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St Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004

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review - Edited by Derek Keene, Arthur Burns and Andrew Saint. Yale University Press, 2004. 538pp. £60

Several histories of St Paul's, from when a cathedral church first occupied this site, have appeared since Thomas Dugdale's The History of Saint Paul's Cathedral, in London, from its Foundation (1658), writes John Bancroft.

Dugdale, a contemporary of Christopher Wren, knew the medieval St Paul's first-hand and was complimentary about its successor, which he would have seen under construction. So the St Paul's we know was an 'icon' then.

Yale's new history is a compilation of scholarly essays on various aspects of the buildings successively occupying the site over the 1,400 years since its foundation, together with the religious and secular life of St Paul's as a national shrine.

It is split into three parts: a historical overview, the period up to the Reformation, and the period from the Reformation to the present (concluding with a lengthy bibliography). Part three is of most obvious interest to architect readers, including essays on the cathedral's construction, decoration, conservation, urban setting and 'reputation'.

Self-taught as an architect, Wren was a remarkable man, a polymath. Generous, he shared his knowledge - his scientific work and inventions - heedless of financial gain.

With Wren's sound training, his clerk of works Nicholas Hawksmoor went on to become one of our most original Baroque architects.

Clearly Wren headed his team of craftsmen and building operatives respectful of their skills; his management probably sprang from an ability to listen rather than a 'big boss approach'. He understood the limits of his materials, and delighted in drawing and model-making.

In his biography of Wren published in 1953, John Summerson concluded: 'If we study Wren and his age today? it is because the study of those creatures of our kind who have been exceptional in sensibility or intellect, is in itself rewarding and enlightening? It is not very often that the art and science of building fall within the sphere of really commanding ability.' For those who, like me, view the present London scene with disquiet, the essay on 'Skyline and Scholarship' highlights the Prince of Wales' book Vision of Britain (1989), in which he asks 'Can you imagine the French doing this sort of thing in Paris?' - the illustration shows an advancing army of high-rise.

There's no mention, though, of Osbert Sitwell's book Sing High! Sing Low! (1944), in which he writes: 'What sort of city are we to build to make a capital worthy of the people of London? Above all we must remember the hundred spires and shell-like turrets of Wren and Hawksmoor - so unlike any other system of architecture in the world.' Yale's new book is a 'must', strongly recommended for both its content and quality of production, and good value too at £60.

John Bancroft is an architect in Haywards Heath

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