Monday, 5 August 2013

30. Wonder: St Paul's Cathedral

(For the St Paul's Cathedral preview, please click here.)

Who'd be an architect? Instead of being venerated, many of the architects of the greatest buildings were pretty shabbily treated. Jorn Utzon was forced to resign just as the Sydney Opera House was taking shape, Charles Barry was regularly made to justify his position during lengthy meetings in front of a committee as he built the Houses of Parliament, probably even the unnamed genius behind Stonehenge received complaints that his giant stones would look better in a square formation. Aside from lack of gratitude, they then have the indignity of seeing others put the finishing touches to their creation and ruining their unique vision. You might build one of the greatest structures ever known to man, but don't necessarily expect much appreciation for it.

Usually, the reason behind the dismissal or poor treatment boils down to money. Simply put, building a Wonder rarely comes cheap. Just ask Sir Christopher Wren. In the late 17th Century, he pulled off the near-unimaginable feat of building a cathedral of truly vast proportions in just 35 years. Usually, it took centuries. It was a preposterous, incredible, superhuman achievement, without any precedent in Britain. Did he receive thanks? Of course not. In the latter years, when his grand design had clearly taken shape and all of London should have been queuing up to perform celebratory dances for him, Wren received only hassle. His masterpiece was considered overdue and over-budget and he was held responsible. In 1697, Parliament suspended half his pay and told him he wouldn't get it back until he got his act together. Sure, the very final price tag of £1.15 million was a hell of a lot (perhaps something like £1 billion today) but the reason that Parliament was getting so pissy with money was because the country was bankrupt after yet another vastly expensive war, this time the Nine Years' War against France. But hey, I'm sure it was a terrific war. Instead of a dance for joy, poor Wren received a rap on the knuckles. And after the official completion in 1711, the now-84-year-old Wren had the remaining work taken off his hands, and he was forced to watch as others made all the finishing touches, to his great dissatisfaction. No wonder, in his later years, he complained to his son that he wished he'd gone into medicine instead, as he'd have made a better living.

And so, although it's three centuries too late, I at least would like to thank Sir Christopher Wren for building St Paul's Cathedral. Thank-you, sir, it's a wonderful building.

Being British, I'm obviously pretty familiar with St Paul's Cathedral, although not being a Londoner it is still a tourist attraction rather than a taken-for-granted part of the scenery. During my few days down in London last week, it was a typical response from Londoners - long and short term - to say "Oh, you know, I've never actually been. I've heard it's really nice." It's very easy to become complacent about the wonders on your doorstep: I've lived in Glasgow for over a year now, but could probably give you a better tour of Sydney or Beijing (unless you only want to visit pubs: I could give you a grear tour of pubs). And just as I live in Glasgow, and concern myself with the trivia of daily life there, Londoners focus more on washing the dishes, folding bedsheets, and buying milk from the local shop in their area than making targetted visits to the tourist-packed city centre and paying £16 for a wander round a cathedral they've known all their lives.

Well, to all Londoners out there, I would like to pass on a simple message: snap out of your routine, and go and visit St Paul's. Really. It's great.

Joining me for my official visit of St Paul's Cathedral was my old friend Emily, born in London as it happens, but who has only been living there for the last six months. In that time, visiting St Paul's hadn't even been a remote consideration - that's for the tourists, after all. And so when I told her that, as per my official rules of visiting a Wonder, I would need to go twice, she regarded me with something approaching the affectionate pity you might reserve for a particularly imbecilic pet dog. Yes, of course she'd join me, but it was with some patient and wry humour - patting the poor dog on the head. I think her expectations were the same as most Londoners who have never been, that St Paul's would be very nice and very pretty, and probably great if you liked cathedrals and that sort of thing. But very inessential. That wasn't a million miles from my own view, before I visited for the first time, some years ago. That view, however, hugely underestimates Sir Christoper Wren and his masterpiece. Because like the very best Wonders of the World, it has something else that might not be immeditately apparent if you casually walk on by: power.

St Paul's was finished in 1711, although with many added touches continuing into the 1720s, and since then London has been through rather a lot. As far as a cathedral is concerned, the most relevant things have been mundane events like the annual cycle of weather, and air pollution shifting from smoke to vehicle fumes, with some slightly more dramatic moments like German bombs during World War 2. All these things, you may gather, are not exactly good for the health of a cathedral, just as someone who has smoked heavily and laboured outdoors all their life and then been violently mugged as a pensioner might not be in the best physical state. But unlike that haggard pensioner near his one-way journey to the end, St Paul's Cathedral has the Lazarus-like power to be brought back from the dead. And while it would be a clear exaggeration to say St Paul's was ever at the brink of collapse, certainly as the 20th Century wore on it was showing its age. Which was why in recent years it has undergone an extensive 15-year restoration, costing £40 million and completed in 2011. Three hundred years on, St Paul's Cathedral is in the best shape of its life. It is a young man again.

