For most Londoners their city is entwined with the artwork of Christopher Wren. When London was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666, it was Wren who rebuilt the entire city, searching for a way to bring elegance and tenderness to a burgeoning metropolis. It is this humanity about Christopher Wren’s architectural designs that speaks to me. This is why, every time I visit London, England, I make a beeline towards his ultimate masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Perhaps it is the seamless way Wren mingles eastern curves with western straight symmetry. Perhaps it is the way the interior of his constructions play with innovative designs borrowed from the classical Romans. Perhaps it is the way he blends refinement and gaudiness for a look that is purely English. More likely it is a summation of these qualities that not only makes me an admirer of Christopher Wren’s talents, but also endears the city of London to me.
London, after all, is a large and sprawling metropolis with no true center. Its political heart, Westminster, and its financial district are loosely tied by various disparate districts that have grown and welded together through centuries of turbulent history. I always search for a way to personalize the city, to make it more approachable so that I can become more intimate with it. Wren’s designs help me do this throughout the city because his works exude a true sense of the English character.
A Wren Entrance
Take for instance Wren’s rebuilding of Temple Bar. An important entrance into the city walls, Temple Bar was originally constructed in the Middle Ages to help manipulate the flow of trade in and out of London. Although it was one of the few landmarks not to be destroyed by the Fire of 1666, Wren decided to rebuild the gateway into a more imposing structure that befit Renaissance of London. I feel a sense of gravitas walking through Temple Bar that is consistent with one of Europe’s most important cities and this is due to Wren’s use of rusticated columns and Roman style statue façade. Wren placed the right amount of solemnity into a gateway that in his day connected London’s political and commercial centers.
Wren’s Palace Fit for a King
In many ways Hampton Court Palace in suburban London has a Jekyll-and-Hyde appearance, incongruous to every other English icon. Hampton was a Tudor behemoth which Wren only half managed to revamp before his death. To me, this monarchial residence shows how he brought the somber mood of the Tudor period into the Renaissance light of the seventeenth century. Wren’s half of Hampton Court Palace bespeaks a worldly view of English architecture. The elegance of the palace’s bright red and white trim façade, its practical symmetry of window, door, and arcade lines, and its classical overall aspect furnish me with what England represents: restrained beauty with moments of eccentricity in equal measure.
Architects agree that the culmination of English Renaissance lies in Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Its pagoda inspired dome and Roman columns have lent London an international flair since the seventeenth century. Whenever I catch sight of St. Paul it beckons like a beacon, reminding me that I am in London, a city where the past and the future interweave so easily. The cathedral’s gracefulness, the regularity of its Corinthian columns, the magic of its whispering gallery, these features Wren designed continue to fascinate me with their complexity. To me, St. Paul’s is the final reward in London’s architectural fusion. It anchors the city and helps me digest the rich urban landscape London continues to grow into.
Keep Calm and Wren On
Christopher Wren was more than a major architect, he was integral to raising the city from the ashes and inspiring Londoners to embrace resilience. While the Great Fire of 1666 was a devastating tragedy for the city, it became a historic turning point for Wren. From tragedy, Sir Christopher recreated London into a new personality, allowing Londoners to enter into the Renaissance on their own terms. “Keep Calm and Carry On” would have been words dear to Christopher Wren’s heart. He believed that architecture could transform a city and influence its inhabitants. In my exploration of London, I am constantly inspired by Christopher Wren’s spirit and his ability to personalize this complex city.
A talented mathematician, Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for rebuilding over fifty churches and cathedrals in London as well as the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Wren’s impact on the city can be seen from the windowed arches of Oxford University to the rusticated bricks of Marlborough House.
You can read “Cities of Kings” to find out who fashioned this epic city into its sophisticated network.