Sunday, October 20, 2013

SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN ~ October 20, 1632 ~ February 25, 1723

Sir Christopher Wren (20 October 1632 – 25 February 1723) was a 17th century English designer, astronomer, geometer, mathematician-physicist and one of the greatest English architects in history. Wren designed 55 of 87 London churches after the Great fire of London in 1666, including St Paul's Cathedral in 1710, as well as many secular buildings of note. He was a founder of the Royal Society (president 1680–82), and his scientific work was highly regarded by Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal.

First steps to architecture

In Wren's age, the profession of architect as understood today did not exist. Since the early years of the 17th century it was not unusual for the well-educated gentleman, (virtuosi), to take up architecture as a gentlemanly activity; a pursuit widely accepted as a branch of applied mathematics. This is implicit in the writings of Vitruvius and explicit in such sixteenth-century authors as John Dee and Leonard Digges. When Wren was a student at Oxford, he became familiar with Vitruvius's De architectura and absorbed intuitively the fundamentals of the architectural design there. In the past, buildings had been constructed to the needs of the patron and the suggestions of building professionals, such as master carpenters or master bricklayers.

Through the Royal Society and his use of optics, The King noticed Wren's works. In 1661 he was approached by his cousin Matthew with a royal commission, as "one of the best Geometer in Europe", to direct the refortification of Tangier. Wren excused himself on grounds of health. Although this invitation may have arisen from Charles II's casual opportunism in matching people to tasks, Wren is believed to have been already on the way to architecture practice. Before the end of 1661 Wren was unofficially advising the repair of Old St Paul's Cathedral after two decades of neglect and distress; his architectural interests were also evident to his associates at the time. Two years after, he set his only foreign journey to Paris and the Île-de-France, during which he acquired the firsthand study of modern design and construction. By this time, he had mastered and thoroughly understood architecture. Unlike several of his colleagues who took it up as a set of rules and formulas for design, he possessed, understood, and exploited the combination of reason and intuition, experience and imagination.

Wren and St Paul's

St Paul's has always been the touchstone of Wren's reputation. His association with it spans his whole architectural career, including the thirty-six years between the start of the new building and the declaration by parliament of its completion in 1711.

Wren had been involved in repairs of the old cathedral since 1661. In the spring of 1666, he made his first design for a dome for St Paul's. It was accepted in principle on August 27, 1666. One week later, however, the Great Fire of London reduced two-thirds of the City to a smoking desert and old St Paul's to a ruin. Wren was most likely at Oxford at the time, but the news, so fantastically relevant to his future, drew him at once to London. Between 5 and 11 September he ascertained the precise area of devastation, worked out a plan for rebuilding the City and submitted it to Charles II. Others also submitted plans. However, no new plans proceeded any further than the paper on which it was drawn. A rebuilding act which provided rebuilding of some essential buildings was passed in 1667. In 1669, the King's Surveyor of Works died and Wren was promptly installed.

‎It was not until 1670 that the pace of rebuilding started accelerating. A second rebuilding act was passed that year, raising the tax on coal and thus providing a source of funds for rebuilding of churches destroyed within the City of London. Wren presented his initial "First Model" for St Paul's. This plan was accepted, and demolition of the old cathedral began. By 1672, however, this design seemed too modest, and Wren met his critics by producing a design of spectacular grandeur. This modified design, called "Great Model", was accepted by the King and the construction started in November, 1673. However, this design failed to satisfy the chapter and clerical opinion generally; moreover, it had an economic drawback. Wren was confined to a "cathedral form" desired by the clergy. In 1674 he produced the rather meagre Classical-Gothic compromise known as the Warrant Design. However, this design, called so from the royal warrant of 14 May 1675 attached to the drawings, is not the design upon which work had begun a few weeks before.

The cathedral that Wren started to build bears only a slight resemblance to the Warrant Design. In 1697, the first service was held in the cathedral when Wren was 65. There was still, however, no dome. Finally in 1711 the cathedral was declared complete, and Wren was paid the half of his salary that, in the hope of accelerating progress, Parliament had withheld for fourteen years since 1697. The cathedral had been built for 36 years under his direction, and the only disappointment he had about his masterpiece was the dome: against his wishes the commission engaged Thornhill to paint the inner dome in false perspective and finally authorized a balustrade around the proof line. This diluted the hard edge Wren had intended for his cathedral, and elicited the apt parthian comment that "ladies think nothing well without an edging".
Major architectural works in the 1670s and 1680s

During the 1670s Wren received significant secular commissions which manifest both the maturity and the variety of his architecture and the sensitivity of his response to diverse briefs. Among many of his remarkable designs at this time, the monument commemorating the Great Fire, the Royal Observatory, and the library at Trinity College, Cambridge were the most important ones. The former two of the three works also involved Robert Hooke, but Wren was in control of the final design.

By historical accident, all Wren's large-scale secular commissions dated from after the 1680s. At the age of fifty his personal development, as was that of English architecture, was ready for a monumental but humane architecture, in which the scales of individual parts relates both to the whole and to the people who used them. The first large project Wren designed, the Chelsea Hospital, does not entirely satisfy the eye in this respect, but met its belief with such distinction and success that even in the twentyfirst century it fulfils its original function. The reconstruction of the state room at Windsor Castle was notable for the integration of architecture, sculpture, and painting. This commission was in the hand of Hugh May, who died in February, 1684, before the construction finished; Wren assumed his post and finalized the works.

Wren did not pursue his work on architectural design as actively as he had before the 1690s, although he still played important roles in a number of royal commissions. In 1696 he was appointed Surveyor of Greenwich Naval Hospital, and three years later Surveyor of Westminster Abbey. He resigned the former role in 1716 but held the latter until his death.

Achievement and reputation

At his death, Wren was 90. Even the men he had trained and who owed much of their success to Wren's original and leadership were no longer young. Newer generations of architects were beginning to look past Wren's style. The Baroque school his apprentices had created was already under fire from a new generation that brushed Wren’s reputation aside and looked back beyond him to Inigo Jones. Architects of the 18th century could not forget Wren, but they could not forgive some elements in his work they deemed unconventional. The churches left the strongest mark on subsequent architecture. In France, where English architecture rarely made much impression, the influence of St Paul's Cathedral can be seen in the church of Sainte-Geneviève (now the Panthéon); begun in 1757, it rises to a drum and dome similar to St Paul's, and there are other versions inspired by Wren's dome, from St Isaac's (1840-42) in St Petersburg to the US Capitol at Washington, D.C. (1855-65).

In the twentieth century the potency of the influence of Wren's work on English architecture was reduced. The last major architect who admitted to being dependent on him was Sir Edwin Lutyens, who died in 1944. With the purposeful elimination of historic influences from international architecture in the early 20th century, Wren's work gradually stopped being perceived as a mine of examples applicable to contemporary design.

Sir Christopher Wren was also a Freemason and Master of Lodge Original, No. 1, now the Lodge of Antiquity No. 2 "adopted" May 18, 1691.


Wren's tomb in St Paul's is marked by a plain stone plaque mounted on the wall in quiet corner of the Crypt.The inscription ends:


which translates as:

"Reader, if you seek his memorial - look around you."

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