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"Wren's rebuilding on the medieval street pattern is the essence of London" say architects

Architects should work creatively with planning constraints rather than fighting them in order to preserve the character of historic cities, according to panellists exploring the legacy of Christopher Wren at a talk filmed by Dezeen for World Monuments Fund.

The talk brought together a panel of architects who have designed buildings in the City of London to address the difficulties in developing historic cities, while preserving their identity and history.

"In many places, there are incredible community institutions that have not actually been preserved and are being erased by development," said South African architect Sumayya Vally during the talk.

"If we aren't able to work with the energy of a place and think about how we evolve that alongside our development, then we're missing out on something."

Interior of St Stephen Walbrook Church
The talk took place at St Stephen Walbrook Church designed by Christopher Wren

Called Wren Conversations: Building Cities, the talk was the second in a series of conversations exploring the life and legacy of the British architect to mark 300 years since his death.

The panellists explored the ways in which Wren introduced a new architectural style following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Three days after the fire, Wren presented King Charles II with his plan of rebuilding the city, which never came to fruition.

Wren ultimately built 51 churches on existing mediaeval foundations, including the iconic St Paul's Cathedral.

"He had to find a way of rebuilding within London, but using the mediaeval foundations – or in other words, adjusting to what was already there," said chairman of the Millennium Bridge Trust Sir David Bell, who hosted the talk.

"In a way, that has been the history of London all the way through."

Exterior of St Stephen Walbrook Church situated next to Foster + Partner's Bloomberg headquarters
The panel featured Amanda Levete, Sumayya Vally, Kate Murphy and Rab Bennetts. Photo by Nigel Young

The talk, which took place at St Stephen Walbrook Church on 22 March and was filmed by Dezeen, also discussed obstacles they have faced with planning and how various restrictions have impacted the wider planning of London, which, while limiting, have not necessarily been bad for the city.

"Wren's kind of rebuilding on the mediaeval street pattern is actually the essence of London," said Stirling Prize-winning architect Amanda Levete. "It's made London able to adapt and evolve in a way that Paris hasn't."

"I believe very strongly that the protective views of St Paul's are extremely important and need to be preserved. And it's up to us as architects to cleverly work around those rather than to challenge them," she continued.

Exterior of St Stephen Walbrook Church situated next to Foster + Partner's Bloomberg headquarters
The talk explored the difficulties of developing cities while preserving their rich histories. Photo by Nigel Young

Senior partner at Foster + Partners Kate Murphy, who had a major role in designing the Stirling Prize-winning European headquarters of Bloomberg, explained the decisions behind the scale and massing of the building were informed by the concept of "being a good neighbour".

"It actually already had planning consent for a much taller building with a much bigger, higher centre," Murphy explained. "But during the course of the project, the viewing corridors for St Paul's Cathedral changed."

"We lost the area, but I think we all felt it was the right thing to do. So I think that thing of being a good neighbour is the best way of approaching planning and really trying to connect with the community and the infrastructure around you," she continued.

Exterior of St Stephen Walbrook Church situated next to Foster + Partner's Bloomberg headquarters
The panelists discussed how planning restrictions can provide both limitations and opportunities. Photo by Nigel Young

The venue for the talk, Wren's St Stephen Walbrook Church, is now used for a host of programmes and groups – including Samaritans, choral music evenings and Rush Hour Jazz – serving as a community centre for diverse groups.

Reflecting on the venue, the panellists were asked about the role of architecture in building bridges between people and communities.

Close up of the domed ceiling inside the St Stephen Walbrook Church
The panellists have designed buildings in some of the most historic sites in London

"One of the most underestimated skills of an architect is to try to do buildings as the backdrop to city life," said co-founder of Bennetts Associates Rab Bennetts.

"Not every building has to be prominent or to shout. A lot of buildings need to recede into the background in my view."

Wren Conversations: Building Cities took place on 22 March 2023 at St Stephen Walbrook Church.

The final talk in the series, titled Wren’s International Influence and Contemporary Relevance, will take place at 6pm on Thursday 27 April in St. Mary Aldermary, London. Tickets are available now.

See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

Partnership content

This video was produced by Dezeen as part of a partnership with World Monuments Fund. Find out more about Dezeen partnership content here