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How Christopher Wren came to represent Britishness

Pamela Buxton

He may be one of Britain’s most celebrated architects, but initially Christopher Wren’s style was considered unfamiliar and un-English, Loyd Grossman pointed out during a debate on Wren’s international influence

St Stephen Walbrook and Fosters Bloomberg offices.
St Stephen Walbrook and Fosters Bloomberg offices. Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Will any of today’s architects be celebrated in centuries to come? That was just one of the provocations in a lively debate on the enduring influence and achievements of Christopher Wren, part of the Wren300 festival marking the tercentenary of his death in 1723.

The debate, organised by the World Monuments Fund and held in the Wren church of St Mary Aldermary in the City of London, explored how Wren’s style of architecture, and in particular St Paul’s Cathedral, came to represent Britishness both home and abroad.

Chaired by the Financial Times’s Edwin Heathcote, the debate opened by acknowledging Wren as a central figure in British architecture, and the continuing importance, even today, of St Paul’s to London’s skyline. He designed an astonishing 52 churches after the Great Fire of London as well as secular buildings, such as the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, and was surveyor-general of the King’s works for decades. Yet we heard that architecture was initially something of a sideline for Wren, a polymath who excelled as an astronomer before taking up the profession for which he is best known.

According to Annabelle Selldorf, the New York based architect currently upgrading the National Gallery in London, Wren’s architecture was not pure – instead, he absorbed multiple styles in a way that others could emulate.

Heathcote referred to him as combining Italian, Dutch and French influences in an architecture of English indecision.

Broadcaster Loyd Grossman – a former board member of English Heritage – described Wren as bringing an English lens to the emotionally expressive baroque style. However, this wasn’t acceptable to everyone initially. Grossman pointed out that some of Wren’s contemporaries were critical of his work and, interestingly given its later association with Englishness, thought it ‘unfamiliar and un-English’. Perhaps, this was due to what Grossman later described as England’s ‘domophobic society’.

Wren went on to become what Grossman calls the first ‘truly international architect’. In America alone, St Paul’s influence is felt in more than 30 state capitol buildings, becoming, somewhat ironically the national style of the republic.

Heathcote pointed out that, whereas the impact of the original cathedral came from ethereally rising above the dense urban fabric, in America, the context is very different, with the buildings surrounded by expanses of lawn and space.

Architectural historian Alex Bremner of the University of Edinburgh described how, in England, it took until the late 19th century for the rehabilitation of Wren’s reputation in the ‘Wrenaissance’ baroque revival. This led to ‘a cult of Wren’ from the 1880s, and his association with a quintessentially British style for export around the world as a symbol of national power and culture.

On the thorny matter of Wren’s influence on colonial architecture, Bremner described how Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were very much inspired by Wren in their work in India. While the influence is more subtle in the work of Lutyens, Baker apparently saw himself as ‘channelling Wren from past to the present’.

Inside St Mary Aldermary.
Inside St Mary Aldermary. Credit: Pamela Buxton

Grossman talked about the ‘huge push-back’ against the nationalistic architectural idiom produced by the British in India. Rather than viewed as beautiful architectural statements, architecture such as Lutyens’ New Delhi has become tainted by its colonial associations.

Yet, pointed out Bremner, these buildings haven’t been torn down and swept away, while there were plenty of cases where imperial symbols had been removed and the buildings reappropriated to give them new meaning.

Asked whether Wren is still relevant today, Grossman praised his ability to make you feel ‘excited, and uplifted and transformed’. Walking into a Wren church feels, he said, as if ‘you’re in the midst of some cosmic drama – and what more do you want?’

Special praise was reserved for the great charisma of St Paul’s. ‘You probably could make a good case for saying St Paul’s is possibly the most influential’ building in the world,’ said Grossman. ‘Certainly one of the most copied.’

Selldorf pointed out that influences can be spiritual rather than literal, praising Wren for his curious, voracious nature and for bringing a sense of excitement.

Heathcote felt that while Wren isn’t necessary admired by modern-day architects, who he feels are more likely to be interested in the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor or Inigo Jones, he is certainly appreciated by the public.

‘It could be that the architectural profession may sometimes overthink,’ commented Grossman. ‘You don’t need anyone to explain why Wren is fabulous.’

As for the question of which contemporary architects might be celebrated in a century or so to come, the otherwise forthright panellists were uncharacteristically coy. Instead, they cited early and mid-20th-century architects, with Grossman going for Charles Holden, Bremner for Lutyens, and Selldorf mentioning Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe.

‘If you can still be talked about in 100 or 200 years’ time, you’ve done something worthwhile,’ said Bremner.

Given both his impressive output and enduring influence, there can certainly be little doubt that Wren has thoroughly earned the ongoing national Wren300 festival of tours, exhibitions and events, celebrating not just Wren’s architecture, but his many other achievements.