It was a self-taught man, of all people, who was to become one of the most famous British architects. Christopher Wren’s name is synonymous with London’s largest church, St Paul’s Cathedral, which kept its builder occupied for 35 years. At the age of 78, Wren had the great good fortune to see the completion of the building—quite an achievement, in view of its built surface area of more than 8,000 square meters.
At an early age, Christopher Wren, who grew up in a rural area of Wiltshire in the southwest of England, became enthusiastic about the sciences. After studying at Oxford, he began a professorship in London, and taught astronomy there and later in Oxford. That he was entrusted with building or restoring almost 50 churches, Wren owed not only to his talent, but also to a tragic accident. In September 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for four days and four nights.
After the devastating fire, a huge program of rebuilding was speedily undertaken: 13,200 houses and 87 parish churches needed to be replaced. At this point in time, Wren had already become known with his first designs and buildings, and this was his opportunity to make his mark in the capital on a grand scale. Two years after the Great Fire, the self-taught architect was asked to draft a plan for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, for this church dedicated to the Apostle Paul had also fallen victim to the fire.
Wren suggested a central-plan building, such as was known in the Italian High Renaissance, but the clients rejected the proposal as being too daring (too Catholic) for a major Protestant church. Patience was the watchword over the years that followed, and it was not until 1675 that Wren’s design, meanwhile greatly modified, found acceptance.
A Versatile Master Builder
In the meantime Wren had finally decided in favor of architecture and against his post of professor of astronomy. His courage was rewarded by a plethora of commissions; in 1677 almost 30 of his designs were being executed at the same time. For St Paul’s, Wren relied on two quite different traditions, for he was able to draw on Renaissance architecture as much as on Baroque. The facade with two towers and a vestibule, supported by columns and crowned by a pediment, is reminiscent of classical temple frontages as Palladio too invoked them. In the interior, the space, arranged on a cruciform ground plan, opens upwards into a high cupola—Wren’s trademark and, for a long time, a symbol of London.
Despite all the life-blood that the master builder dedicated to his grand project, other commissions received due attention. Wren remained attached to Oxford, where he had studied and later taught, as can be seen in the Sheldonian Theatre, St John’s College, and Christ Church Tower. In Cambridge he designed, among other buildings, the library of Trinity College, and when he died in London at the venerable age of 91 he could also number among his buildings several palaces and hospitals he had built to royal commissions.