- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

The man who has come down to us as the iconic English architect never unrolled a blueprint until in his mid-30s. Christopher Wren, whose life is competently retold in Adrian Tinniswood's His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren (Oxford University Press, $35, 416 pages, illus.), was a polymath back in that exciting age when one could be on the cutting edge in a wide variety of fields. Mr. Tinniswood is an architectural historian, but his account opens not at a building site but with a cinematic retelling of Wren's splenectomy of a live spaniel, part of his biological investigations as a young don at Oxford.
Born in 1631, Wren was already a nationally renowned astronomer and mathematician and a founder of the world-famous Royal Society before embarking on the architectural career that gave us St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, Greenwich Hospital and other glories of the English Baroque. He turned to architecture in part because his investigations in math and physics gave him a solid grounding in structural forces and other technical problems.
Wren received the career break of a lifetime when a small fire in a London bakery spread to a nearby warehouse and, in the course of a few days, incinerated much of the capital in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren was appointed to the commission to rebuild the city, and three years later was appointed the royal surveyor by Charles II.
It is Mr. Tinniswood's misfortune that his subject appears to have had an unremarkable personality in a most remarkable age. Wren lived in an era that included the deposing of two kings, and he knew practically everybody who mattered in a life that spanned nearly 93 years. Mr. Tinniswood's account is hampered by the skimpy record we have of Wren's personal life and the author's own occasionally too-jokey style.
The most intriguing parts of the book do not concern Wren's successes, but his disappointments. His plan for London, his original Greek Cross design for St. Paul's and numerous royal palaces and government buildings remain only glories of the drafting table, having fallen victim to budget shortfalls, political and artistic opposition and shifting royal politics.
Wren's reputation fell into sharp decline shortly after his death. "There was no place for his flexible approach to classical convention in the strict Palladianism" of succeeding generations of English architects, Mr. Tinniswood writes. It was not until the late-19th century "Wrenaissance" that Wren became incontrovertibly established as his country's greatest architect.
"Judged by his own standards," Mr. Tinniswood concludes, "this ambitious, austere and ultimately unknowable man's career was a failure." But, the biographer justly adds: "If failure means Hampton Court and St. Paul's, the wonder of Trinity College Library and the bubble of unexpected lightness that is St. Stephen Walbrook, then perhaps we need more failures in the world."

Architectural history has long been taught as if it were some sort of logical continuum originating in Greece, flowering in Italy, subject to over breeding in Germany and France, and reawaking to the Modern world in Germany during the Bauhaus period as the International Style. There is an appealing tidiness to this line of thought, except that it leaves out two-thirds of the global continents; that is, anything other than Western Europe and North America. That is one reason why Cosmic Architecture in India by Andreas Volwahsen (Prestel, $34.95, 160 pages, illus.) is worth a look. The book provides an intriguing introduction to India, and the astronomic observatories constructed by the Maharajah Jai Singh II (1686-1743).
Although Mr. Volwahsen has chosen a small and specialized segment of Indian architecture to showcase, he manages to connect the observatories to the larger context of Indian society and the Hindu perspective on cosmological order in the universe.
Mr. Volwahsen then outlines Jai Singh's efforts, in collboration with Hindu priest/architects, to create several observatories and, in fact, an entire town in the form of a mandala, a physical representation of the cosmos, with the earth at its center. These structures allowed the plotting and observation of the sunrise; meridian transit; sunset and the determination of the four compass points. In this way, they share similarities with Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and Mayan temples. Mr. Volwahsen achieves a good balance of providing enough technical information on the layout of the observatories and their historical context, without losing readers unfamiliar with the Hindu religion or astronomical minutiae.
The technical nature of the observatories made for structures of strong sculptural image. There is very little traditional enclosure, or sense of a "building", and much more a series of sweeping curves (representing the equator), measuring scales and monumental stairs that lead to no destination other that a spot from which to observe the heavens. It's not hard to see how architects as diverse as Le Corbusier, who Mr. Volwahsen claims drew on the images for his High Court at Chandigargh project, to Buckminster Fuller and his tetrahedronal dome could have drawn inspiration from the observatories.The drawings of more recent architects such as John Hedjuk or Leon Krier also share a similar poetry.
The book includes photographs of the observatories, a chapter on their construction and enough evocative renderings to make it easily apparent how these observatories serve as an inspiration not only to Hindu astronomers, but to all who perceive beauty in abstract form and relationships.

It helps to have already an opinion about development in America before tackling James Howard Kunstler's The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (Simon & Schuster, $25, 272 pages, illus.), a collection of eight essays about eight cities from around the world, because the author certainly doesn't provide any new information. Mr. Kunstler, who admits that his book "doesn't pretend to be the last word on cities," does not as readily admit that his book is also not the first word; most of his opinions are rehashings of previous writers' work.
Mr. Kunstler does provide a populist and very readable spin to the thoughts of these more serious scholars of the suburban scene, from Jane Jacobs to Andres Duany and Leon Krier to Demetrious Porphyrios. But they took the stroll years earlier and they took it in a more thoughtful and reasoned way. In his essay on Rome, for instance, Mr. Kunstler includes the segment "Classical is Not a Style," a title eerily similar to a Porphyrios essay, "Classicism is Not a Style." Both pieces explain that Classicism is less about the stylistic notion of "the Orders" than it is about the idea of "order." Mr. Kunstler's piece may be more accessible to a general audience today, for the Porphyrios one was written more than 20 years ago.
Mr. Kunstler, who dedicates the essays to Mr. Duany, "the restless warrior," (champion of the 'new urbanism' seen locally at Kentlands) and cites Mr. Krier, rails in an adolescent way about everything that's crummy in America, without offering much in the way of solutions, but his prose, though florid, is readable. His historical overviews of Paris and Rome, particularly, are a skillful presentation of history as it relates to the present. And if you agree with Mr. Kunstler that the U.S. landscape is in an abysmal state from which we will never escape, if you hate the impact of the automobile on the landscape, or resent the development of large tracts of outlying woodlands so that someone can buy a tract mansion and commute in an SUV, then you may cheer Mr. Kunstler's viewpoint and find this a rousing collection.
But if you feel it unfair to compare Atlanta, or even New York, to the great European capitals, or believe that change at best takes time, then you may become impatient with the entire tone of the book. That's what this collection amounts to: an attitude, a complaint, an indictment, but without any of the thoughtful analysis, proposals for solutions or faith in the future that earlier critiques possessed.

Ellen D. Sands is an architectural designer and critic.


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