Renaissance architecture in Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century is today synonymous with the name of Christopher Wren, who built upon the classicism of Jones. Wren was a man of commanding intelligence, having established his reputation in his early years as a classical scholar, mathematician, founding member of the Royal Society (of science), and as a professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. His interest in architecture very much grew out of his scientific endeavors. In 1663 he was asked to give structural advice on the remodeling of the old church of St. Paul's Cathedral in London; around the same time he was also asked to prepare designs for two buildings at Oxford. In 1665, in order to enhance his architectural knowledge, Wren made a trip to France, where he was able to meet Bernini, Francois Mansart, and Louis Le Vau. The great London fire of 1666 essentially mandated his change of profession. He was first appointed to a six-member committee charged with rebuilding the city; in 1669 he was appointed Surveyor General of all new construction. Over the next half century his architectural imprint on London (the new St. Paul's Cathedral and 45 churches), Greenwich (Royal Naval Hospital), Oxford, and Cambridge would become enormous.
Wren published no treatise of his ideas but he composed pages of notes toward that end, which were posthumously published by his son. His theory is an interesting blending of Platonic thought with classical theory, to which he adds the rudiments of a developing British empiricism. The first selection is from Tract I and is notable for his distinction between ''natural'' and ''customary'' beauty. It seems to recall Perrault's distinction between positive and arbitrary beauty, except that first category for Wren derives from the mathematical truth of geometry and also encompasses the matter of proportions.
Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth. The Emulation of the Cities of Greece was the true Cause of their Greatness. The obstinate Valour of the Jews, occasioned by the Love of their Temple, was a Cement that held together that People, for many Ages, through infinite Changes. The Care of publick Decency and Convenience was a great Cause of the Establishment of the Low-countries, and of many Cities in the World. Modern Rome subsists still, by the Ruins and Imitation of the old; as does Jerusalem, by the Temple of the Sepulchre, and other Remains of Helena's Zeal.
Architecture aims at Eternity; and therefore the only Thing uncapable of Modes and Fashions in its Principals, the Orders.
The Orders are not only Roman and Greek, but Phxnician, Hebrew, and Assyrian; therefore being founded upon the Experience of all Ages, promoted by the vast Treasures of all the great Monarchs, and Skill of the greatest Artists and Geometricians, every one emulating each other; and Experiments in this kind being greatly expenceful, and Errors incorrigible,
Christopher Wren (1632-1723), from ''Tracts'' on architecture (mid-1670s), in Wren's "Tracts" on Architecture and Other Writings, ed. Lydia M. Soo. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 153-5 (Tract I).
is the Reason that the Principles of Architecture are now rather the Study of Antiquity than Fancy.
Beauty, Firmness, and Convenience, are the Principles; the two first depend upon the geometrical Reasons of Opticks and Staticks; the third only makes the Variety.
There are natural Causes of Beauty. Beauty is a Harmony of Objects, begetting Pleasure by the Eye. There are two Causes of Beauty, natural and customary. Natural is from Geometry, consisting in Uniformity (that is Equality) and Proportion. Customary Beauty is begotten by the Use of our Senses to those Objects which are usually pleasing to us for other Causes, as Familiarity or particular Inclination breeds a Love to Things not in themselves lovely. Here lies the great Occasion of Errors; here is tried the Architect's Judgment: but always the true Test is natural or geometrical Beauty.
Geometrical Figures are naturally more beautiful than other irregular; in this all consent as to a Law of Nature. Of geometrical Figures, the Square and the Circle are most beautiful; next, the Parallelogram and the Oval. Strait Lines are more beautiful than curve; next to strait Lines, equal and geometrical Flexures; an Object elevated in the Middle is more beautiful than depressed.
Position is necessary for perfecting Beauty. There are only two beautiful Positions of strait Lines, perpendicular and horizontal: this is from Nature, and consequently Necessity, no other than upright being firm. Oblique Positions are Discord to the Eye, unless answered in Pairs, as in the Sides of an equicrural Triangle: therefore Gothick Buttresses are all ill-favoured, and were avoided by the Ancients, and no Roofs almost but spherick raised to be visible, except in the Front, where the Lines answer; in spherick, in all Positions, the Ribs answer. Cones and multangular Prisms want neither Beauty nor Firmness, but are not ancient.
Views contrary to Beauty are Deformity, or a Defect of Uniformity, and Plainness, which is the Excess of Uniformity; Variety makes the Mean.
Variety of Uniformities makes compleat Beauty: Uniformities are best tempered, as Rhimes in Poetry, alternately, or sometimes with more Variety, as in Stanza's.
In Things to be seen at once, much Variety makes Confusion, another Vice of Beauty. In Things that are not seen at once, and have no Respect one to another, great Variety is commendable, provided this Variety transgress not the Rules of Opticks and Geometry.
An Architect ought to be jealous of Novelties, in which Fancy blinds the Judgment; and to think his Judges, as well those that are to live five Centuries after him, as those of his own Time. That which is commendable now for Novelty, will not be a new Invention to Posterity, when his Works are often imitated, and when it is unknown which was the Original; but the Glory of that which is good of itself is eternal.
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