Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Wren the scientist
The greatest British architect of all time was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, in 1632, the son of the rector of Knoyle. Christopher Wren attended Westminster School and Wadham College, Oxford, where he graduated with a masters degree in 1651.

At this stage, Wren was a pure scientist (by the standards of the time) focusing on astronomy, physics, and anatomy. He experimented with submarine design, road paving, and design of telescopes. At the tender age of 25, he was offered the Chair of Astronomy at Gresham College, London.

In 1660 Wren was one of the founding members of the Society of Experimental Philosophy. In 1662, under the patronage of Charles II, this body became known as the Royal Society.

A first stab at architecture
It was not until 1663 that Wren tried his hand at architecture, and his first commission was literally the result of nepotism. His uncle, then Bishop of Ely, got him the job of designing Pembroke College Chapel at Cambridge University. Next was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, based on the classical design of the Roman Theatre of Marcellus. This was the work that made Wren's reputation as an architect.

Wren's plan for London
In 1666 Wren's plan for the reconstruction of St. Paul's Cathedral in London was accepted. Just six days later the Great Fire of London took matters out of Wren's hands by destroying the cathedral completely. Within days of the fire, Wren presented a plan to Charles for rebuilding the entire city of London along classical lines, with broad tree-lined avenues cutting through the former warren of twisting streets and alleys.

The churches of London
Such a drastic renovation was not surprisingly rejected, but Wren was appointed to be one of the architectural commissioners overseeing the rebuilding of the city. In this capacity, Wren designed and supervised the rebuilding of 51 city churches over the next 46 years. Each church was different, though all were classical in style. Wren evolved a uniquely British "wedding cake" style of steeple based on classical Roman temples. Part of Wren's success was due to his personal involvement in the work under his supervision. He insisted on the finest materials and a very high standard of workmanship.

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's was Wren's masterpiece. He submitted several designs - the "Great Model" of 1673 was his favourite, but the huge domed structure was rejected by the commissioners as too Catholic. Undeterred, Wren made a new plan which toned down the dome and topped it with a steeple. The royal warrant approving this design allowed for "variations, rather ornamental than essential." Wren exploited this loophole to perfection, gradually and surreptitiously slipping in many of his Great Model ideas without advertising the fact. By the time anyone realised what he had done, it was too late to change.

And more than churches...
Wren did far more than churches. He was responsible for Tom Tower at Christ's Church, Oxford, the library at Trinity College, and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. He also enlarged and remodelled Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, and the Naval Hospital at Greenwich. He is rightly regarded as the most influential British architect of all time.

See also:
Grinling Gibbons

St. Paul's Cathedral
Stuart London

Places to visit (historic attractions tagged with 'Christopher Wren')