Christopher Wren

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Sir Christopher Wren (1632—1723) was the great English architect working in the classical tradition.

The son of a clergyman, he received his university education at Wadham College, Oxford, then under the wardenship of John Wilkins, one of the leading members of the scientific movement which led to the foundation of the Royal Society. He collaborated with Wilkins on designing scientific equipment and on astronomy. In 1657, under the English Commonwealth, he was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London, and in 1661, under the restored monarchy, Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford; but by this time he was also studying architecture. In 1665 he travelled to France (the only known time he left England) to meet Bernini and other architects, and to buy many architectural engravings. His first major work was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, begun in 1664.

In 1666, Wren was appointed one of a commission to report on the repair of St Paul's Cathedral, and on 27 August, John Evelyn's diary reports that he and other members of the commission went there to inspect it. Evelyn continues: "We found the maine building to receede outward: It was Mr Chichley's and Prats opinion that it had ben so built ab origine for an effect in Perspective, in reguard of the height; but I was with Dr. Wren quite of another judgement, as indeede ridiculous, & so we entered it . . . . When we came to the Steeple, it was deliberated whither it were not well enought to repaire it onely upon its old foundation, with reservation to the 4 Pillars: This Mr Chichley and Prat were also for; but we totally rejected it & persisted that it required a new foundation, not onely in reguard of the necessitie, but for that the shape of what stood was very meane, & we had a mind to build it with a noble Cupola, a forme of church building, not as yet knowne in England, but of wonderfull grace." But on 7 September, Evelyn was also recording in his diary that the building had been totally destroyed in the Great Fire of London, along with much of the city.

In 1669 Wren was appointed Surveyor of the King's Works. His plan for the rebuilding of the City of London had been defeated by property interests, but in 1670 he began to make his mark on the buildings through the rebuilding of the churches destroyed by the fire. He provided the basic plan for 55 of the churches, with the details left to others, this being made possible because classical architecture had been sufficiently established in England by Inigo Jones to provide enough practitioners. He later designed most of the steeples, uniting a Gothic concept with classical conventions.

Wren's first model for St Paul's was produced in 1673, the year in which he was knighted. A "final" design was approved in 1675, but Wren immediately set about modifying it, thought the basic plan was carried out. He feared that if he started in the usual way, with the east end, the cathedral would remain uncompleted, through lack of will to raise the necessary money, and he therefore began at the west. The final part was the dome, with the structural support for its lantern hidden between an inner and an outer shell. Parliament declared the building complete in 1711, enabling Wren to be paid in full.

Meanwhile he had accepted and completed other commissions in various parts of the country. His last major work was the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, who were to carry on his school (in Vanbrugh's case with great flamboyance). Wren's son wrote his memorial in the St Paul's cathedral: "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" (if you wonder where his monument is, look around).