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WREN, Christopher

  • 1 Wren, Sir Christopher

    b. 20 October 1632 East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England
    d. 25 February 1723 London, England
    English architect whose background in scientific research and achievement enhanced his handling of many near-intractable architectural problems.
    Born into a High Church and Royalist family, the young Wren early showed outstanding intellectual ability and at Oxford in 1654 was described as "that miracle of a youth". Educated at Westminster School, he went up to Oxford, where he graduated at the age of 19 and obtained his master's degree two years later. From this time onwards his interests were in science, primarily astronomy but also physics, engineering and meteorology. While still at college he developed theories about and experimentally solved some fifty varied problems. At the age of 25 Wren was appointed to the Chair of Astronomy at Gresham College in London, but he soon returned to Oxford as Savilian Professor of Astronomy there. At the same time he became one of the founder members of the Society of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, which was awarded its Royal Charter soon after the Restoration of 1660; Wren, together with such men as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, John Evelyn and Robert Boyle, then found himself a member of the Royal Society.
    Wren's architectural career began with the classical chapel that he built, at the request of his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, for Pembroke College, Cambridge (1663). From this time onwards, until he died at the age of 91, he was fully occupied with a wide and taxing variety of architectural problems which he faced in the execution of all the great building schemes of the day. His scientific background and inventive mind stood him in good stead in solving such difficulties with an often unusual approach and concept. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his rebuilding of fifty-one churches in the City of London after the Great Fire, in the construction of the new St Paul's Cathedral and in the grand layout of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.
    The first instance of Wren's approach to constructional problems was in his building of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (1664–9). He based his design upon that of the Roman Theatre of Marcellus (13–11 BC), which he had studied from drawings in Serlio's book of architecture. Wren's reputation as an architect was greatly enhanced by his solution to the roofing problem here. The original theatre in Rome, like all Roman-theatres, was a circular building open to the sky; this would be unsuitable in the climate of Oxford and Wren wished to cover the English counterpart without using supporting columns, which would have obscured the view of the stage. He solved this difficulty mathematically, with the aid of his colleague Dr Wallis, the Professor of Geometry, by means of a timber-trussed roof supporting a painted ceiling which represented the open sky.
    The City of London's churches were rebuilt over a period of nearly fifty years; the first to be completed and reopened was St Mary-at-Hill in 1676, and the last St Michael Cornhill in 1722, when Wren was 89. They had to be rebuilt upon the original medieval sites and they illustrate, perhaps more clearly than any other examples of Wren's work, the fertility of his imagination and his ability to solve the most intractable problems of site, limitation of space and variation in style and material. None of the churches is like any other. Of the varied sites, few are level or possess right-angled corners or parallel sides of equal length, and nearly all were hedged in by other, often larger, buildings. Nowhere is his versatility and inventiveness shown more clearly than in his designs for the steeples. There was no English precedent for a classical steeple, though he did draw upon the Dutch examples of the 1630s, because the London examples had been medieval, therefore Roman Catholic and Gothic, churches. Many of Wren's steeples are, therefore, Gothic steeples in classical dress, but many were of the greatest originality and delicate beauty: for example, St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside; the "wedding cake" St Bride in Fleet Street; and the temple diminuendo concept of Christ Church in Newgate Street.
    In St Paul's Cathedral Wren showed his ingenuity in adapting the incongruous Royal Warrant Design of 1675. Among his gradual and successful amendments were the intriguing upper lighting of his two-storey choir and the supporting of the lantern by a brick cone inserted between the inner and outer dome shells. The layout of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich illustrates Wren's qualities as an overall large-scale planner and designer. His terms of reference insisted upon the incorporation of the earlier existing Queen's House, erected by Inigo Jones, and of John Webb's King Charles II block. The Queen's House, in particular, created a difficult problem as its smaller size rendered it out of scale with the newer structures. Wren's solution was to make it the focal centre of a great vista between the main flanking larger buildings; this was a masterstroke.
    Principal Honours and Distinctions
    Knighted 1673. President, Royal Society 1681–3. Member of Parliament 1685–7 and 1701–2. Surveyor, Greenwich Hospital 1696. Surveyor, Westminster Abbey 1699.
    Surveyor-General 1669–1712.
    Further Reading
    R.Dutton, 1951, The Age of Wren, Batsford.
    M.Briggs, 1953, Wren the Incomparable, Allen \& Unwin. M.Whinney, 1971, Wren, Thames \& Hudson.
    K.Downes, 1971, Christopher Wren, Allen Lane.
    G.Beard, 1982, The Work of Sir Christopher Wren, Bartholomew.

    Biographical history of technology > Wren, Sir Christopher

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