Friday, June 01, 2007
Why was Christopher Wren's plan for rebuilding London rejected?
'If you seek his monument, look around you,' reads the translation of Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. In the wake of the Great Fire of 1666, Wren had built a new cathedral, along with 51 of the 84 churches that the fire had destroyed. However, this was but minor repair work compared to what Wren had wanted to do - to recreate London from scratch. On September 11, 1666, just nine days after the fire started, Wren had presented King Charles II with his plan for a new metropolis.
The plan was rejected but, over 200 years later, when there was an outbreak of cholera in London, health experts claimed that had the king adopted Wren's scheme, thereby doing away with the maze of cramped and over-crowded alleyways, the mortality rate might have been as much as a third lower. After Wren's death in 1723, his son lamented that the opportunity had been lost for making the city 'the most magnificent, as well as commodious for health and trade of any upon Earth'.
Wren's plan was nothing if not expansive. All new streets would conform to one of three widths: 27, 18, or 9 m (90, 60 or 30 ft). Narrow alleys, one of the great characteristics of the old London, would vanish. A big, open, public quay would grace the riverside, between the Tower and Temple.
Its sheer scope, as much as anything, made the plan an impossibility. Such a scheme would have been colossally expensive. At a time when families were homeless and when many were struggling simply to survive, rapid reconstruction of the city was vital.
King Charles had alternative plans to choose from. John Evelyn presented the monarch with a scheme not unlike Wren's, but on a smaller scale, and with more concern to preserve London's traditional character. Dr Robert Hooke came up with a stern scheme for making London's streets into gridiron patterns. Valentine Knight had an idea for an arc-shaped canal that would run from Billingsgate to Fleet River. The king accepted none of these plans.
But in 1675, the rebuilding of St. Paul's to Wren's design, began. More than 86 000 tonnes of building stone, 500 tonnes of rubble, a lot of marble, bricks, and 750 000 Pounds and 35 years later it was complete. If not an entire city, this magnificent building is a monument indeed to Wren's genius.