Two architects of light

January 26, 2024 0 Comments

Mention Sir Christopher Wren and most people will instantly think of St Paul’s Cathedral.  That includes Edmund Bentley, the inventor of the poetical form known, after his middle name, as the clerihew:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, ‘I am going to dine with some men.
If anybody calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.’

St Paul’s Cathedral, dome

Last week we visited St Paul’s, for the first time in decades.  As I mulled over the experience afterwards, two thoughts struck me.  The first was that how you see the interior is affected by the massive grandeur of the architecture, but even more so by the objects the building has collected since Wren’s day.  Especially all those huge memorials to the architects of empire, starting in the nave with the monstrous multi-tier erection dedicated to the Duke of Wellington.  Symbols of world domination, loud heroism and elite authority follow you around the aisles, transepts and especially the crypt, a huge necropolis of the great, at its centre the gloomy tomb of Horatio Nelson.  It’s not all generals and admirals, but even the artists and composers, corralled in their little crypt-chapels, are establishment figures, with the odd exception of William Blake.  Thinking away all these imperial trappings, and imagining the cathedral as it was when it was completed in 1710, isn’t easy.

St Stephen’s Walbrook, dome

My second thought was how atypical St Paul’s was in Wren’s large architectural output.  Nothing else he planned approaches the cathedral’s scale, and nothing aspires to its grandeur.  Many people think that his real genius lies in many of the small London churches he rebuilt after the Fire of London in 1666.  Nikolaus Pevsner considered St Stephen’s Walbrook, one of the smallest, one of the ten most important buildings in England.

St Stephen’s impresses by its simplicity, clean lines, and treatment of light.  It’s a simple rectangular box, lit by round-headed rectangular and circular clear windows, and by light from a dome, a dry run for St Paul’s, that sits on arches supported by four Corinthian columned ‘porches’ in each corner of the space.  The prevailing whiteness contrasts with the dark woodwork of the door, pulpit and panelling.  The effect is one of complete, centred calm, especially since the division between nave and chancel was abolished in 1987 when Henry Moore’s circular marble altar was placed under the dome.  The stone has a strong organic, ‘squishy’ form and is offset by a necklace of brightly coloured textile kneelers designed by the St Ives artist Patrick Heron.

St Stephen’s Walbrook, altar

Sitting on one of the benches for a few minutes you can let Wren’s tranquillity seep into you.  You can sense, too, how carefully Wren thought about how external light would flood his space.  The medieval churches he was replacing would have been much darker places.  Wren was part of the new scientific enlightenment – he was an expert in physiology and astronomy before turning to architecture – and literal light played a large part in how he saw his approach to building.  (Light wasn’t always so critical to contemporary architects: Nicholas Hawksmoor’s clumpy, disruptive style, as in St Mary Woolnoth and Christ Church, Spitalfields, is very different and ‘unlight’: heavy on the outside, darker inside.)

St Mary Woolnoth

Another of our London visits was to Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – three adjoining terraced houses that acted as home, museum and office for Soane’s architectural practice in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  The museum is packed tight, to the roof and into the basement, with architectural and sculptural fragments, casts and specimens, mainly classical, which Soane made use of in his practice and teaching.  Nothing has been changed and nothing is labelled, since Soane had a private Act of Parliament passed in 1833 to leave his house to the nation, with free public admission, on condition that everything was kept as he left it.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, Dome Room

The terraced houses were starved of natural light, but Soane was ingenious in making the most of what there was.  At the museum’s core is an ‘atrium’, open to light that enters through a dome in the roof and penetrates to the underground crypt below.  Light and shadow play around the mainly white objects in the Dome Area, so that they seem to lean towards you, as if alive, as you squeeze your way along the narrow passageways.  In the Crypt and Sepulchral Chamber light is scarcer, as befits objects, like the huge sarcophagus of Seti I, that belong to the world of catacombs and the grave.

Throughout the building Soane introduced mirrors in strategic places to give the impression of spaces that were larger than their dimensions dictated.  In the Dining Room and Library, the mirrors placed behind works of art, around paintings and above bookcases make the walls appear to dissolve, as if there are further rooms just beyond.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, North Drawing Room

Soane’s best-known building is the Bank of England, just round the corner from St Stephen’s Walbrook, though it’s a lumpy, forbidding building.  His Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public picture gallery in England, also called for careful treatment of falling light.  But his masterpiece is certainly his own house.  It’s also a curiously moving place for the visitor, because it contains so many traces of Soane’s wife Eliza, whose early death in 1815 caused him so much pain.

Light is still of critical importance for architects.  But I wonder how many of them give the kind of close attention that Christopher Wren and John Soane paid to the different effects of light on their creations?  Looking up from the streets around Wren’s churches, all you can see, for the most part, is plate glass.  But, I wonder, do the architects of the bloated, triumphal towers of the City have the capacity to treat light with the respect and sophistication it deserves? A third visit that weekend was to the Barbican Centre, a building revered by Brutalism fans but one that deliberately cuts out natural light.

Walkie-Talkie and Church of St Margaret Pattens

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