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Sir Christopher Wren: The Architect Who Rebuilt London

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Christopher Wren's image in stained glass is a popular attraction at St. Lawrence Jewry

Wren's image in stained glass is a popular attraction at the rebuilt St. Lawrence Jewry

Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images © Epics/2010 Getty Images
After the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren designed new churches and supervised the reconstruction of some of London's most important buildings.

Born:

October 20, 1632 at East Knoyle in Wiltshire, England

Died:
February 25, 1723 in London, at age 91.

Tombstone Epitaph (translated from Latin):

"Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city; who lived beyond the age of ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good. If you seek his memorial, look about you."

Early Training of Christopher Wren:

Sickly as a child, Christopher Wren began his education at home with his father and a tutor. Schools attended:
  • Westminster School: Wren may have done some studies here between 1641 and 1646
  • Oxford: Began astronomy studies in 1649. Received B.A. in 1651, M.A. in 1653
After graduation, Christopher Wren worked on astronomy research and became a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London and later at Oxford.

As an astronomer, Christopher Wren developed exceptional skills working with models and diagrams, experimenting with creative ideas, and engaging in scientific reasoning.

First Buildings by Sir Christopher Wren:

In the seventeenth century, architecture was considered a pursuit that could be practiced by any gentleman educated in the field of mathematics. Christopher Wren began designing buildings when his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, asked him to plan a new chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge.
  • 1663-1665: New chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge
  • 1664-1668: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
King Charles II commissioned Christopher Wren to repair St. Paul's Cathedral. In May 1666, Wren submitted plans for a classical design with a high dome. Before this work could proceed, fire destroyed the Catheral and much of London.

Sir Christopher Wren and the Great Fire of London:

In September 1666, the "Great Fire of London" destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and most of London's official buildings.

Christopher Wren proposed an ambitious plan that would rebuild London with wide streets radiating from a central hub. Wren's plan failed, probably because property owners wanted to keep the same land they owned before the fire. However, Wren did design 51 new city churches and the new St Paul's Cathedral.

In 1669, King Charles II hired Christopher Wren to oversee reconstruction of all the royal works (government buildings).

Great Buildings by Sir Christopher Wren:

Architectural Style and Sir Christopher Wren:

  • Classical: Christopher Wren was familiar with the 1st Century Roman architect Vitruvius and the Renaissance thinker Giacomo da Vignola, who outlined Vitruvius's ideas in The Five Orders of Architecture (compare prices). Wren's first buildings were inspired by the classical works of English architect Inigo Jones.
  • Baroque: Early in his career, Christopher Wren traveled to Paris, studied French baroque architecture, and met the Italian Baroque architect Gianlorenzo Bernini.
Christopher Wren used baroque ideas with classical restraint. His style influenced Georgian architecture in England and the American colonies.

Scientific Achievements of Sir Christopher Wren:

Christopher Wren was trained as a mathematician and scientist. His research, experiments, and inventions won the praise of the great scientists Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. In addition to many important mathematical theories, Christopher Wren:
  • built a transparent beehive to help study bees
  • invented a weather clock similar to a barometer
  • invented an instrument for writing in the dark
  • developed improvements in the telescope and the microscope
  • experimented with injecting fluids into the veins of animals, laying the groundwork for successful blood transfusion
  • constructed a detailed model of the moon

Other Achievements of Sir Christopher Wren:

  • Knighted in 1673
  • Founded the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1680. Served as president from 1680 to 1682.
  • Served as a Member of Parliament for Old Windsor in 1680, 1689 and 1690.

Quotes by Sir Christopher Wren:

  • "A time will come when men will stretch out their eyes. They should see planets like our Earth."
  • "Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Commonwealth…. Architecture aims at Eternity."
  • "In things to be seen at once, much variety makes confusion, another vice of beauty. In things that are not seen at once, and have no respect one to another, great variety is commendable, provided this variety transgress not the rules of optics and geometry."
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