This renewal is very apparent from a wander round the outide of the building. Take your pick, but I prefer the view from the small park to the south (where my official St Paul's photo was taken, as above), fitting in some greenery, a small but pleasant water feature, some urban streetpunks on BMXs, and the full length of St Paul's with the dome dominating. The weather was lovely for both days I visited - and St Paul's shone. It is clean and brilliant and white, the accumulated dirt of centuries literally washed away by carefully-focussed low-pressure jets of water. It brings to mind the discovery of a labourer way back at the start of the cathedral's construction. Old St Paul's had been devastated during the Great Fire of London of 1666 and had to be demolished. As this process was underway, from a large pile of rubbish the labourer found an old piece of gravestone, which had only the large words RESURGAM - "I shall rise again". Unlike many such tales, this is not apocryphal - the evidence can be seen on the south face. The fate of the original owner of this gravestone is unknown, but St Paul's Cathedral truly has risen again.

A lot of people complained that bureaucracy and politics heavily delayed the construction of the One World Trade Center in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks; well, it's hardly a new phenomenon. The foundation stone for St Paul's was laid in late June 1675 (take your pick of the 21st, 25th or 28th depending on source) - nine years after the fire.. Demolition of the old cathedral began in 1668 and wasn't fully finished till the mid-1680s. It turns out that a giant ruined cathedral generates a lot of rubble - thousands and thousands of cartloads of rubbish was taken away. Two months in 1667 record 1250 cartloads, and 753 cartloads were loaded by 124 labourers in 1675. In the meantime, Wren had been getting busy with his plans. He had been appointed Surveyor of King's Works in 1669, and by 1670 was responsible for rebuilding 50 churches destroyed during the Great Fire. He was only officially put in charge of St Paul's in 1673, but effectively had been planning it a lot longer. Several early drafts and models had been drawn and built, most notably his favourite, now called "The Great Model". This was an actual model, 4 metres tall and 6 metres wide, which still exists and is kept in a special Trophy Room of the cathedral. It cost £500. Foremen back then were paid two shillings day (20 shillings=£1) therefore even if they worked seven days a week this was the equivalent for 5000 days, over 13 years, of work. The Great Model was rejected outright by the Anglican Church because it was done to a Greek Cross, which has four arms of equal length and is more typical of the Eastern Church and not at all typical of an English church. They wanted a Latin Cross, which is the same cross that Jesus was nailed to and is more typical of Western cathedrals.

There were various other drafts and plans, but by 1675 Wren managed to come up with something the Commission agreed to. Work began on the east side and moved west, as the west was still being demolished - that's kind of like starting at the rear of the building and working forward. Wren immediately deviated from his official plan. He couldn't quite get away with doing his preferred Great Model but the king had given Wren permission to make "ornamental changes" to the official design. Wren thoroughly exploited this loophole. Drawings were kept secret, with only part-models and temples used to guide workers. Wren appears to have got away with these cheeky liberties, and as a result, the St Paul's we see isn't too far from Wren's original vision.

Of course, St Paul's is all about the dome. That's not to downplay the beauty of the rest of it, but there's no doubt that it's the dome that gives St Paul's its glory. The facade is fine, the interior detail is terrific, the overall scale is awesome, but it is the dome that elevates St Paul's to the next level. What is it about a giant dome that is so captivating? I don't know, that's one for architectural theoreticians. But as you approach St Paul's and as you walk around it, it is the huge lead-covered dome that you'll be looking at. High, topped with a lantern and a cross, pointing to the heavens, it is not over-the-top, just vast and inherently beautiful, almost mystically so. The dome, in essence, is St Paul's Cathedral. Just ask the kids of Tooting train station.

Wren recognised this too. The dome was not an afterthought. Before the Great Fire had reduced the old cathedral to rubble, he had been consulted about a new design. He proposed replacing the main tower with a massive dome as “an Ornament to His Majestie's most exceeded Reign, to the Church of England, and to the great Citie”. The Great Model was all about the dome. Even though his "approved" design downplayed the scale of the dome, his final version gave us the one we see now. Wren wanted a dome, and he got got one.

