March 29: of grand churches and fancy cuffs

2012/03/29 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1669 Christopher Wren was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works.

Wren (1632-1723) was one of the great minds of the Enlightenment, a time that had plenty of contenders for top honors.  Even then, Wren was acknowledged as One Of The Greats (when Isaac Newton says you’ve got game, you’ve got game).  In addition to his day job at Oxford, where he was a Professor of Astronomy, Wren dabbled in matters of taste enough to attract the attention of the people planning a new auditorium for the University.  He whipped off the Sheldonian Theatre (1664)–part recast Roman theatre, part super-high-tech trusswork–in between bits of scone at tea one day. And voilà (or perhaps, given the location, we should say, Bob’s your uncle), a new path in architecture opened up to him.  And the rest of us.

Wren was appointed to the highest architecture-related post in the realm in 1669 when the city of London was rebuilding after the disastrous fire of three years earlier.  The position, which basically put a single person in charge of all the royal buildings everywhere, had roots in the sixteenth century.  Reflecting the rather fluid state of the non-profession of architecture at the time, it had been held by an interesting group of blokes: a poet, someone otherwise titled Master of the Revels, at least a few sort-of architects and at least one real one (Inigo Jones).  Wren came to the position as a scientist, someone who could think analytically about problems and find efficient solutions.  Whereas that approach could lend itself to terrible things when the cause of “efficiency” and “rationality” bleeds the “delight” and “beauty” out of a building, Wren used both sides of his brains (and no doubt, much of its territory that is unknown land to most of us).  He was a great student of history as well as a traveler.  With his broad experience and vast mental skills designed a collection of fifty-one parish churches that, with St. Paul’s, are the most famous part of his built legacy.  Cut of the same aesthetic cloth, they are all unique, reveal a rich interpretation of Classical aesthetics with extraordinary structural design that rarely ceases to impress: the lofty billowing interiors are rarely even hinted at from the dour, sturdy exteriors (here’s a brief tour of less than 10% of them: herehere, here, here and of course here).

And he made it look so easy.  The Kneller portrait captures the grace and aplomb and, one must admit, swagger, that Wren possessed.  Frank Lloyd Wright may have famously crowed about shaking building designs out of his sleeves, but we know the truth, and still see him in our mind’s eye balancing on his tippy-toes to reach his drafting table, sweating over each eave detail.  No such boast is recorded by Wren, who simply turned his massive grey matter to solving the problem and imagining the possibilities, had another cup of tea, and churches fell from his cuffs.  And what fine cuffs they were.

Image: Portrait of Wren by Godfrey Kneller, 1711 (from this source)

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