Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wren's Dome

On Sunday night, September 2, 1666, a small fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane in London. Three nights later, the fire had consumed most of the city within London's old Roman wall and a small portion beyond the wall to the west. While there were relatively few deaths in what became known later as the Great Fire, the blaze destroyed more than 13,000 houses, almost 100 churches and a number of large public buildings in the city. Like most major fires in cities throughout history (Chicago comes to mind most notably in the United States), the event caused sweeping changes in building construction and firefighting policies to be implemented immediately.

Of all the buildings destroyed in the Great Fire, one of the most important was the old St. Paul's Cathedral, the largest church with the tallest spire in the city. The Cathedral, which had stood for more than five centuries at the time of the Great Fire, was not only a place for people to worship; it was literally a fixture on the London skyline. The task of recreating St. Paul's Cathedral would be a significant post-fire priority. The city and the church turned to Sir Christopher Wren, England's pre-eminent architect at the time, to take on the task of designing and overseeing the construction of the Cathedral. While the undertaking was not without design and construction obstacles, the importance of the effort clearly shows. In Cathedral terms, the construction was astonishingly fast; it was consecrated in 1697, a mere 31 years after the fire.

One of the greatest challenges for Wren was designing a building way taller than any other in the city while also maintaining a correctly proportioned interior, most importantly at the Cathedral's crossing, which was to be located beneath a massive dome. This was not a new idea for architects during the Renaissance. For centuries in Europe, man had been trying to build taller and taller churches. During the middle ages, the Gothic cathedrals throughout the continent stretched the limits of stone construction and the rudimentary understanding of structural principles decade after decade to reach closer to heaven. Generally speaking, the builders of these cathedrals were concerned only with height and not with the experience for the people on the inside; the task was about building close to God, not building correctly proportioned interior spaces.

But during the Renaissance, the discussion shifted. Now all of a sudden the conversation was about every aspect of design, and the architects of the world, who were slowly developing their craft into a profession, were now very concerned that the crossings of most Gothic cathedrals were just too tall. Filippo Brunelleschi had solved this problem in the design of the cathedral in Florence, Italy in the 1400s by creating two domes: one inside the church that could be viewed from below at a correct height and one to create the exterior form of the building. Michelangelo borrowed the same idea in the design of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in the following century. Operating on the time tested tradition within architecture of borrowing other people's ideas, Wren followed suit with the design of St. Paul's: the building has a magnificent outer dome which is visible from throughout London and an interior dome which is suitable to the interior building proportions favored by Wren. Between the two is a cone of brick, which is really holding the whole thing up.

Now I'm not usually a sucker for visiting old buildings. My primary historical interest in architecture is the work of the pre-Modernists, architects struggling to develop a new language of architecture appropriate to the new materials and technologies arising from the industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. One of my objections to classical architecture is the concealing of the building's structure with cladding more pleasing to the eye; I'd rather see the columns and beams which are holding up the building rather than covering it up with ornament. This is a concept that the pre-Modernists wrestled with and you can see it in their work, which is one of the reasons I find that stuff so appealing. Wren, of course, being a Renaissance architect, covered all the building structure in St. Paul's. But you can still see the structure of the dome, if you are willing to work for it. Which is why I visited.

I have to admit, when I first started looking into creating an itinerary for my England trip, I initially balked at the £15 (or about $25) admission fee to St. Paul's. Yes, I had already paid a similar price to visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona earlier this year. But the Sagrada Familia is a masterpiece of pre-Modern architecture; St. Paul's is a seventeenth century classical-by-the-book church and not exactly my cup of tea (if you will excuse the expression). The admission price I was thinking about not paying, by the way, was a discounted advance purchase price; tack on an extra £1.50 when purchased on site! It just seemed to all be a bit too much. 

But ultimately the pull of Wren's dome was just too much to resist for two reasons. First, the admission price fell into my "I've come all this way and spent all this money just to get here, I may as well fork over a couple of more dollars" logic that I find myself using all too often lately to convince myself to part with a little more money than I really want to on vacation. Although I find my own logic sound on this point. And secondly, and I'd like to think more importantly, you can go up into the dome. I'm a bit of a sucker for going up high buildings and seeing the places I visit from a different perspective. Knowing I could go check out the hidden structure between the interior and exterior shells, which I know I would find truly beautiful, proved too irresistible. 

The trip to the top of St. Paul's dome seems like an easy one from the ground. The brochure you pick up with your admission price shows a great sectional view of the dome (above) with the number of steps to each level of the dome listed: 257 steps followed by 119 steps followed by 152 steps. 528 steps in all covering a vertical rise of 85 meters or about 279 feet. So at about a little before 4 pm on Tuesday, September 2, I made my way to the southwest corner of the Cathedral's crossing and entered the staircase hidden within the column at that location and started to climb.

The stairs to the Whispering Gallery.
The first 257 steps in the climb take you almost one third of the total height of the dome to the Whispering Gallery, so named because you can allegedly whisper on one side of the dome and have it be clearly audible on the opposite side. Given the number of fellow tourists in the gallery at the same time I was there, I was unfortunately unable to test if this was true. I suppose if I wanted to validate this claim, I'd get there when St. Paul's opens and rush up to the gallery before anyone else could get there. Maybe next time.

