Sir Christopher Wren

I was asked last night to speak at the annual dinner of The Worshipful Company of Architects about Christopher Wren, whose tercentenary we are about to celebrate on February 25th.

It is not easy to condense what one knows about someone who lived to the age of ninety two into eight minutes, but what follows was my attempt:-

• I have been encouraged to say something about Sir Christopher Wren, the three hundredth anniversary of whose death we will commemorate next month, on February 25th, exactly three hundred years after Wren sat down in an armchair of the house he had leased in St. James’s Street after lunch, having caught a chill on his way travelling from Hampton Court, where he had retired after leaving the Office of Works.   His servant came in later in the afternoon and found him dead.  

• Wren had spent most of the previous five years thinking not so much about issues of architecture as about Longitude, the problems of which he had not been able to solve and wanted to before he died.   In some ways, he remained at heart the scientist he had originally been, before being persuaded to switch to architecture by Charles II.

• The issues I want to consider very briefly are:- What sort of man was Christopher Wren ? And what is it about Wren’s career which makes it so worth paying attention to three hundred years later ?

• The first thing is that he was pretty, although not entirely, philosophical about changes in taste, the changed attitude to design which made his way of working seem old-fashioned, too much influenced by the court, by the time of his death.   Instead of getting upset about the fact that he had been removed from his office after fifty years of devoted royal and public service, he settled down with his son to provide a detailed documentary record of all his work, later published in 1750 by his grandson, Stephen Wren, under the title Parentalia, which includes full details not just of his architectural work, but also his scientific experiments early in his career when he was a Fellow of All Souls and Gresham Professor of Astronomy, together with drafts of his ideas about architecture.   He understood the importance of documentation to any future interpretation of his career and he wanted to make sure that there was plenty of evidence for his achievements.

• The second thing worth paying close attention to about Wren and his career was how immensely pragmatic he was.   If one looks at the repeated changes in the design of St. Paul’s, one can see Wren shifting and adapting according to the requirements of his clients, the cathedral clergy, who wanted a design which was much more conservative than what Wren proposed in his Great Model in September 1674.   Even though he would probably himself have much preferred the design represented by the Great Model, still extant and housed at St. Paul’s, he accepted the criticism of the clergy, who felt that the Model was insufficiently Cathedral-like, and he produced a new and adapted design, the so-called Warrant Design, which had a more conventional nave and choir, although still with a great dome which had been at the heart of all of Wren’s proposals from the beginning, even before the Great Fire had destroyed the old St. Paul’s.  

• Although Wren was immensely able and could occasionally show traces of impatience, as when he decided to make no more models of St. Paul’s because he did not wish to have to submit his drawing to those he regarded as ‘incompetent Judges’, he was willing to subordinate his ego in a way which was highly admirable.   He did not regard himself as what we would describe as a ‘star architect’.   He worked closely with those around him, including John Vanbrugh.

• The third thing which is very admirable about Wren is his sense of the city as a whole.   He was a London person.   He threw himself into the redesign of London after the Great Fire, submitting designs to the King for wider and straighter streets and a proper quayside — his plans were based on what he had seen the previous year in Paris — only about four days after the fire had ended.   His plans were thwarted by the desire of the citizens of London to reconstruct the City as fast as possible, based on existing property rights, without going through the huge legal complexities of renegotiating them.   But Wren kept a sense of the way that architecture can, and should, contribute to its surroundings.   St. Paul’s is designed as much as a civic and national monument as it is a holy place, which is probably why it still maintains such a strong hold on the national imagination.   His work on the City Churches was in many ways severely practical, but he allowed for a spirit of free invention in the design of the church towers and spires which would be visible from a distance, as demonstrated in engravings of the City’s skyline.  

• Wren wasn’t remotely interested in the design of country houses.   He wanted to improve the working of the City — its palaces, its hospitals, above all, its churches — and he undertook his work without any particular need for personal enrichment, going to visit St. Paul’s every Saturday to inspect how work was getting on.   He worked as part of a team.   It was the result which was important.

• So, I hope you will all agree that Wren was, in every way, a very remarkable person.   Someone of acute intellect;  an effective draughtsman;  brilliant at problem solving;  but, also, oddly and unusually modest, willing to subordinate his ego to the task at hand.  

• I would now ask you to raise your glasses to salute the memory of Sir Christopher Wren.

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