Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theater

October 25, 2014

Born in 1632, Christopher Wren is best known as the architect of St. Paul’s in London, itself a complex intersection of rationalist geometries, structural sleights of hand, and classical facades concealing Gothic plans and techniques. For that matter, St. Stephen’s Walbrook, of Wren’s 51 (or so) churches, is one of the most charming in its surprising ability to make a seemingly oversized plaster dome rest with unanticipated comfort on what seem like a few  casually placed columns.

 

But it is at the Sheldonian, his first major project, where Wren weaves the multivalent qualities that most lucidly express his architectural hand and mind. The theater is the ceremonial hall for Oxford University. Students officially matriculate and graduate there, with all variety of official ceremonies and assemblies taking place in between, as they have since its construction. The gift of Gilbert Sheldon, who was Warden of All Souls College then the Archbishop of Canterbury, the building seemed necessary as a proprietary secular space to replace borrowed ecclesiastical ones.

 

Wren, meanwhile, was famously not even an intentional architect at first. He began as an astronomer and mathematician, fields in which he made a significant reputation as a young man–Newton and Pascal admired his work. He became Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661.

 

Architecture was for him as it was for Jefferson, a gentleman’s pursuit that suited a curious intellect. But it would also combine well with his notoriety in royal and aristocratic circles. He was invited to examine and suggest repairs to St. Pauls’ as early as 1661. Complete architectural commissions were soon to follow. He became Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1669 and was officially appointed to redesign St. Paul’s in 1673, following the notorious and fateful fire of 1666, which brought him those dozens of church commissions as well. His career would fill with other major royals commissions, yet the Sheldonian Theater has a particular blissful clarity.

 

In the Sheldonian Theater, Wren was all to happy demonstrate the breadth of his knowledge. Clearly, he had studied the forms of Roman examples such as the Theater of Marcellus, whose D-shaped plan and sloping tiers of seating were instructive. Likewise, he had clearly examined Italian examples of Alberti, Palladio, and Maderno in layering a three bay façade over a five bay façade (or was it seven?), complete with keystones, arches, swags, and foliated Corinthian capitals. But a pronounced British fussiness persists. It seems more the product of intention than of lack of exactitude.

 

In the north theater side of the building, his precise, geometricizing tendencies materialize in a faceted rather than purely curved enclosure. Likewise, though his grasp of classical architecture is apparent in the combination of arches and rustication, the partially blind windows at ground level are unusual, and the oval dormer windows at the top, now gone, were even moreso. 

 

The roof was a particular tour de force, with a network of lateral and radiused truss girders, which allow the interior to be column free (except for the balconies). Ceiling murals, by Robert Streeter, have recently been restored to great acclaim.  

 

Wren’s philosophy that architecture was a combination of customary beauty and rational beauty is a staple of French theory of this time, learned from texts as well as his travels to Paris in 1665.

The man who was best known for his cathedral and his churches was in fact a rationalist whose works were at least as resonant in secular applications. The fluent architectural classicist spoke that language from the viewpoint of expression rather than simply rule. The master architect and builder came to the profession and enriched it only by having a deeply universal sense of the relevance of science through astronomy and its applicability to all human endeavors. The poetic Neo-Platonic musings of Renaissance architecture maintained their beauty while taking on assured astronomical precision in Wren’s Baroque.

 

In a profession when so many admired designers through the ages have created beautiful works that are compromised by structural deficiencies, it is a delight to see one that is durable and lasting precisely because the designer built it with an innovative (and expensive) structure and not despite that phenomenon. 

 

The end of Wren’s epitaph is “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” That could refer to St. Pauls’ where he is buried and greater London where so many of his churches remain.

It might just as easily have said, reader, if you seek his monument, consider the advancement of architecture. Its status as  science and art in a secular world is more vivid in the Sheldonian Theater than it was in any building before.  

 

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