The Whispering Gallery is about half the distance to the top of the interior dome. From here you can see in more detail the paintings, including the many many saints, on the curves of the dome which are considerably closer in the Gallery than they are from the Cathedral floor. The steps that you climb to the Whispering Gallery (shown above) are spiral, like the rest of the stairs all the way to the top of the dome, and fairly wide. Wide enough even to accommodate two people going up passing two people going down. There is plenty of room and the climb seems pretty easy, although by the time you get to about step number 250, you start to feel the burden of sitting all day in an office, despite having walked yourself almost to death in the previous couple of days of vacation. I was glad for a few minutes rest before considering resuming the trek higher.

Before I continue, I should point out that photography in St. Paul's is forbidden. Yes, I took some pictures anyway. I figured they can't possibly want to restrict people from taking pictures of the insides of the stairs to the dome. That's really only fun to people like me, right? Besides, how would I write about my climb to the top without a few pics. If I've erred in judgment here, the Cathedral can probably figure out where to find me. 

The stairs to the Stone Gallery.
The next stop on the climb up St. Paul's dome is the Stone Gallery, 376 steps total and 53 meters total above ground level. The Stone Gallery is the exterior platform just below the base of the outer dome and it affords some nice views of London when you peak through the stone balustrade that runs about six feet high all around the perimeter of the Gallery. St. Paul's is truly one of the best places in the city to see the rest of London from an elevated viewpoint. It's really right in the middle of the old city and you can see pretty much everything. If only we could get rid of that pesky balustrade.

The stairs to the Stone Gallery are not like those from the Cathedral's floor to the Whispering Gallery; they are noticeably tighter. There's no two way traffic on these things. There is actually an "up" stair and a "down" stair leading to and from the Stone Gallery. There's room enough for a fairly large sized man (i.e. me) to get up or down but not much more. And there are resting spots for those folks who cannot take all 119 steps without stopping, allowing others to pass while catching some breath. Thankfully I'm not in bad enough shape yet to have needed any rest but the stair is challenging. As you go higher in the building, the rise of the steps increases. Each set of stairs gets more difficult.

The view through the Stone Gallery balustrade to the Shard.
The Stone Gallery is nice. I know nice is not a great word but that about sums it up. It's got a decent view and it's refreshing to get a breath of fresh air after being inside the centuries old church. But the fun part lies just ahead: the final climb to the Golden Gallery. Not only do you get the biggest payoff for your efforts in the form of panoramic views of London, you also get to check out the hidden structure between the domes while climbing past and in between it. This stuff is truly interesting from here on out.

The difference between this portion of the climb and the previous two sets of stairs is immediately obvious as soon as you step inside from the Stone Gallery. You are no longer climbing a spiral staircase with stone steps built within stone walls. Instead, you are ascending a series of metal stairs suspended between the structural brick cone and the inner face of the exterior dome, all of which is painted white. Looking up, you can see a spiral staircase system winding its way up and over as the curve of the outer dome forces you towards the center of the building. You can also hear the shoe-on-metal clanking of others climbing ahead of you echoing in the dome chamber. Only 152 more steps to go from here.

The metal spiral staircase from the Stone Gallery to the Golden Gallery.
The perforated ribs of the structural dome.
The structure is fascinating. The structural brick cone is your floor so to speak. It's solid and forms a surface by which to measure your climb. Between the brick and the exterior dome are a series of horizontal curved ribs to support the outside of the building, with cutouts both to allow passage of the stair you are climbing but also to decrease the weight of the structure (Wren knew what he was doing). The views you get as you climb are constantly changing as the space gets tighter and tighter. It's really sort of cool, I would think even if you are not an architect.

Eventually, you run out of dome and you start climbing into the cupola, which includes the outdoor Golden Gallery, and the stairs start getting really tight. The last half dozen or so stairs are no longer the metal spiral stairs but are instead hewn out of stone, much like the stairs to the Whispering Gallery or the Stone Gallery. Except tighter. Like way way tighter. I had difficulty fitting through here. My shoulders were just about touching the side walls and I actually managed to bump my head on the arch of the final opening before eventually emerging into the inside of the dome's cupola. Be careful here. It's a tight squeeze, but the sense of accomplishment you get in finally reaching the top is a good one.

The final staircase. The Golden Gallery awaits!
There is a small room within the cupola that by comparison to the last stairs seems enormous. There are some stairs leading further up which are closed to the public (totally jealous) and a door opening to the exterior Golden Gallery which is the ultimate view of London. Stepping through the doorway to the outside, you can see central London in an extraordinary way; there is absolutely nothing to obstruct your view of the city and you are right smack dab in the middle of everything. You are even able to take in some spectacular views of St. Paul's itself. But be prepared: the Golden Gallery is small and it is likely to be packed full of people. Hold on to your camera.

Getting to the top of St. Paul's is a bit of a chore, but exploring the innards of the dome and looking out over the entire city are well worth it. I did this once before in 1997 but I am sure the day was not as beautiful and I know the company was nowhere near as good. I'm not sure I'd do this every time I visited London but once every 14 years or so I think is OK. It's amazing how much a city changes in that time. I hope London is as gorgeous 300 years from now when St. Paul's is twice as old.

Looking down on St. Paul's from the Golden Gallery.
The ultimate payoff: looking south from St. Paul's over the Thames to the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern.

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