A Cultivated Upbringing.
At an early age Christopher Wren moved in elevated social circles. When the young Wren was still a boy, his father became the Dean of Windsor. Windsor was the site of England's largest royal castle, and the young Wren had royal playmates there. He attended Westminster School in London for five years, and then was tutored privately before entering Wadham College, Oxford. At Wadham, Wren's interests focused on the sciences, and he conducted some of the first experiments that used opiates as anesthesia. By 1651, he had graduated with a Master's degree and he received an appointment as a Fellow of All Souls College, also at Oxford. This position allowed him to pursue his research interests in astronomy and the physical sciences with relative freedom. In 1657, Wren accepted a post as a professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London, and in 1660, he and some close associates founded the Royal Society, an institution that survives in Britain today as the most important organ of scientific research in the country.
The Turn to Architecture.
Christopher Wren was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, who in his own day was considered the greatest scientist in England, although the somewhat later accomplishments of John Newton have tended to obscure the scientific reputation of Wren. In 1663, Wren began to dabble in architecture when his uncle, the bishop of Ely, asked him to design a new chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge. When he finished that project two years later, Wren departed England for Paris, where he stayed for nine months. Wren had timed his visit to France to make contact with Gianlorenzo Bernini, who was in Paris at the time working on designs for the Louvre. He also made the acquaintance of Mansart, the most successful French designer of the day, and he studied the classically influenced buildings of Paris. Wren did not travel in continental Europe beyond Paris, and the voluminous knowledge that he acquired of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture came largely secondhand from engravings. His reading and short sojourn in Paris, though, evidently equipped him for the profession that he adopted in the wake of London's Great Fire of 1666.
On 2 September, a great conflagration began in the medieval center of London. Before the fire was extinguished several days later more than 430 acres and 13,000 houses had been devastated. Sensing the opportunity for rebuilding the city on a grander and safer footing, Christopher Wren set himself to the task of fashioning a plan for London's rebuilding. The substantial reputation he had already earned from his scientific endeavors meant that he had the ear of King Charles II, who admired Wren's plans, but who did not have the money to finance them. Instead of pursuing such a grandiose rebuilding of the city—a rebuilding which might have required the king and government to wage war on the venerable English concept of private property—Charles appointed Wren to serve as Surveyor General of the King's Works. From this vantage point, the budding architect left an indelible imprint on the public buildings of London. Eighty-nine churches had been destroyed in the city's fire; Wren's plan included designs for reconstructing only 51 of these structures. The first four of these buildings were hastily rebuilt following the blaze, but the remaining churches were more carefully reconstructed with designs that Wren and his assistant Robert Hooke crafted. Wren did not lavish the same degree of attention on every church in Central London. Some, like St. Mary Le Bow and St. Clement Danes, are clearly superior designs, but the indelible imprint of his style remains fixed in the characteristic steeples that he crafted for the group as a whole. Before the advent of the modern skyscraper, Wren's forest of London church steeples was one of the most distinguishable features of the cityscape. Besides the wealth of imaginative decorative detailing that the architect included on his church exteriors, his plans for these churches were handsome and highly practical. As the son of a clergyman and a family that long had ties to the Anglican Church, Wren well understood the necessities of space for providing a suitable environment for Protestant worship. In a position paper he shared with the government concerning his plans for rebuilding, Wren made it clear that a church must always be laid out with suitable sight lines and acoustical features that allowed worshippers to see and hear the service. Galleries and balconies skillfully placed above the side aisles of the main floor amplified the seating capacities of his constructions. Characteristically, his structures were usually outfitted with clear glass windows, making a bright light shining upon white or off-white walls one of their defining attributes. Many of the church sites in Central London had been small and irregularly shaped, hemmed in by other plots of private property. In these confined spaces Wren often used the pre-existing medieval foundations of the church to create classically inspired spaces. His amazing inventiveness solved many thorny architectural problems, yet the demands of providing a suitable space for worship were a constant feature his designs tried to address.
St. Paul 's Cathedral.
Wren's undeniable masterpiece was his plan for the reconstruction of St. Paul's Cathedral, a project that proceeded slowly and engendered some controversy. Initially, the plan had called only for repairing the medieval Gothic church that had stood at this site, but as the project went forward it soon became evident that a completely new structure was needed. Disagreements with the cathedral's canons about the church's precise shape further delayed the rebuilding, as did a shortage of funds. By the time the project went forward, Wren had been forced to make a number of concessions. He had longed to rebuild St. Paul's as a central-style church in the manner of Bramante's and Michelangelo's High Renaissance designs. But just as the papacy and its officials at Rome had altered these plans to the shape of a Latin cross, the diocese of London resisted such design innovations. Wren conceded and rebuilt the structure with the shape it had in the Middle Ages. While traditional in this respect, Wren brilliantly demonstrated his knowledge of both Renaissance and Baroque architecture on the church's exterior. For his massive dome, he found inspiration in Bramante's 1502 Tempietto at Rome. The entrance façade of the church quoted from the recently completed East Wing of the Palace of the Louvre in Paris, while the towers that flanked the central portico came from Borromini's plans for the Church of Sant' Agnese in Rome. Inside, the church may not be as successful a creation as St. Peter's in Rome, but its underlying design elements fit with Wren's philosophy of providing a space suitable to the spare and relatively austere demands of Protestant services. Although the London skyscrapers that now surround it dwarf St. Paul's, it remains perhaps the most noble and appealing building ever to have been constructed in the city. The cathedral, together with Wren's other handsome London churches, established a taste for classical architecture in England that long outlived the great seventeenth-century scientist and architect.
Ronald D. Gray, Christopher Wren and St. Paul's Cathedral (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
Joseph M. Levine, Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).
Jeffery Paul, The City Churches of Sir Christopher Wren (London: Hambledon Press, 1986).