Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), English architect, scientist, and mathematician, who is considered his country's foremost architect. His work, in a simple version of the baroque style, displayed great inventiveness in design and engineering. The Wren style strongly influenced English architecture in the Georgian period and its colonial version in America.
Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on October 20, 1632, the son of a clergyman. He was a precocious child with remarkable talent for science and mathematics and had already invented numerous scientific devices before the age of 14, when he was admitted to Wadham College, University of Oxford. While still a student, he made several original contributions in mathematics, winning immediate acclaim. In 1657, after serving as a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford, he was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. Three years later he returned to Oxford to accept the post of Savilian professor of astronomy.
Already famous as a scientist and mathematician, Wren started his career as an architect at the age of 29. Until then he had displayed no practical interest in architecture, but his reputation brought him an unsolicited court appointment as assistant to the surveyor general in charge of the repair and upkeep of public buildings. Thereafter Wren devoted himself to the study of architecture with increasing enthusiasm. His earliest work included designs for several new structures at Oxford and at Cambridge. His first building, the Pembroke College Chapel, was completed in 1665 at Cambridge. The designs of this period reflected the classical influence of the English architect Inigo Jones. In 1665 Wren visited Paris to study French baroque architecture and met such leading European architects as Gianlorenzo Bernini, a chief exponent of Italian baroque, who exerted an important influence on Wren's subsequent work.
After his return to England, the fire of 1666 burned the oldest part of London. Within a few days Wren submitted a brilliant plan for rebuilding the area. The plan anticipated many of the features of modern city planning, but it was rejected because of property disputes. In 1667 he was appointed deputy surveyor general for the reconstruction of Saint Paul's Cathedral, numerous parish churches, and other buildings destroyed by the fire. Two years later he received the coveted post of surveyor of the royal works, a position that gave him control of all government building in Britain. He held this position for the following 50 years.
Wren's designs for St. Paul's Cathedral were accepted in 1675, and he superintended the building of the vast baroque structure until its completion in 1710. It ranks as one of the world's most imposing domed edifices. He also designed more than 50 churches, many of them, such as Saint Mary-le-Bow (1671-77) in London, famous for their towers and graceful spires. They include Saint Stephen's, Walbrook; Saint Clement Dane's, the Strand; and Saint James's, Piccadilly. Among his secular buildings still in existence are the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford (1664-69), the Trinity College library at Cambridge (1677-92), and the facade for Hampton Court Palace (1689-94). He also built the Chelsea Hospital (1682), the Greenwich Observatory (1675), and the Greenwich Hospital (1696). He planned an important palace at Whitehall, which was never built.
Wren had a mathematician's sense of proportion, as seen in the dome of St. Paul's. He also had a baroque sense of the dramatic and a good craftsman's insistence on quality in the execution of classical decorative detail.
Wren's architectural achievements have obscured his extraordinary contributions in science. Among his inventions were a weather clock comparable to the modern barometer and new methods of engraving and etching. His biological experiments, in which he injected fluids into the veins of animals, were important in developing blood transfusion.
Wren was knighted in 1673; he subsequently served for many years as a member of Parliament. One of the founders of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, he became its president in 1680. He died in London, on February 25, 1723, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. Near his tomb is a tablet inscribed with his epitaph, which ends with the following famous words: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (“If you seek his monument, look about you”).