A walking tour of Christopher Wren architecture in the City of London

A walking tour of Christopher Wren architecture in the City of London

Take an architectural walking tour in the City of London to see some highlights from our Christopher Wren London Map with map author Owen Hopkins, architectural writer, curator and Director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University. The tour starts at St Paul’s Cathedral and ends at Wren’s most celebrated church, St Stephen Wallbrook.

St Paul's CathedralSt Paul's Cathedral. Photography: Nigel Green

St Paul’s Cathedral

Where else to begin than St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, yet the building that stands today is actually the result of a series of compromises. Wren had originally wanted a classical centralised plan on the model of St Peter’s in Rome. And his preferred design – the ‘Great Model’ design – so named after the massive model created of it which survives and can actually be visited in the present cathedral’s ‘Trophy Room’ – would certainly have been its rival in scale and magnificence. However, the clergy preferred a traditional longitudinal plan along medieval lines.

Wren's solution was, in effect, to combine these two opposing approaches, something which took all his invention and ingenuity: from the first-floor screen walls on the perimeter, which hide the building's traditional section, to the three-in-one structure of the dome which avoids a tunnel effect when looking up from the inside while ensuring it has the requisite scale and presence on the skyline. While the building is full of moments of classical harmony and order, not least the dome – surely the most perfect ever created – for me, it’s actually these compromises that give the cathedral its energy and vigour.

Temple Bar

If you enter St Paul’s Cathedral and follow the visitor route, you will exit via the crypt. As you reach the top of the stairs, you will see straight in front of you the next stop on the tour: Temple Bar.

But, this wasn’t Temple Bar’s original location. It originally stood at the intersection of Fleet Street and Strand, marking the ceremonial threshold between the Cities of Westminster and London. The previous Temple Bar had escaped the Great Fire but it was decided to rebuild it anyway and to reimagine it as a celebration of the Stuart dynasty. On the side facing Paternoster Square are statues of James I and his queen consort Anne of Denmark, while facing St Paul’s are his son Charles I, whose execution in 1649 ushered in eleven years of Commonwealth, and his son Charles II who was restored to the monarchy in 1660.

The structure was taken down at the end of the nineteenth century and only returned to London in 2004 with the redevelopment of Paternoster Square. While frequently attributed to Wren, it was probably not by him, though is in his style.

Sy Mary Le BowSt Mary le Bow. Photography: Nigel Green

St Mary le Bow

A building that is certainly by Wren is St Mary le Bow which you reach by leaving Paternoster Square, walking past St Paul’s Underground Station and then down Cheapside. St Mary’s was one of the first churches to be completed and, unusually, with the spire was done at the same time.

The best way to think of this church is as a kind of experiment, of Wren working out what form a classical Anglican church built on the irregular plot of the previous medieval building might take. So, we have an interior modelled on the Basilica of Maxentius in the Forum in Rome (which Wren never visited but knew well from books) and a spire where we see Wren as a scientist-architect exploring how to create what is essentially a Gothic form using classical elements.

St Mary Aldermary

From St Mary le Bow, head down Bow Lane across Watling Street to St Mary Aldermary which now stands on the corner of Queen Victoria Street. This church is an unusual example of Wren working in the Gothic style.

Intellectually and practically, Wren was an avowed classicist and was very critical of Gothic architecture in his writings, seeing it as overly ornamental, illogical and frequently structurally unsound. But what he hated the most was what he called a 'medley' of different styles in the same building. Thus, when confronted with a partially surviving Gothic building, as here, he continued in that style, re-casing the existing tower and creating a beautifully light, fan-vaulted interior. Although Gothic in feel and to some extent in appearance, on closer inspection what we see is his own, improved version of the style.

St Stephen WallbrookSt Stephen Wallbrook interior. Photography: Nigel Green

St Stephen Wallbrook

Head from St Mary Aldermary up Queen Victoria Street to Wallbrook where you will see St Stephen Wallbrook – Wren's most celebrated church and rightly so. The simple exterior – indeed, the north wall is simple rubble masonry – with the exception of the spire gives little hint of the majestic space inside.

Stepping inside is surely one of the most revelatory experiences in the entire City of London. Rising up the steep entrance stair one arrives at a wonderfully light domed space. Today, worship takes place ‘in the round’, focused on Henry Moore’s monumental stone-hewed altar controversially installed in the late 1980s. But in Wren’s day, the emphasis would have been on the east end, with the pewing arranged in a cross axis underneath the dome. St Stephen's dome is often seen as a prototype for St Paul's, yet from the inside it is far more elegant and resolved, helped by the wonderful evenness of the light that bathes the interior.

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