Sir Christopher Wren was one of Britain’s most remarkable renaissance men. Prior to his intellect being drawn to the topic of architecture in his early 30s, he had studied Latin, philosophy, all aspects of mathematics, anatomy, surveying, mechanics, optics and meteorology. He had been Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College and subsequently, Savillian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. He was one of the founder members and early Presidents of the Royal Society. In 1665, he had been asked to consider the renovation of the neglected St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London and visited the Paris of Louis XIV to learn more about his new area of study. He returned to London in 1666 only days before the Great Fire consumed most of the City. Out of disaster came opportunity. Right place, right time, Wren’s return was like the cavalry coming to the rescue and he seized the moment. Within days, he had proposed an urban plan for reconstruction. This was rejected but the Restoration King Charles II did appoint him to design a new cathedral. His symbolic masterpiece, St. Paul’s, was completed thirty-six years after his first iterative drawings and models. He was the first architect to witness the completion of a cathedral designed by his own hand within his long ninety-one-year lifetime. Over the ensuing decades, Wren would also be responsible for the reconstruction of fifty-one city churches.
One of the finest of these is the less visited yet inspirational masterpiece of geometry, structure and light, St. Stephen Walbrook. It is an uplifting use of an hour to contemplate, explore from every angle and absorb Wren’s genius of intimate ecclesiastical space. The ingenuity of how light is captured at every corner despite the constraints of the hemmed in site is miraculous. The resolution via the use of indented corners that achieves the transition from the square of the plan to the octagon that supports the circular springing point for the dome is sublime. This apparently simple but complex layering exhibits the depth and clarity of Wren’s applied geometric vision. These indented corners inhale clear white light that defines the texture and understated decorative details of the coffered dome surface. The tall dark oak dado panelling connects wall to floor. This stark contrast of tone defines and exaggerates the slenderness of the multiple white stone columns. It is one of the most intimately uplifting of spiritual spaces, a masterwork of clear conceptual vision, understanding of geometry and structure, invocation of light, restrained palette of materials, understated decoration and inviting human scale. The vertical view into the dome draws the eye to one of the most beautiful ceilings in the world. It is as close as man can construct the celestial sky above our world. It was and is pure poetry of space. The combined architectural vision of a brilliant astronomer and mathematician.
By 1669, Wren had been appointed “Surveyor of King’s Works”. Charles had been in exile in Paris during the Parliamentarian era and given sanctuary by his cousin, Louis XIV. On 24th May 1670, Louis’ ordinance inaugurated the construction of the Hôtel des Invalides for the respite care of elderly, injured or infirm soldiers who had served the Crown. Charles II was impressed by his cousin’s gesture of respect and in December 1681 appointed Wren to design the Royal Hospital for the same purpose on an expansive site on the banks of the river Thames at Chelsea. By the time of this major secular commission, the climate of architectural opinion in England was calling for a more pragmatic purpose related style. Charles was in the last years of his life, then there was the short-lived tenure of James II, before William of Orange acceded to the Throne. The beginning of the eighteenth century saw a call for an architectural style that was more emblematic of English character, expressive of the purpose and the people. The Royal Hospital Chelsea acknowledged this more pragmatic, less flamboyant style. Its formal courtyards vary in scale and it is built in a dark brown brick with red brick details. The only use of Portland stone is at the central porticos and south cloister that connects and provides covered protection between the two “Long Ward” wings, the Great Hall and Chapel via the Octagon. The Long Wards have for three hundred years provided the sleeping accommodation for the in-pensioners. These identical wings have tall windows that illuminate the wide circulation space that enables conversation and encourages the interactive time to linger. The sleeping spaces are within carved oak carols by the greatest of English wood carvers, Grinling Gibbons. Another pragmatic Englishness of the design is that the ground, first and second floors break classical rules of fenestration scale by having window openings of equal proportion at each level. The use and function at each floor is the same and hence are gifted the same generous ceiling heights, the luxury of penetrating daylight and ample fresh air for the benefit of the in-pensioners who are the fortunate residents. This appears entirely logical but broke radically from systems of classical proportion. The rarest attribute of the RHC is that it has been in the same secular use for over three hundred years. Not many architects or their buildings can claim that singular success.