“Architecture aims at Eternity.”
Sir Christopher Wren, 91
Marvel is what you do when it comes to entering St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I’ve been to St. Paul’s several times, but some years ago on one of my solo missions to that city, I decided to make the climb into, what is in my mind, one of the most iconic architectural symbols of restoration and longevity – the dome. It’s worth taking time to climb slowly, if not for the sake of catching your breath, for sure for taking in the story told along the way including the one about the London Blitz in 1940-41.
Two hundred and fifty seven steps. And then, the vault of heaven appears – the Whispering Gallery. Maybe it was that brisk February day I chose to visit, but I sat there a long while practically alone up there and suddenly within the cool silence came what felt like a phantom whisper, and in that moment of marvel, it might as well have been a message from Wren. Of course the message was “take the 119 more steps to the Stone Gallery. This I did and outside on the dome was the view, London.
Yet domes are not all that makes up the architectural legacy of Christopher Wren. Spires too. After the Great Fire of 1666, Wren rebuilt fifty-one churches in the City in addition to St. Paul’s, of which about half still stand, even if rebuilt or restored. Call it my overactive imagination, but on a busy and noisy City weekday, popping into some of these churches can actually be so quiet that the current century tends to shrink and silence takes you into that Wren era of rebuilding.
Even now, this is one of the legacies Wren, perhaps intentionally, left us – these ancient silent spaces for a modern world in constant rebuilding. Silent until the organ plays and then the grandeur rises through the sound. On a Grander Scale by Lisa Jardine (2002) is a worthwhile read about the man who was much more than all his well-known churches and other buildings. His talents as a mathematician, astronomer and founder of the Royal Society still don’t cover the measure of his genius.
And let us not forget – vision; one of those inner gifts that all architects possess, that gift handed down in tangible ways, as if Brunelleschi finger tipped Wren who tipped Louis Khan who tipped a next generation. If we don’t quite make Wren’s eternity, let’s at best say that while on earth we did ascend and transcend through the gifts of spire and dome, of line and curve. A hopeful note for a new year.