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Christopher Wren: godfather of the technocrats The architect stripped the world of spirituality

A temple of technocracy. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

A temple of technocracy. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


February 23, 2023   4 mins

“You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.” That was the famous barb which the then-Prince Charles aimed at modern architecture in 1987. They were not idle words: thanks to this speech, the architect Richard Rogers lost his opportunity to redesign an area next to St Paul’s cathedral, the 17th-century Baroque masterpiece by Christopher Wren.

It was not the last time the curmudgeonly prince would intervene against Rogers, and nor was it the last time Rogers would have to make room for St Paul’s. His skyscraper on Leadenhall Street, known as The Cheesegrater, owes its slanting profile to rules that protect certain views of Wren’s cathedral.

As we mark the 300th anniversary of Wren’s death, it’s worth noting a certain irony in all of this. St Paul’s may well be the nation’s favourite building, and Wren our greatest architect, but he is more like the grandfather of Richard Rogers than his antithesis.

This will strike some as blasphemous: Rogers’ buildings, which include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London’s Millennium Dome, are technocratic in the most profound sense of the word. With their machine-like forms and conspicuous feats of engineering, they elevate efficiency and expertise into an idol to be worshipped, a religion in its own right. Impressive as these structures are, one can understand why they would make Charles despair whether “capitalism can have a human face, instead of that of a robot or a word processor”.

But technocratic monuments emerge from technocratic societies, where a fixation with how things work drowns out the question of what they are actually for. The natural and human worlds are treated as processes to be managed, with politics reduced to measurable outputs: higher growth, fewer emissions, a more equal distribution of benefits. Technology is held in awe, but more for its functional qualities than any greater purpose it serves.

This could be a description of our own society, and Rogers’ buildings an honest reflection of it. But these tendencies did not appear from nowhere; they have deep roots in the evolution of modern forms of knowledge and power. And those roots lead us back to Christopher Wren.

Picture the scene: it’s 1656, in a house on Oxford High Street. Three members of what will become the Royal Society, an engine of the scientific revolution, are debating whether poison can be administered directly into the bloodstream. Wren, a 23-year-old Fellow of All Souls College, thinks it can. But how to be sure? One of his accomplices, the pioneering chemist Robert Boyle, duly provides a dog, and the experiment begins. Using various improvised instruments, including a syringe fashioned from a goose quill and pig’s bladder, Wren makes an incision in the panicked dog’s leg, successfully injecting opium into a vein.

This episode was later recognised as the first recorded use of an intravenous anaesthetic. (The drugged dog, Boyle reports, recovered after being whipped around the garden for a while.)

It was experimental science like this that occupied Wren for the first two decades of his adult life, not architecture. He was mainly an astronomer, though he pursued all manner of experiments. He studied Saturn’s rings and the lenses of a horse’s eye; he investigated atmospheric pressure and dissected the human brain; he removed the spleen of a puppy and presented the king with a model of the moon.

This was the birth of modern science, but it was also the critical moment when the question of how began to displace the what and the why. These early scientists were driven by a growing realisation that our intuitions did not grasp the true structure of reality. Their response, at least in England, was to turn away from the philosophical mission of understanding what existence is and what its purpose should be, focusing more narrowly on how natural processes work. Already this shift was reflected in a new emphasis on technology: instruments to measure what the senses could not, and gadgets to show mastery of scientific principles. The patterns of the cosmos were mapped in the objective language of mathematics.

This outlook would eventually lay the ground for the technocratic management of society. And Wren, when he turned to architecture, was very much the technocratic type. Employed as Surveyor of the King’s Works, he was a talented but remote civil servant. After the Great Fire of 1666, his job was to Build Back Better, something he managed very well thanks to his relish for bureaucracy and admin. He even wanted to redesign the City of London in the form of a grid. Wren’s classical style did not reflect a deep connection with artistic tradition; it was, as the historian John Summerson pointed out, a matter of good grammar.

