Bringing Christopher Wren’s legacy into the digital age

By Tom Howells

With apologies to Nicholas Hawksmoor – and, at a push, Richard Rogers – no single person has defined the London skyline like Christopher Wren. The tousled architectural titan, a pioneer of the ornate English Baroque style, was responsible for a panoply of the capital’s most iconic edifices, including the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Kensington Palace, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Monument, myriad City churches and, most resoundingly, St Paul’s Cathedral. To mark the third centenary of his death, LDF and Bloomberg Philanthropies have commissioned two Landmark Projects within two of Wren’s most esteemed buildings. These form part of the celebrations for Wren300 – a year- long cultural programme of events that seeks to refract the architect’s legacy through a hyper-contemporary prism. Here, we find out how Pablo Valbuena makes contemporary rituals with sound and light with his tribute to Wren.

Created with public art facilitator Artichoke, Pablo Valbuena’s design intervention ‘Aura’ responds to the hallowed enclaves of St Paul’s Cathedral. It reflects on both Wren’s inimitable design processes, and the fundamental notion of what a ‘temple’ means today – amalgamating sound and light to create a very modern deconstruction of the idea of collective ritual.

Wren’s practice, explains Valbuena, drew on his polymath interests in astronomy, anatomy, geometry, drawing, optics, mathematics and physics. One of the aspects that most intrigued the artist about Wren’s work was his “ability to build perceptually” – constructing a meticulous image of reality by seamlessly combining materials, scale, light and sound to create works of monolithic splendour imbued with a palpable human aspect. From both aesthetic and philosophical standpoints, ‘Aura’ acts as a neatly abstracted echo of this creative philosophy.

“‘Aura’ does not construct another experiential layer as cinema can do. It is a fully embodied experience.”

The work takes the form of a 20m-high line of light, suspended vertically at the centre of the cathedral, beneath its cavernous dome and at the intersection of the perpendicular nave and transepts. The light was fashioned, improbably, from sounds idiosyncratic to the space: “the voice of the preacher, the voices of the choir, the organ and any other sounds produced in the rituals of the cathedral”. These, explains Valbuena’s proposal for the piece, are recorded and then analysed in real-time by a mathematical algorithm, and transformed using white- light-emitting diodes into a spectral aura that distributes the different frequencies in the surrounding space. The intangible is made hauntingly visible.

Inevitably, the work will be most ‘active’ during daily services – Morning Prayer, the Sung Eucharist, Evensong, Organ Practise, et al – but is set to glow in standby mode for the rest of the day. “It is not a diegetic process in the sense that the installation only augments and focuses on what is already there,” Valbuena says. “It does not construct another experiential or narrative layer as cinema can do. ‘Aura’ is a fully embodied experience, it enhances reality with a virtual layer of information.”

Of equal import to Valbuena was the idea of reacquainting attendees of St Paul’s with the element of ritual, a factor he sees diluted by the sheer number of tourist (rather than religious) visitors the cathedral sees on a daily basis. The building’s two functions – of a temple and a popular attraction – encompass divergent temporalities 22 and objectives, he says. By providing a multi-dimensional reconfiguration of the cathedral’s hallowed function, ‘Aura’ “seeks to perceptually intensify the ritual and symbolic dimension of the space”. It’s a very Wren approach, but also one that works in parallel with Valbuena’s existing ethoses. “I am very interested in making work intimately linked to a place,” he explains, “that can only happen in a particular space, time and circumstances.”

Either way, it’s a resplendent construction – as precise in form as it is affecting in practice. “Geometrical beauty,” concludes Valbuena, paraphrasing Wren himself, “was always the true Test.”