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28 March 2023

How Christopher Wren built Britain

He became the nation’s greatest architect – but studied astronomy and anatomy first. To Wren, building was a three-dimensional science.

By Michael Prodger

If there is one part of one building that is quintessential Christopher Wren it is not the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, or the ceremonial river frontage of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, nor even any of the infinitely various steeples of his city churches, but the base of the Monument.

The structure, a fluted column erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London, was built between 1671 and 1677 and stands both 202 feet high and 202 feet from Pudding Lane, the place where the conflagration started. The gaze of passers-by is inevitably drawn upwards to the flaming golden urn at the top that represents both the disaster and the city’s resurgence. But for Wren and his co-designer, Robert Hooke, mere memorialising was just one part of their intention. They constructed the Monument to be both a zenith telescope and a laboratory: looking up its tubular interior they could observe and measure the position of the stars (the topping urn was hinged so that it could be opened to the sky); looking down it they could experiment with pendulums and gravity. The two men would collate and analyse their findings in a research space beneath the column.

The eminent architectural historian John Summerson once wrote that if Wren had died at 30, he would still have been “a figure of some importance in English scientific thought, but without the word ‘architecture’ occurring once in his biographies”, and the Monument is proof that even when he had become England’s greatest architect, he never stopped being a scientist.

Today, on the 300th anniversary of his death at 91 in 1723, Wren is a hallowed figure, our national architect who worked as surveyor-general for six English monarchs and whose buildings symbolise England’s – and after 1707, Britain’s – rise to global power and its resilience too. The celebrated photograph of the dome of St Paul’s floating celestial and unharmed above the smoking ruins of buildings bombed in December 1940 during the Blitz instantly became the defining image of British cussedness and exceptionalism – a 20th-century equivalent of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.

We are, however, lucky to have as much of Wren’s work as we do. The Blitz destroyed 19 of his 52 city churches (53 including St Paul’s) – 13 alone on the night of 29 December 1940, during the raid captured in the St Paul’s photograph – and town planners and developers did for several more. His buildings fared badly before that too. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Victorians were no great admirers. In 1864 a writer in the Ecclesiologist described Wren’s churches as “ugly to an excess”, while in his essay “The City Churches” of 1898, Henry William Clarke bemoaned the “twaddle and cant” of the “Wren craze”. The churches occupied valuable sites that could be more profitably used, he said, and calls for their preservation were “condemned by every hard-headed, acute businessman in the city”. Between 1841 and 1904, 14 of Wren’s City of London churches were demolished. Only 23 now remain.

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Almost all of Wren’s buildings were commissioned by the Crown, Church or Oxbridge colleges and, unlike his protégés Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanburgh, he designed very little for private patrons. For all the grandeur of his achievements, his most ambitious scheme was never built at all. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren devised a scheme for rebuilding the city that would have transformed it, doing away with the higgledy-piggledy medieval street plan and replacing it with broad boulevards radiating from the Royal Exchange, multiple piazzas and public spaces, long vistas and symmetrical grids for housing.

The scheme, which would have preceded Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris by nearly two centuries, proved too expensive for London, but parts of it were adopted when Washington DC was built in the 1790s. So, when British troops raided and burned much of the city in 1814, they were destroying their own countryman’s work.

[See also: The utopian dreams of 1960s architecture]

Nor is Washington the only example of Wren’s designs in the US. Between 1965 and 1969, at the instigation of Winston Churchill, one of his city churches, St Mary Aldermanbury, having fallen into disrepair, was dismantled, transported and rebuilt in Fulton, Missouri. It is likely that Wren would have been more interested in this process of translocation than in the work of designing the church itself.

Wren was born in 1632, ten years before the outbreak of the English Civil War, to a cleric father who would shortly become Dean of Windsor. The Prince of Wales became Wren’s boyhood friend and his formative years were therefore spent as a royalist sympathiser during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the danger was real: his uncle Matthew, a bishop, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 18 years.

Nevertheless, Wren grew up among brilliant men: John Dryden and John Locke were fellow pupils at Westminster School, while at Oxford (Wadham and All Souls) his friends included the chemist Robert Boyle and the natural scientist Robert Hooke. He became close to both the diarist and gardener John Evelyn and the bravura wood-carver Grinling Gibbons too.

Wren’s practical bent was evident early and would go on to encompass a remarkable range of fields. He designed an instrument for writing in the dark and a transparent beehive so the workings of the bees could be studied. His anatomical drawings of the brain were used in a textbook on the subject and he experimented, using dogs, with blood transfusion. He was a military engineer; he worked to solve the longitude problem; designed new instruments for surveying and machines for moving water – and the list went on.

Wren’s brilliance was recognised by his appointment in 1657, aged 25, as chair of astronomy at Gresham College in London, and four years later when he was elected Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford. The following year, he became one of the founders of the Royal Society: he personified its motto, “Nullius in verba” – “take no one’s word for it”. It was the personal connections he had accrued that led him to expand his pursuits into architecture, despite having no experience in the discipline other that what he had read in books.

First, his uncle Matthew, newly released from the Tower, asked him to restore the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to which Wren gave a then novel Classical façade. When his former All Souls warden, Gilbert Sheldon, became Archbishop of Canterbury, the new prelate commissioned him to build the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Wren immediately grasped that architecture was a three-dimensional science involving geometry, mass, stress and volume – an extension of the “mechanistic philosophy” fostered at Wadham College by his mentor John Wilkins.

