St. Stephen's Defined
In many of the City churches Wren was not particular about right angles in the plans, but the geometry of St. Stephen's is perfectly rectangular. What makes this Church so remarkable, however, is not the delicacy of the plasterwork or the accuracy of the geometry, hut the subtlety of the space which that geometry defines. Significantly, the space has never been interrupted by galleries, for there is no place in which galleries could have been acceptably placed.
Wren's churches were intended to be what he called 'auditories', in which everyone present could see, hear and feel themselves part of the congregation. A well-lit interior was imperative, with the minimum of obstruction from internal supports. Wren also provided, as a matter of course, a place for the communion table at the east end, and a principal entrance at the west; the latter is unusually impressive because the slope of the site makes it necessary for a flight of steps up from the street.
From the porch, we pass into a short nave of only two bays with double aisles, to face a chancel of one bay on the far side of the dome; the main focus of the interior becomes immediately clear. But the space can be read in other ways. We seem to be inside a set of pillars arranged on a regular grid plan, except that four have been left out of the centre, under the dome. Or again, we may see a perfectly regular domed church, with four triplets of columns, but extended westwards into a sort of ante-chapel from which we can look into the central symmetrical space. The dome seems to rest on the points between the arches, and on the eight columns under these points; in fact there are walls and window arches behind these points, which share with the columns the function of support. These window arches have become the Church's principal light sources. since the east windows are coloured and the oval side windows are shielded by later buildings.
The worshipper and the agnostic alike may feel at first only that they are in a pleasant interior, but the flooding light, and the arrangement of the interior space, so clear yet capable of several readings, have a cumulative effect. That effect does not depend on decorative richness - the enrichment exists only to give softness and substance to the abstraction of lines; the roses, laurels and palms of the plasterwork are only the most conventional of symbols. Wren considered geometry to be the basis of the whole world and the manifestation of its Creator, while light not only made that geometry visible but also represented the gift of Reason, of which geometry was for him the highest expression. Like the solution to a mathematical problem, everything fits into place with apparent simplicity; yet this simplicity itself is mysterious and magical. Whether one experiences St. Stephen's alone, in stillness and quiet, or in a full congregation resounding with music, the effect is always the same. Life outside is complicated and chaotic. To enter is not to escape into fantasy; rather is it to submit to the strongest positive assertion of the true order of the universe.
Like all great works of art, St. Stephen's is of its time, and our sense of history requires that we recognise its associations with a great age; but again like all great works of art, it has something about it that is timeless, and its message, indeed its very survival, must be the concern of us all.
Professor Kerry Downes