The Uses of Perspective: Lessons from Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London

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Wren's plan for London. The red oval shows the area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

Wren’s plan for London. The red oval shows the approximate area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

This is part of a series of posts about Wren’s masterplan for rebuilding London after its Great Fire destroyed most of the City of London in 1666 and also the ideas that the masterplan sparked. They are published in the hope that they might prove thought-provoking and in the hope that flaws in observation and argument might be identified and corrected.

Lesson 1. Optical perspective influences how we perceive landmarks: use it to support the design’s intention, tooth not undermine it

Finder

On Wren’s masterplan for the reconstruction of London after its Great Fire in 1666, St. Paul’s Cathedral seems to be a dominating presence. Coming in from Ludgate the Cathedral would be immediately apparent as it not only sits atop Ludgate Hill but guards the space where two of the three great arterial streets diverge.

That Wren intended the new cathedral that he was destined to design to be a dominant and monumental feature of London is emphasised by his decision to flank the entrance to the cathedral with two comparatively tiny parish churches. These surely cannot plausibly be there to serve some catchment area as they are so close to each other and to the cathedral. I assume that they are there simply to emphasise the Brobdingnagian size of the cathedral through their relative tininess. If it is indeed Wren’s intention to make the Cathedral look vast, then his intention seems to be fundamentally undermined by one of the very mechanisms he presumably used in the hopes of imparting it great significance: its location in the street layout. Continue reading

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. Continue reading