wren had made a start rebuilding the City churches, achieved in the course of a few years. They were finally to number 55 in total – four of them lying outside the City. Characterised by a wide variety of elevational treatments, each development displays an ingenuity in designing on cramped and irregular sites. They also gave Wren the opportunity to experiment with elevations and plans that were central, longitudinal and intermediate, with naves and aisles and with columns, giant columns and apses. His language also included piers, clerestory windows and vaults, domes on squares (St Mildred) and octagons (St Mary Abchurch and St Swithin). The resulting permutations gave rise to a rich variety of aesthetic and spatial effects.
Wren’s interest in the scientific planning of churches was concerned with how to give a longitudinal building a feeling of centrality – and vice-versa. This experimentation gave rise to churches such as St Andrew Holborn; St James, Piccadilly; St Mary-le-Bow; St Bride; Christ Church, Newgate Street; St Peter Cornhill; St Magnus, and St Martin, Ludgate Hill.
In addition to the buildings mentioned above, Wren also designed The Royal Hospital, Chelsea (completed 1692); Hampton Court (1689-1700); the library of Trinity College, Cambridge (1676 1695) and other buildings.
Wren’s last great work was the original ‘grand design’ for Greenwich Hospital (1696-1715). He died before it was completed which allowed Sir John Vanbrugh to finish the project. Wren’s huge influence on the London skyline remained uncontested until the arrival of Richard Seifert in the 1960s and later Norman Foster and Richard Rogers from 1980 onwards.
Wren’s genius and influence not only affected British architectural design generally but was transmitted through the subsequent works of his assistant. Nicholas Hawksmoor achieved huge success in his own right as an architect of the English Baroque, most notable for Christ Church, Spitalfields and other churches.
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