Not that it was easy. This was centuries before steel and reinforced concrete made modern super-domes possible; materials then were basically stone and mortar, with some rudimentary metals. Not ideal to build huge domes, hence why they crop up so rarely in history, and are so celebrated when they do (the Pantheon, the Hagia Sophia, and Florence Cathedral are noted examples). The dome we see today weighs around 65,000 tons - about six times the weight of the Eiffel Tower. This was about as big and heavy as Wren could get away with given the materials and foundations. And it would be very unfair to give Wren the full credit: two other men appear to be the brains behind St Paul's dome. An architect called Nicholas Hawksmoor drew the final version, and another, Robert Hooke, appears to have been the man behind the theories and shape. Hooke was a brilliant mind and a close colleague of Wren's - he is known for being a major influence behind microscopy, a field Wren also dabbled in. They also built the Monument to the Great Fire of London together, which I recommend visiting if you like tight, winding stairways and surprisingly good views of London. Hooke was a short-tempered and easily-offended man who made numerous enemies, including Isaac Newton (who in fairness had his own fair share of enemies). But you don't need to be a nice guy or a big hit on the party scene to be a genius, and it is Hooke that came up with the theory behind the dome. It is beautiful in its simplicity: the perfect shape for a thin arch is that formed by a hanging chain, inverted. Find the right length and weight of a chain and hang it from two supports - there's your arch, and by extension, your dome. Adjusting the length of the chain will adjust the height of the arch. The maths wasn't worked out for some time after but all the models worked fine, and Christopher Wren almost entirely used his friend's idea when building the dome of St Paul's.

Was it well built? Well, during the recent restoration, the surveyor in charge noticed an alarming crack going right through the dome. It wasn't structurally serious, but it was unexpected. His conclusion was that it was caused by a high explosive bomb dropped during World War 2. The blast lifted the entire dome into the air for a few milliseconds, before it - all 65,000 tons - landed back onto the main cathedral. As tests go, it was a stern one. Good job, Wren. Good job.

Emily and I visited twice, the first day paying £16 to enter and wander around as tourist, the second time for a full church service (and for free). Although I don't want to put words into her mouth, as I've already said, Emily's expectations were pretty much for a big and pretty cathedral. But the dome won her over. Not from the outside, but from the inside. Being, as I am, somewhat monomaniacal when it comes to the world's greatest structures, it is a true joy both to visit one and to watch someone else realise they are visiting one. As we visited the Whispering Gallery, St Paul's revealed itself, and we both realised we were visiting something special.

Trust me, these pictures don't do it justice. The Whispering Gallery is, basically, the base of the dome from the inside. It's so called because a whisper anywhere along the gallery can be heard by anyone with their ear to the wall, although I believe this generally is more effective when there aren't hundreds of tourists yelling and pushing their way by. It truly is the highlight of St Paul's. You don't have to be spiritual or amenable to heavenly persuasion to feel something up here, regardless of the tourists. I remembered it as being pretty impressive on my last visit years ago: I remembered wrong. It was much better. It is a powerful, awesome experience standing or sitting in the Whispering Gallery, high above the ground level of the cathedral but still way below the peak of the dome. The inner face of the dome rises above, immaculately painted in monochrome by a man called Sir James Thornhill, depicting fanciful images from the life of St Paul the Apostle. It doesn't matter if you understand the images, you just feel the impression they make in you. During our visit, organ music was playing, filling the gallery and the dome, and further teasing us with the notion of heaven. I want to make no understatement here - the Whispering Gallery is incredible. It is beautiful, and it is powerful. The Whispering Gallery holds its own with any World Wonder out there, take your pick.

The rest of the dome "tourist experience" is also impressive. We climbed further up, around the outside ring of the dome, enjoying views of London, and then even further up into the lantern, for the same views only slightly higher and with a far compressed volume of tourists. This was terrific, and for some might be the highlight of visiting St Paul's, but if it's views of London you're after it's hardly the only option out there (I recommend Monument for £3). However, it's nice to get alternative views of the rest of the cathedral, as seen from above.

Emily and I visited a church service on Sunday also. When possible I always like to see a Wonder being used for its intended purpose, and in the case of a church this clearly means going to a service (I did likewise with the Notre-Dame, and fully intending on sacrificing children at all the Maya temples). As Emily and I got to know each other through the underground nightclub scene of Aberdeen many years ago, and all the late-night and next-day parties this entailed, the prospect of going to a church service on a Sunday morning caused her no end of amusement. But she rather enjoyed it, as did I. St Paul's is an Anglican Cathedral, which is Church of England, which is kind of Protestant with nods to its Catholic origins, and having grown up with the distinctly Protestant Church of Scotland, I was expecting something more sit-back-and-watch-the-show. But no. It turns out that an Anglican ceremony, for the layman, rather resembles a Catholic one. It lasted almost 90 minutes, featured a lot of standing up (a lot more than anticipated), and had wafers and wine of Communion. We were sat right under the dome, and I had plenty of time to admire to sculpture, the structure, the decor, and the sheer grandeur of my surroundings. It was like sitting under heaven. The dome looked awesome, everything else looked suitably cathedral-esque impressive. Although it would have been nice to have been allowed to sit down more.

