Today, a great architect hides his intentions. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I was young in St.
Paul, Minnesota, I liked to ride downtown in a
streetcar. It would rattle past a cathedral called
St. Paul's with a lovely big dome. The name was a
kind of double entendre -- the name of the city and
the name of the great English cathedral that it
copied -- St. Paul's in London.
No child of WW-II can forget St. Paul's great dome
standing out against London's bomb-lit night sky.
It survived the Blitz, even though it'd been
rebuilt repeatedly since AD 607. In 1665 the
current building was a 500-year-old Gothic
cathedral. It'd never really been finished, and now
it was falling apart.
The brilliant young architect Christopher Wren was
told to rebuild the old wreck. He put a radical
plan before the Cathedral Planning Commission. He'd
tear the old Gothic building down and replace it.
He'd cap the new building with a dome like the ones
on Renaissance churches in Europe. The Commission
would have none of that. Cathedrals had spires --
not domes. St. Paul's would be patched, not
rebuilt; and Wren would place a new spire upon it.
Wren rankled for a year. Then nature intervened.
The terrible fire of London finished off the old
building, and Wren was free to design a new one.
The Commission still rejected his design, even
though King Charles rather liked it. Finally the
King gave him a loophole. He told Wren to erase the
dome from his plans and draw in a steeple -- any
old steeple. Then the King put a phrase in Wren's
contract that granted him liberty to make such
variations as from time to time he should see
Wren's design was topped with a hideous,
out-of-proportion steeple. But it satisfied the
Commission, and he went to work. It took 35 years
to build the new cathedral -- far longer than the
collective memory of any committee. As the
structure rose, Wren made a careful sequence of
changes. The bogus steeple gracefully gave way to a
marvel of engineering -- a great dome, 110 feet
across, soaring 368 feet in the air. To hold it
without buttresses, Wren girdled it with a huge
iron chain hidden by the facing stone.
That old rusted chain was finally replaced by
stainless steel in 1925. And you can still go to
London, sit in a pew, and see what a 92-year-old
Wren saw on the last Sunday of his life -- an
interior that seemingly stretches to infinity in
five directions, north, south, east, west -- and
upward. The view upward -- past the whispering
gallery to that splendid ceiling -- isn't easy to
forget. Wren was buried in the building under a
Of course, the building itself is his monument.
It's also a monument to the will of this gentle
genius who found a way to show people what couldn't
be explained to them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds