The cathedral's province was a tight-knit quarter of drapers, printers, bookbinders and booksellers. Ordinary and not-so-ordinary Londoners lived and worked in the higgledy-piggledy patchwork that was the City of London Christopher Wren knew as he raised his vast Baroque temple here between 1675 and 1711.
For centuries buildings had come and gone, either demolished to meet changing needs or razed by the great fires of 961, 1087 and 1666. And still the ancient street pattern surrounding St Paul's lingered on into the mid-20th century.
The Luftwaffe brought down the curtains on this remarkable scene. A heavy incendiary bomb attack on 29 December 1940 set alight the whole Paternoster area immediately to the north of St Paul's. Five million books, it is said, were destroyed on that one night (along with many lives).
Miraculously, although hit then and later, the cathedral survived. For the rest of the Second World War, soul-stirring views of the dome and upper tiers of the cathedral walls could be seen from vantage points throughout central London.
After the war the Paternoster site was cleared. Under the direction of Lord Holford, a low-key but bland and rectilinear development of offices and shops, clad in Portland stone, took the place of the vanished medieval streets. This is what we know today as Paternoster Square, a dreary but serviceable development neither over-scaled nor lacking in life. It is home to small offices, shops and cafes, and echoes to the sounds of city workers at lunchtime and children playing football. Paternoster Square is not great architecture, but neither is it offensive or overpowering - unlike many of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies developments that overpower St Paul's.
Last year a firm of developers, Paternoster Associates (a conglomeration of the Park Tower Group, Greycoat plc and an affiliate of the Mitsubishi Estate Company) announced plans for a vast new office development to replace Holford's Paternoster Square. To sweeten the City Corporation planners and the public at large, the developers put together a team of architects faithful to the Prince of Wales. The concatenation of deep-plan office blocks they designed might have threatened to block out views of St Paul's from the ground, but the bulk of the buildings was neatly camouflaged by the pseudo-Classical fancy dress favoured by the architects.
Up to a point the ruse worked. A public exhibition of the Paternoster Square designs ran for several weeks last summer. No fewer than 18,000 people visited the highly-polished show and a Gallup poll of 1,038 of them found 77 per cent in favour of the Classical office scheme.
Visitors had nothing with which to compare the developers' superficially glamorous proposals, and some of the perspectives were drawn from dubious vantage points - making the dome of St Paul's ride higher than it actually would over the new office blocks when seen from the ground. However, the colourful neo-Georgian facades of the buildings seemed to gull the public. Visitors were unable or unprepared to comment on the vast bulk and scale of the scheme, neither did they have anything to say about its content: essentially offices, more offices and even more offices. The chocolate-box illustrations presented to the public succeeded in hiding the fact that these were giant offices and not the altogether less aggressive buildings of yore.
The City Corporation was not quite as sure as the public. It tabled a list of 22 objections - mostly relating to density, bulk and views of St Paul's - before it would consider giving planning permission. At the Department of the Environment, Michael Heseltine was said to be against the scheme.
The developers and their architects retreated for a year, unveiling a new and supposedly improved scheme this summer. Now the City Corporation will decide whether to give the revised scheme planning permission.
If it does, Holford's development will be demolished and St Paul's will be flanked by some of the most grotesque fancy-dress office blocks London has seen. Not only will they block views of the cathedral from the north, but the dome will be partially hidden by the height and bulk of these theme-park style buildings.
More than this, however, the vast majority of the proposed buildings will be offices. Precious little space has been made over to shops and cafes and none, to date, to workshops, flats, galleries, pubs and clubs.
The buildings shown in the latest drawings may be a little smaller than in last year's proposals, but they are designed to cash in on an office boom that collapsed three years ago. London hardly needs more lettable office space - the capital has a surfeit.
Worse still is the fact that the architects have chosen such outlandish historical costumes for their buildings. These mock St Paul's rather than complement it. The architecture makes viewing which is just as depressing this year as it was last.
'If Sir Christopher Wren were alive today,' said the man from the Park Tower Group unveiling the designs on show at the original Paternoster Square press conference in May 1991, 'he would be proud of what he would see here today.' This is highly unlikely. Wren, a mathematician, scientist and man of reason, was fully prepared to take calculated architectural risks, to push his adopted art forward into new realms. St Paul's, although compromised, was a radical feat of design and construction, while the work of Wren's star pupils, Sir John Vanburgh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, was among the most daring and brilliant of its day (and every day since).
Wren had originally planned a magisterial setting for St Paul's; the cathedral would have sat in great splendour, detached from surrounding buildings. But he was unable to realise this grandiose scheme - a part of his grand plan to rebuild the whole of the City of London on rational, Renaissance principles - and, until 1940 at least, London was all the happier for his failure. The full majesty and drama of St Paul's stemmed not from its place in some ideal grand plan, but from its dominance of the ad hoc cityscape that surrounded it.
If Wren's grand plan was folly, so too is that of Paternoster Associates. The developers say they want to re-create the medieval street pattern, but their drawings suggest otherwise.
Even if the City does approve the latest Paternoster Square designs, a large question mark hangs over the proposals. The surfeit of office space in London means that the new Paternoster Square might not pay its way for many years. British property companies are not renowned for their patience, although with a Japanese partner, the consortium might well take a long view. But why should the partners land themselves in a messy architectural and planning controversy for the sake of limited short to medium-term gain?
It is also hard to see what the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's gains from the proposals. Over the past few years St Paul's has been transformed from a house of God and civic temple into an international tourist 'experience'. Perhaps the cathedral, a hub of new commercial activities itself and more theme park than church, fits happily into the Paternoster Associates scheme of things.
The Paternoster Square proposal is well past its sell-by date. The capital would do better to opt for smaller scale, mixed-use developments. St Paul's would be better served if public and private enterprise were allowed to redevelop the site on a piecemeal basis, as was done in the past. Some of the buildings would be noble, some imaginative, others ordinary, much as they were - although in a different design idiom - before the Blitz. Such a scheme would be cheaper to build and far less destructive, and could happily house a rich mix of shops and restaurants, flats, markets and workshops, offices, galleries, clubs and hotels. They would be built over a period, sometimes replacing existing buildings, at other times sitting alongside them.
In this way St Paul's would regain its prominence, riding high again over the rooftops of the City of London. Reconnected to a lived-in quarter of real, warts-and-all city rather than some gimcrack office development, Wren's cathedral might even regain its traditional role as a place for meeting, worship and celebration, the crowning glory of the City of London and not an odd hump in a tide of banal office buildings.