Wren's "Tracts" on Architecture and Other Writings.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xvi + 63 pls. + 320 pp. $60.ISBN: 0-521-57369-6.
When Christopher Wren died he left a legacy of important buildings and a cache of unpublished writings. These letters to friends, reports on the buildings of London and tracts on architecture show Wren at his pragmatic and scientific best. Churches should be a benefit to the city, he wrote, and any religious symbolism should only be a secondary consideration to their urban situation. And architectural "novelties" will only blind the judgement of the architect to lasting beauty. Lydia Soo's new edition of Wren's public and private writings, with copious introductions and an interpretive essay, is a valuable contribution to the available literature on Wren and the scientific world of seventeenth-century England.
The earliest edition of Wren's writings were collected by his son Christopher Jr. and published in Parentalia; or, Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, in 1750. By means of this posthumous publication the younger Wren ensured the fame of his father by making his written works accessible to a wider audience. However, even in a new edition these writings are not necessarily going to make Wren and his architectural work any easier to understand within the history of architecture or science. As a founding member of the Royal Society, as well as an astronomy professor at Oxford, historian of architecture, and urban designer, Wren's polymath career is difficult to understand as a whole. The study of architecture was part science, politics, and antiquarian research in one; and its interdisciplinary demands were a perfect test case for scientific method.
As an architectural consultant for various building commissions, Wren provided expert testimony on the status of city buildings before and after the Great Fire of London. He took great pride in his scientific judgements of the condition of the medieval buildings, and throughout the reports is an historical and structural appreciation of Gothic building techniques. Gothic was the ancient style of England, and Wren's attention to the current state of medieval churches was urged by a scientific study of their structure, as from a nationalist interest in historical building. "Architecture has its political Use," according to Wren; and the restoration of older buildings is a duty of a just regime. Given a choice, however, Wren would argue for a classical building, even when that means masking a gothic structure in antique garb, as at the new St. Paul's. In its overt expression of mathematical proportion and references to ancient Roman culture, classicism was the favored style of the modern age.
Wren's approach to architecture as science was not new in England. In 1570 John Dee had included architecture in his taxonomy of disciplines that relied on experimental knowledge such as the precepts of Euclidean geometry. In Renaissance England architecture rose through the ranks of the disciplines through its association with science, mathematics, and perspective, and Christopher Wren continued this course by aligning architecture as a science rooted in ancient knowledge and practical experience.
In her extended essay on Wren's method of design, Lydia Soo emphasizes Wren's role in the Royal Society as a key to understanding his architectural writings and practice. Yet given the nature of architecture as a discipline of geometry, statics, and optics -- and Wren's expertise in these fields -- the connections should be more obvious than they are. For Soo also notes that Wren was willing to deviate or mask the structure if it would be more visually pleasing. The gothic vaults of St. Paul's were famously hid behind a classical parapet, and Tom Tower in Oxford and gothic London city churches suggest a self-consciousness about style that has yet to be explained. Part of this confusion in Wren's work must rest with a too modern notion of scientific knowledge in this period, on the cusp of great change yet still ensconced in the vital traditions of antique studies and precedent. Writings by Wren's colleagues in the Royal Society should be read for their comments on experimental philosophy and the natural worl d. For example, Robert Hooke's
Micrographia (1665) offers further insights into the study of architecture's material and visual pleasures, and should be included in any future study of Wren's place in the world of architectural science.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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