In fact, though Wren designed 56 London churches (of which only 23 remain), his readings of scripture suggest an almost Richard Dawkins-like literalism in regard to religion. He liked to demonstrate how astronomy could explain biblical miracles, and treated Samson’s ability to pull down temples as a maths problem. One of his admiring biographers sums up his mindset perfectly: “How a thing worked — whether that thing was a spleen or a comet, a palace or a government department — was as important to him as the end product.”

What really made Wren tick was impressive engineering, mathematical rigour, and finding the most economic solution to a practical puzzle. This is already evident in his first building, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, where he devised an ingenious system of trusses to cover a lengthy span. His London churches show his love of geometry — “always the True test” of beauty for Wren — as seen in their centralised plans, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and their pursuit of symmetry wherever possible.

It’s not entirely a coincidence, then, that both Christopher Wren and Richard Rogers built domes near the Thames. When Wren proposed this idea for St Paul’s, it was, like Rogers’ fiberglass egg, something alien to London, as well as a state-of-the-art engineering display.

It’s true that Wren’s churches don’t feel overly stringent or rational, and this is a sign of his incredible intellect. Their precise balance of spatial and decorative elements can, at their best, create a sense of serene harmony. Nonetheless, later generations often found an artificial quality in his buildings; one 18th-century poet thought him “extremely odd, / To build a playhouse for the church of God”. It’s difficult to judge his work today because it is now contrasted with a modern architecture that fetishises pure geometry, technology, and the expression of structural principles. Yet these are ideas which Wren himself anticipated.

More than that, Wren and his fellow scientists unleashed a quest for knowledge which eventually created a world so complex it needs technocrats to manage it, as well as architects like Rogers to glorify it. It is a great irony that the designer of Britain’s most beloved cathedral also laid the foundations for a society so starved of spiritual meaning.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

A fascinating essay. Thank you.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Interesting take I would argue.
I would like to point out that Baroque architecture (St. Paul) works well in Rome, not so much in Northern Europe with bad weather/light.
The Northern Europeans (Germans, Scandis) tried to “solve” the problem with their modern designs (clean lines, efficient heating, big windows etc.)
Personally I like modern designs but that is me.

Michael Furse
Michael Furse
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Nothing wrong with being Mid-Century Modern, old bean. There’s even an acronym for it. Hans Wegner, arguably one of the most influential furniture designers of C20th, trained as a cabinet-maker with the English Georgain chair as his model, and you can see this in the evolution of his chair designs. In his case, it’s not Why or What but How (it works) – he wanted to make the perfect Chair.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The old St Paul’s was a truly gothic wonder, complete with a spire rising to 500 feet. The whole building exceeded the present St Paul’s in length and additionally had a completely unnecessary, but glorious double storey cloister with the Chapter House in the centre.
From a distance it would have resembled Salisbury Cathedral despite its meagre 403 feet spire!

(Historically the only building in London to exceed it in size would have been the Basilica of the Roman Forum, now buried under Leadenhall Market.)

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Michael Furse
Michael Furse
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Nothing wrong with being Mid-Century Modern, old bean. There’s even an acronym for it. Hans Wegner, arguably one of the most influential furniture designers of C20th, trained as a cabinet-maker with the English Georgain chair as his model, and you can see this in the evolution of his chair designs. In his case, it’s not Why or What but How (it works) – he wanted to make the perfect Chair.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The old St Paul’s was a truly gothic wonder, complete with a spire rising to 500 feet. The whole building exceeded the present St Paul’s in length and additionally had a completely unnecessary, but glorious double storey cloister with the Chapter House in the centre.
From a distance it would have resembled Salisbury Cathedral despite its meagre 403 feet spire!

(Historically the only building in London to exceed it in size would have been the Basilica of the Roman Forum, now buried under Leadenhall Market.)