In 1665, with his interest in architecture now firmly established – and partly to avoid the plague in London – Wren journeyed to France to study the building programmes flourishing under Louis XIV. He saw Versailles being built, met the great artistic polymath Gian Lorenzo Bernini who was briefly and unhappily employed by the Sun King, and studied the works of architects such as Louis Le Vau, François Mansart and France’s own Wren figure, Claude Perrault.

On his return, at the behest of his old childhood playmate, now Charles II, and Sheldon, Wren was asked to join a commission established to oversee a remodelling of the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral. The building had, according to John Evelyn, become noisome, its “venerable fabrik… converted into rascally warehouses”. “O! How loathsome a Golgotha is this Pauls!” he lamented. With Puritan feeling still abroad, it was not the image the restored monarch required of the city’s cathedral. However, a week after Wren’s initial designs were approved, the Great Fire burnt St Paul’s to the ground.

[See also: Resistance is fertile]

“The Glory of London is now fled away like a bird,” said the nonconformist minister Thomas Vincent. But the disaster was also an opportunity. The city was a tabula rasa on which Wren and Hooke could give physical form to the new philosophy of Oxford and the Royal Society, while rebuilding St Paul’s and the city’s churches would symbolise an Anglicanism revivified under Charles II. Evelyn summed up the bullish mood of the architects: “We have as good a right to invent, and to follow our own genius, as the Ancients.”

Wren immediately set about inventing. Of his city churches only some 12 were exclusively his designs (including St Clement Danes and St Stephen Walbrook); the others were the work of members of his team, most notably Hawksmoor, Hooke and Edward Woodroofe. Wren acted as design director and administrator of an architectural practice and rather than aim for consistency he put to work an extraordinary variety of styles: Greek and Roman, Gothic, Palladian and French Baroque, Dutch, and even Ottoman. St Stephen Walbrook has a Byzantine squinch dome; the now demolished St Benet Fink was ten-sided; St-Dunstan-in-the-East has a Gothic spire supported by open flying buttresses… Small wonder contemporaries were awestruck by an “invention so fertile”.

Defiant: St Paul’s amid the fire and smoke became a defining wartime image of British exceptionalism. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In 1669 Wren was made surveyor-general of the King’s works (a post he held until 1718), and his real work on St Paul’s could begin. The Office of Works in Scotland Yard, Whitehall, was his headquarters, a place to store drawings, expensive materials, accounts and books: it was guarded by a pair of mastiffs. There, between 1669 and 1675, he produced four models to his designs – two, both rejected, were truly radical.

The “Great Model”, still on display in the cathedral, showed a Greek cross form with the arms of the cross linked by curves and with a circular choir and two different size domes. The model itself took a team of joiners more than a year to build but the design was rejected as being “not enough of a Cathedral-fashion”. Wren supposedly wept at the news, and with reason: the building would have been a far more elegant and radical structure than the cathedral eventually built. The second design was to a traditional cruciform shape but with a bizarre hybrid dome – a flat part-sphere topped by a columned lantern with its own egg-shaped dome from which a galleried needle spire emerged. It was an extraordinary mixture – a piling up of motifs that he had learned while designing the city churches – that had more in common with the onion domes of Muscovy than the western tradition.

Eventually, in 1675, Wren came up with a design that passed muster. The King allowed him wiggle room to “make some variations, rather ornamental that essential”, which Wren interpreted liberally. Before building could start, the remains of the old cathedral had to be removed. The idea of demolishing it quickly using gunpowder was abandoned when one explosion sent lumps of masonry through the window of a nearby house, just missing three ladies playing cards.

Construction continued for the next 36 years, with the last part of the lantern hauled into place in 1708, followed by a further three years for decorating. The rapidity was unprecedented: St Paul’s is the only pre-20th-century cathedral to be entirely built within the lifetime of its architect. Some 226 drawings and 70 constructional models are proof of how Wren continued to evolve his design even as the walls went up and show how he hid buttresses behind an outer curtain wall and designed a central brick cone that supports an inner and an outer dome: the appearance of a single dome is a brilliant illusion.

The project tested Wren’s administrative, as well as his architectural skills, to the extreme. Funding was initially meant to come from donations, but when they failed to cover costs and the workmen’s wages fell behind by more than six months (and Wren found himself on half pay) a tax on coal was introduced. The supply of stone was intermittent and eventually sourced from Oxfordshire, Kent, Dorset, Devon, Yorkshire, and Caen in northern France. Nearly one million bricks were needed for the vaults of the crypts alone and 4,000 square feet of glass went into the choir. Nevertheless, for all the activity, between 1675 and 1715 only six fatalities occurred on site. By way of an aside, just one woman was named among the craftsmen working on the project: a foundress named Jane Brewer who cast the pineapple on top of the south-west tower.

Throughout it all, and as the cathedral rose, Wren was also at work on a series of other major projects: Greenwich Hospital, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Hampton Court, a mausoleum for Charles I at Windsor, the Gothic Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, and a new summer palace at Winchester – meant to rival Versailles – that was abandoned with the death of Charles II. He somehow also found time to become an MP four times and marry twice.

Despite all this, it remains hard to define exactly what the Wren style is, just as his personality remains elusive: eclecticism and inventiveness – a solution for every problem – were perhaps his key characteristics. Christopher Wren’s professional intention was clear, however: “Architecture aims at eternity,” he said, and as the great body of his work attests, his aim was true.

[See also: David Hockney’s fascination with technology]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special