Christoper Wren once said "Architecture has its poltical Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country; which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth". He was absolutely correct: a great building will give a nation great pride. But, unfortunately, this is where St Paul's, through no fault of its own, has gone astray. In the early 18th Century, when it was finished in all its splendour, I fully believe that it had a real chance of being a World Wonder, especially for anyone sitting in the Whispering Gallery listening to organ music. But since then, London has let it down. St Paul's has been neglected, to a degree that even the recent £40 million restoration can't readdress. I refer to pretty much everything around it.

This is taken from the river Thames. I want you to look at that picture again for a moment. What the hell? What the holy hell? We have a great cathedral obscured by some at-best banal buildings. A river view of St Paul's should, by rights, be among the most famous of London, but instead some dreary buildings get in the way. They are hardly isolated examples. All around St Paul's are buildings, some old, some new, some pretty, some not. All of them obscure the view of what should be the pride of London. St Paul's has been strangled by London.

I'm not suggesting that there should be a mile-wide ban on buildings around St Paul's, but I am strongly stating that the construction that clings tightly to the outskirts of the cathedral severely damages the impresison it should make. St Paul's should be prominent; instead it is partially invisible. It is is a joy to walk up streets and capture it in the distance, with its dominant dome, but these sort of sights should be standard, not stolen glimpses.

The weekend that I visited had the roads mostly blocked off for cycling, but usually they are clogged with cars. Aside from stolen glimpses, visitors to St Paul's have to appreciate it from close up - but it is too big to be appreciated from close up. Worse, most people congregate in the tiny square by the main facade, but the main facade is the worst place to view St Paul's. Why? Because it's just about the only place you can't see the dome.

St Paul's needs a lot more space, but I don't know where it's going to come from. It needs a large square in front of its facade, but that's not at all feasible. I understand much of the City of London was rebuilt to the old haphazard street plan following the fire, rather than to Christopher Wren's own grand city plan, simply due to the need for people to rebuild their lives quickly rather than wait for a much slower masterplan. I understand that, but it's a shame. But it's no excuse for the monstrosities than conceal it from the river view. Tear them down and build some parks I say. London is obscuring and ignoring its best building.

Time will be the test, but I think if we are to fast forward a century or so, Christopher Wren will no longer be London's foremost architect. I think Norman Foster, the designer of the Gherkin, London City Hall, Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Bridge, will be. It's not because of the inherent style or beauty of the structures - I think St Paul's is definitely the most beautiful of all of them - but it's the visibility. Foster's creations can be clearly seen, Wren's cannot. Foster owns the future. And rather than the religious meaning behind St Paul's, the financial of the Gherkin, the political of City Hall, and the sporting of Wembley are all perhaps more relevant to the modern-day city.

Some criteria then.

Size: Here's the numbers: it's 158 metres long and 111 metres high, and basically that's definitely big enough to make an impression. But it's the interior, most notably the Whispering Gallery of the inner dome, that really gives the sense of heavenly dimensions.
Engineering: A cathedral of that size, in that time, was always an incredible effort; any dome built in that era was a magnificent technical achievement. That St Paul's was built by an architect who had only been abroad once, in his youth, and in a country without any kind of precendent for such a massive domed structure, and that it was built in just 35 years, is astonishing.
Artistry: St Paul's never shows off, but is always beautiful. From the outside, it is cleanly, elegantly beautiful (although perhaps the main facade is a little over-the-top), but its the inside where it excels.
Age: It celebrated its 300th birthday in 2011.
Fame/Iconicity: Sure, it's famous in London, and attracts loads of tourists, but so does Tower Bridge and the Millennium Wheel, both of which are far less majestic (although certainly great in their own right). Significantly, it's not the icon of London - and might not even break the top 5.  
Context: The major let-down of St Paul's. It's a terrific building that London appears to be doing its best to hide. Obscured river view: check. No good point of observation: check. The best buildings in the world need to have space to be appreciated - St Paul's doesn't have it. Imagine the Taj Mahal surrounded by buildings from the 1960s, or the Sydney Opera House in suburbia: clearly, both would lose their impact. London lets St Paul's down.
Back Story: Really, it's just a tale of an architect building a cathedral (quickly), but it's a surprisingly involved tale, which captures something of the history of London and the era it was in. Having something emerge from the ashes of the Great Fire of London is a nice origin story.
Originality: It's a cathedral, so let's not pretend it's one of a kind. Neither is it cookie-cutter though. It is Baroque and Renaissance architecture as envisioned by Christopher Wren, and very much has its own distinct personality. I won't pretend I've never seen anything like it in my life before, but the more I look at it, the more distinct it becomes.
Wow Factor: The impact is diminished by the rest of London encroaching upon it, but little glimpses of "wow" can still be grabbed - the approach from the Thameslink station or from across the Millennium Bridge (a brilliant new addition to the city) allow for these moments. But the true wow, the moment you realise you're witnessing the product of genius, something awesome, is arriving in the Whispering Gallery and sensing the heavens.