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I too found this fascinating, not least through in-filling the back story on Wren. I’m not sure i agree with the author’s conclusions though.
If architectural styles didn’t change over time, we’d be living in a very boring urban environment. It’s been said (and i’m sure Mr Stanhope will correct me if i’m wrong) that prior to the uptake of Christianity by the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine, the Empire itself was rather lacking in spirituality, a facet which allowed for the new religion to take hold. Now, do we think of a lack of spirituality when we look at the remaining examples of architecture still standing in Rome, or elsewhere within the former Empire? We do not!
So why ascribe a lack of spirituality to contemporary architecture? Of course, there’s the “form follows function” dictum, but i personally find much modern architecture satisfying, and occasionally inspiring. Might i suggest that those who fail to find a spiritual context for such architecture (post-war concrete blocks notwithstanding!) are simply reflecting something lacking in themselves?
Heaven forbid!!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“the Empire itself was rather lacking in spirituality”.

Lacking a uniform spirituality certainly, but NOT spirituality per se. In fact you could ‘believe’ in almost anything as long as you obeyed two cardinal rules.
Don’t kill anybody (eg Human sacrifice), and don’t ask/ demand state cash!

Otherwise for example, if you wished to worship Crocodiles as some Egyptians did, fine. If you wished ( as many soldiers did) to worship ‘Sol Invictus Mithras’, (The Invincible Son God-Mithras) fine, but don’t bore me with the details.

In short it was all about, “to hunt,to bathe, to play, to laugh, OCC EST VIVERE
THAT IS TO LIVE*

(* Inscription from Timgad, Aurés Mts, now Algeria.)

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“the Empire itself was rather lacking in spirituality”.

Lacking a uniform spirituality certainly, but NOT spirituality per se. In fact you could ‘believe’ in almost anything as long as you obeyed two cardinal rules.
Don’t kill anybody (eg Human sacrifice), and don’t ask/ demand state cash!

Otherwise for example, if you wished to worship Crocodiles as some Egyptians did, fine. If you wished ( as many soldiers did) to worship ‘Sol Invictus Mithras’, (The Invincible Son God-Mithras) fine, but don’t bore me with the details.

In short it was all about, “to hunt,to bathe, to play, to laugh, OCC EST VIVERE
THAT IS TO LIVE*

(* Inscription from Timgad, Aurés Mts, now Algeria.)

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Interesting take I would argue.
I would like to point out that Baroque architecture (St. Paul) works well in Rome, not so much in Northern Europe with bad weather/light.
The Northern Europeans (Germans, Scandis) tried to “solve” the problem with their modern designs (clean lines, efficient heating, big windows etc.)
Personally I like modern designs but that is me.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I too found this fascinating, not least through in-filling the back story on Wren. I’m not sure i agree with the author’s conclusions though.
If architectural styles didn’t change over time, we’d be living in a very boring urban environment. It’s been said (and i’m sure Mr Stanhope will correct me if i’m wrong) that prior to the uptake of Christianity by the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine, the Empire itself was rather lacking in spirituality, a facet which allowed for the new religion to take hold. Now, do we think of a lack of spirituality when we look at the remaining examples of architecture still standing in Rome, or elsewhere within the former Empire? We do not!
So why ascribe a lack of spirituality to contemporary architecture? Of course, there’s the “form follows function” dictum, but i personally find much modern architecture satisfying, and occasionally inspiring. Might i suggest that those who fail to find a spiritual context for such architecture (post-war concrete blocks notwithstanding!) are simply reflecting something lacking in themselves?
Heaven forbid!!

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

A fascinating essay. Thank you.

Francis Turner
Francis Turner
1 year ago

The key difference between Wren and Rogers is that Wren’s building have lasted centuries. Roger’s are unlikely to last a century without significant repair and redesign (see the current shuttering of the Pompidou Centre for 4 years).
If Roger’s buildings could manage to not rust away and were actually practical then they would be more impressive

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago
Reply to  Francis Turner

Yes, and didn’t the Pompidou require the knockdown of some of the few remaining medieval buildings in central Paris? A French friend owned one such building nearby. What an era! It was the worst of times, and then some.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago
Reply to  Francis Turner

Yes, and didn’t the Pompidou require the knockdown of some of the few remaining medieval buildings in central Paris? A French friend owned one such building nearby. What an era! It was the worst of times, and then some.

