Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London, 1666

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640px-Great_fire_of_london_map

Map showing the layout of the pre-Fire City and the extent of the devastation

When large areas of London burnt down to the ground in 1666 it provided a rare opportunity to masterplan key areas of a major city from scratch. Not only was there an opportunity, this site but, what is ed arguably, pills a need, since the condition of housing in much of the old city was infamously poor, and both the narrowness of the streets and the tendency for upper storeys to overhang the streets below were key factors in how the fire managed to ‘leap’ from street to street.

Soon after the fire, a number of urban planners/designers including Sir Christopher Wren submitted masterplans for the reconstruction of the city. Here is Wren’s plan, and an explanation of it (in occasionally modernised English) taken from a 1744 printing of his plan.

1744_Wren_Map_of_London,_England_-_Geographicus_-_London-wren-1744

The image links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

Explanation of the Plan: [N.B. I don’t know whether the explanation is Wren’s himself.]

 

From the remaining part of Fleet Street which escaped the fire about St. Dunstan’s Church a straight and wide street crosses the valley passing by the south side of Ludgate, and thence in a direct line through the whole City terminating at Tower Hill, but before it descends into the Valley where the Great Sewer [the Fleet, a tributary of the Thames] runs, it opens into a round piazza, the centre of eight ways, where at one station we see {1) straight forward through the City; (2) obliquely towards the right-hand to the beginning of the quay that runs from Temple Garden; (3) obliquely on the left to Smithfield; (4) straight on the right to the Thames; (5) straight on the left to Hatten Street and Clerkenwell; (6) straight backwards towards Temple Bar; (7) obliquely on the tight to Temple Garden; (8) obliquely on the left to Cursitor’s Alley.

 

Passing forward we cross the valley, once sullied with an offensive sewer now beautified with a useful canal, with wharves on each side, passable by as many bridges as streets that cross it.

 

Leaving Ludgate, this great street presently divides into another as large which carries our eyes and passage to the front of the Exchange, and before these two streets spreading at acute angles can be clear of another, they form a triangular piazza the basis of which is filled by the cathedral church of St. Paul. But leaving St. Paul’s on the left, we proceed as our first way led us towards the Tower.

We return again to Ludgate, and leaving St. Paul’s on the right-hand, pass along the other great branch to the Royal Exchange, seated in the place where it was, but free from building, in the middle of a piazza included between two great streets, one from Ludgate leading to the south front, and another from Holborn over the canal to Newgate, and thence straight to the north front etc. Instead of Ludgate Prison was designed a triumphal arch to the founder of the new city, King Charles the Second.

 

In the event, the strong desire of property owners for their properties to be back generating money and the lack of governmental co-ordination and investment ensured that the city would be rebuilt much the same as it was before, but with somewhat wider streets. Wren may not have succeeded in redesigning London, but as an architect he was responsible for designing many of its replacement churches, and, of course, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Great Fire’s main legacy for London’s built form, then, was not in terms of its planning but its architecture. Nevertheless, his masterplan is of great interest and I’ve hopefully learnt from it. Subsequent posts will analyse Wren’s masterplan and try to draw lessons from it…

2 thoughts on “Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London, 1666

  1. I have studied Wren Architecture in America which follows the same design of his St Paul and City Plan

    A simple explanation is that it follows Vitruvious explanation on how to lay out a city

    Again to keep this discussion simple I will not explain my interpretation of Wrens philosophy Wrens comprehension of astronomy was key to his design

    I will leave it there. 30 years of documented observation has clearly shown the expertise and mathematical approach to engineering his structures.

    • Thank you for an intriguing comment, John – what a pity you didn’t elaborate! It would be very interesting to know more about Wren’s approach.

      It’s not self-evident that either Vitruvius or astronomy are suitable inspirations for the layout of cities. Vitruvius, for example, was partly inspired by his belief that winds from different directions had different effects on human health; and the movement of heavenly bodies at first sight seems to have little to do with our all-too-human urban lives. So it would also be very interesting to know Wren’s justifications for applying these subjects to the task of rebuilding London.

      Wren was a magnificent architect and his command of engineering surely can’t be doubted by anyone who has stood under the dome of St. Paul’s. Yet Wren spent half a lifetime fine-tuning his design for St. Paul’s; his plan for the rebuilding of London was submitted within one week of starting work on the project. It’s surely not realistic to expect perfection in a week; I just think that the mistakes I think Wren’s plan made (according to my personal interpretation of how to reach particular goals that Wren may well not have shared) may be instructive, and worth examining a bit.

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