St Paul's Cathedral on a hill in London - amazing. St Paul's Cathedral in the Peruvians mountains in place of Machu Picchu - well, that would be something. But it's not, it's in the middle of London. In many ways, this is great - London is one of the world's great cities, and St Paul's is at its heart, in the way all great cathedrals should be. But it doesn't dominate - instead it is dominated. And this isn't how it should be for a cathedral. I can't fault the beauty, I can't even blame London really - it has been a thriving city for centuries and can't tiptoe around all its buildings. London hasn't been planned, it just is. But it doesn't show off its main cathedral in the way most cities do.

Despite these shortcomings though, there is no question St Paul's is great. And it has impressed me more than I expected. From the outside, yeah, I had a pretty good idea, but it's from the inside that it stands out. The restoration has done wonders, and it's pretty awesome to behold, especially when looking down from the inner dome. As a Wonder, how would I rate it? Well, it's punching a lot higher than I'd anticipated. St Paul's gets a lot of critical respect, but I feel it is somewhat underrated  in the public perception of World Wonders. But I'm genuinely impressed. It's a beautiful and powerful building, conveying exactly the essence of what a cathedral intends to convey. I wonder, I wonder, what it might be if London showed it off a little more, but even as it stands I think this scores highly. An easy comparison is with fellow cathedral, the Notre-Dame de Paris; compared to it, St Paul's has an inferior facade and position in its city, but with a greater sense of grandeur and, though many may disagree, is a more impressive technical achievement. For these reasons, I would place St Paul's just - and only just - ahead of the Notre-Dame. This therefore rightfully places it just behind the unique, mysterious Borobudur, which happens to have its very own Whispering Gallery moment of reveal when reaching the open upper levels and surveying the many miles of lands surrounding it. Not one of the Seven Wonders therefore, but a pretty good crack at being in the chasing pack of Other Wonders.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Eiffel Tower
4. Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Why are there no photos of me?

    1. If you write an "Emily Corner" there will be. I'll give you an email about it.

  2. I agree. St Paul's is a wonderful monument completely let down by the thoughtless urban planning that surrounds it. I can't help thinking that if Christopher Wren came back today in a time machine he would not be too pleased to see how it is hemmed in by so many nondescript buildings. An important aspect of architecture isn't just how the building itself looks, but how it fits in with its surroundings (or how its surroundings fit in with it). In this case it really is a shame, it's like watching Laurence of Arabia on Youtube filmed via a mobile phone pointed at a TV set.

    It makes me think of St Patrick's cathedral in New York (although I haven't seen it for real): a neo-gothic cathedral surrounded by skyscrapers - it ends up looking like a big parish church.

    You mention under-appreciated architects in your first couple of paragraphs: some more examples are John Vanbrugh, who designed Blenheim Palace. He fell out with Lady Marlborough who dismissed him, so he only ever saw his completed masterpiece from afar, by peering through the entry gates. Also Charles Garnier, who designed the Opera Garnier in Paris: for some inexplicable reason he was not invited to the inauguration, so had to buy a ticket and watch a bunch of pompous officials congratulating themselves on the new opera from a 2nd class seat!

    Incidently these two buildings are magnificent (well, I haven't seen Blenheim Palace but have heard and read much about it) and they would certainly fulfill some of your criteria.

    1. "'s like watching Laurence of Arabia on Youtube filmed via a mobile phone pointed at a TV set." When I eventually write my 3000-page book, I'm going to steal/borrow this.

      There are too many great buildings... both these of these fit comfortably onto my longlist, which is a list I intend to leisurely complete over the course of my life, rather than the shortlist which I really want done by 2015.


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