Francis Turner
Francis Turner
1 year ago

The key difference between Wren and Rogers is that Wren’s building have lasted centuries. Roger’s are unlikely to last a century without significant repair and redesign (see the current shuttering of the Pompidou Centre for 4 years).
If Roger’s buildings could manage to not rust away and were actually practical then they would be more impressive

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Will we really say this about Rogers:
“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”*

*Reader if you seek a monument look around (you).
(Attributed to Wren’s son, although remarkably similar to one used for the Roman architect Julius Lacer at Alcantara circa 110AD).

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

No we won’t, at least not in any positive sense – more as a warning. Equally, the classic Vitruvian formulation of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (roughly translated as strength, functionality and beauty) hardly applies to Rogers, while clearly it does to Wren. A silly article, in my humble

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew D
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Agreed.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Agreed.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

Nice!

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

No we won’t, at least not in any positive sense – more as a warning. Equally, the classic Vitruvian formulation of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (roughly translated as strength, functionality and beauty) hardly applies to Rogers, while clearly it does to Wren. A silly article, in my humble

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew D
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

Nice!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Will we really say this about Rogers:
“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”*

*Reader if you seek a monument look around (you).
(Attributed to Wren’s son, although remarkably similar to one used for the Roman architect Julius Lacer at Alcantara circa 110AD).

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

William Blake would have entirely agreed. He thought St Paul’s a temple to Urizen, the god of the ratio, in love with measurement, whose mentality now dominates life.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

William Blake would have entirely agreed. He thought St Paul’s a temple to Urizen, the god of the ratio, in love with measurement, whose mentality now dominates life.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

Another perfect essayist in this fantastic journal.
The odd thing about this “world so complex it needs technocrats to manage it” is that even abstract labour is reduced to child-like simplicity, marked by the primacy of Process. Division of labor in hand and mind. It’s not actually a complex world at all, in that we’ve reduced the humanities, personal relations and thought work into simplicity.
Neo-Marxism is another manifestation, axioms from physics applied universally to entire groups, even comprising entire genders, absent individual living people.
And Shelley wrote an essay anticipating the English language would devolve into factspeak, parallel with the growth of technocracy, circa 1820.
But then, we have signs of revival, signaled by the very existence of this essay, and the return of art, design and architecture. Next to reclaim the humanities.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

Another perfect essayist in this fantastic journal.
The odd thing about this “world so complex it needs technocrats to manage it” is that even abstract labour is reduced to child-like simplicity, marked by the primacy of Process. Division of labor in hand and mind. It’s not actually a complex world at all, in that we’ve reduced the humanities, personal relations and thought work into simplicity.
Neo-Marxism is another manifestation, axioms from physics applied universally to entire groups, even comprising entire genders, absent individual living people.
And Shelley wrote an essay anticipating the English language would devolve into factspeak, parallel with the growth of technocracy, circa 1820.
But then, we have signs of revival, signaled by the very existence of this essay, and the return of art, design and architecture. Next to reclaim the humanities.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Boughton
Tapani Simojoki
Tapani Simojoki
1 year ago

Loyalty to my alma mater compels me to point out that Wren’s first building was in fact the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, commissioned by his uncle, Matthew Wren and consecrated in 1665. The Sheldonian followed soon afterwards.

Tapani Simojoki
Tapani Simojoki
1 year ago

Loyalty to my alma mater compels me to point out that Wren’s first building was in fact the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, commissioned by his uncle, Matthew Wren and consecrated in 1665. The Sheldonian followed soon afterwards.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

That picture, is that St. Paul’s, or the Capitol building?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

St Paul’s from the Millennium Bridge, ie from the south.

Adam K
Adam K
1 year ago

Contemporary architecture deserves to die.