From as early as before the Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren was involved in architectural projects for St. Paul’s cathedral. The evolution of his designs for the new St Paul’s began with his ideas for the old; the evolution of his designs were a process of both creation and reinvention. Starting with the vision he never lost – of the London skyline marked by a grand dome landmark – he endured the problems of building such a complex structure and the short-sighted criticisms of the all-too traditional clergy through dedication and persistence.
In this essay I will analyze the evolution of his constant experiments which led up to the final design. Although only partial drawings and half of the original model remains, we have knowledge of what Wren’s intentions were for his first plans for the cathedral thanks to Roger Pratt’s criticisms. Pratt tells us that the cathedral was to consist only of a vaulted auditorium with a large domed vestibule at the west end of it; Pratt noted that it was an unusual plan in its of lack transepts or nave that you would expect to find in a cathedral.
The design, which Pratt says was made up of two disparate parts, was likely to be a practical rather than aesthetic solution. The clergy seemed to agree with Pratt’s criticisms and concluded that the design was “not stately enough. ” After the rejection of the First Model Wren returned to the drawing board, producing many drawings for “discourse sake. ” These designs mainly went in two directions: in one direction towards a cruciform church, similar to what Inigo Jones designed for the remodeling of the old St. Paul’s, and another toward a circular, Greek Cross set up. The most interesting product of these experiments was a design for a large centralized domed church; not unlike Bramante’s St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. This design consisted of a massive double-dome so large that every feature of the design is a product of the structural requirements of the dome. Four equal sized naves spread out from the central area under the dome, forming the shape of a Greek cross.
The Greek Cross Design was approved by the king in 1672, with an order to build a model so large that “a man might stand within it. ” Though his design had been approved by the king, Wren was not done experimenting. He altered the design of the Greek Cross Design to include a large library portico, along with a double-apsed domed vestibule to the west and a shallow apse to the choir. The Great Model design shows a building that would have been a testament to Wren’s artistic ability as much as it would be a church for practical use.
The model itself cost the equivalent of building a house and is considered one of the finest architectural models ever made. Wren was extremely proud of this design: Parentalia records that he placed a “higher value on this design, than any he had made before or since. ”1 Some in the Chapter and of the clergy, however, did not share his enthusiasm. Their objections are understandable: the church of England stressed the importance of a continuity of tradition, and the Great Model strayed far from it.
Popular conception saw the church as a directional building, consisting of a nave proceeding to a choir. Some thought the model was too Popish, too close to St Peter’s; others wanted to preserve the Latin cross plan. Another problem was that it would not allow the cathedral to be built in parts: since it was unclear at this time how the cathedral was to be financed, the Great Model – with its concentric central structure – had to be built as a whole, therefore, it was unpractical.
With the failure of the Great Model, Wren decided to play it safe with his next designs, returning to the cruciform basilican style he knew his employers preferred. During this period he produced a group of seven designs that share the same basilican layout as the design that received the final warrant: all these designs contain an octagonal crossing of eight equal arches and show us that, at this time, Wren was experimenting with different styles of domes. These include high, low, ancient, and modern domes.
The result of these experiments was the plan that was finally accepted by his critics. Called the Warrant design, the plan carries on the same octagon crossing – which open to the nave and aisles – he had been developing, deciding on a fluted dome, rising in six stages up to a timber spire. As odd as the resulting dome may have appeared, it is clear what Wren was trying to accomplish with it: it was to be a classical compromise to a gothic tower and spire. The influence of Inigo Jones’s pre-fire cathedral is very noticeably present in this design as it is essentially a gothic cathedral.
The Warrant plan satisfied the criteria the clergy looked for: it was traditional in both looks and in the way it was set up, and it could be built in parts and open to the public while the building was being carried out. Furthermore it had the kind of grand scale that a landmark of London must have. Despite this, the Warrant cathedral was never built and it is generally thought that he was already planning revisions before the plan was accepted. Because the Warrant design was not Wren’s most interesting plan, it is easy to wonder if he had created the design to please his critics rather than his own intellect.
In the context of the evolution of his designs so far we see that this may not be the case; the Warrant plan is most likely another design he experimented with for “discourse sake”, seeing which features would work and which features would not. Moreover, he had toyed with the idea of a gothic style cathedral even before his Great Model plan. Because of Wren’s continual revisions to its plan, the Warrant design has a very important place in the evolution of the execution of the final cathedral.
The process of these revisions can be seen first in the Penultimate design that followed and later in the Revised design. Wren’s first concern in his revision of the Warrant design had to do with its dome and its relationship with the rest of the cathedral. He started at the top by replacing the spire with a cupola. From here, the rest of the design of the dome was decided: because the weighty cupola needed structural support, he added flying buttresses under the aisle roofs. This alteration changed the thickness of the walls and the proportions of aisles.
For the central space, he decided against the octagon layout, and instead employed a more cylindrical plan. At the same time, he returned to the Great Model design for inspiration for the nave. To give the space a feeling of centrality and to make the length of the choir and nave equal with the length of a vestibule at the west end, as in the Great Model, he replaced the western bays of the nave by a single longer and wider bay. Although it is clear to see the improvements made with the Penultimate design, in Wren’s mind, there was still room for further improvement.
The Revised design – the final plan for the cathedral which was concocted little by little while the building was being built – answered any structural or aesthetic concerns. Wren still had not lost his vision for the massive dome that he had designed for the Great Model design. However, executing the dome posed structural challenges: because the current dome was 100 ft shorter than the current one, to impose the dome on the Penultimate design would cause the body to be overwhelmed.
His solution was to add screen walls; these would allow the dome to be as large as Wren desired it to be externally while also acting as a counter to any of the extra weight a larger dome would add to the building. They would also cover up the flying buttresses that were added during the Penultimate design stage, allowing these to be brought up to a higher and more effective angle. Another revision to the Penultimate design was the addition of the western body, which brought a change to the overall body of the church.
The addition extended the length of the nave, while widening the footprint of the cathedral. More interestingly, the western expansion brought the creation of the west towers and, with them, a Baroque feel to the cathedral. It is both unusual and remarkable to consider the fact that the definitive design was constructed without the use of a wooden model. Only the architect and a select few others had any knowledge of how it was to be completed.
We can understand his preference for keeping the design of the cathedral unfixed when we consider all the experimenting, altering, and the constraints that went into the development his designs. Wren clearly realized that, in order to have his way, he must work on it gradually and secretively. Since he organized the works in a way that he could continually revise them, he was given time to do this: the crypt was to be built first, which gave Wren several years before he had to submit detailed designs for the walls above ground in the east end, allowing for adjustments to be made.
The west end, too, would not be constructed for some time. His past ideas proved useful to the final design of the cathedral: the flexibility he had with his designs allowed him to return to his past ideas, reworking and incorporating them to fit his new ones. The evolution of Christopher Wren’s designs into the final product, as we have seen, was a slow process that was achieved through various experiments.