Thursday, October 15, 2015

Piccadilly, London

Red face, red box

Having coffee in Notting Hill Gate before calling my son to arrange our visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, I take out my mobile…to discover that the battery is completely drained. As I search my memory (I did put the mobile on charge, didn’t I?) I’m sure that there’s a public telephone in the underground station…but I’m equally sure that I can’t remember my son’s number. Well, who needs to know phone numbers? They’re in the mobile’s memory, are’t they? The problem requires the ingestion of more caffeine….

As I stare into the coffee lees and try to turn over the compost heap of my memory I somehow uncover part of my son’s number. By the time I get down into the underground and a blast of fresh air and particulates has further invigorated my system, I have managed to recover all of it – I really don’t know how – and my problem is solved. Later, walking into the gateway of the Royal Academy I see the origin, as it were, of my salvation: the prototype red telephone box, the very first K2 box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott as an entry in a competition in 1924 and built, this experimental one, out of wood.

One or two of my steadfast readers will know that I am occasionally an advocate of kicking a building, but this one I tap, and yes, it gives off a woody sound. Looking at the prototype, it’s very similar to the final iron K2 design. Differences include the precise proportions of glazed to solid area in the door (the prototype has a slightly larger solid area at the bottom) and the pierced lettering of ‘TELEPHONE’, which was replaced by the glazed panel in the final version. The pierced lettering has the added advantage of providing ventilation – the old boxes could get rather stuffy inside. Both prototype and finished designs are again subtly different from the later and more common K6 box, which is slightly narrower and shorter and has a different glazing pattern. The K2, by comparison, is grander, larger, more imposing, truer perhaps to the origins of the design in the neo-classical architecture of that master of shallow domes and ingenious lighting effects, Sir John Soane. Dignified yet brashly coloured, classical yet practical in a modern world, the K2 is, quite simply, a lovely design.

I was grateful, the day I stopped and looked at Giles Gilbert Scott’s little masterpiece, that London still has some public telephones. They’re too often seen, in these days of the ubiquitous mobile, as useless ornaments fit only for tourists to pose in. But they’re still admired as elegant bits of ingenious design, and inventive souls, I’m pleased to say, are busy finding new uses for some of the redundant ones, from miniature art galleries to libraries. Whether used for its original purpose or not, hats off to the red box.

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Looking back over my posts, I see I’ve blogged about telephone boxes several times before. For readers who like this kind of thing, here are some links to these older posts:
A telephone box in Yorkshire re-used as a miniature art gallery
Another, in Hertfordshire, that has become an art gallery
A memory of the time when kiosks gathered together in sociable little groups
A more recent KX100 box with Banksy graffiti
A ‘vermillion giant’ box, with added facilities


bazza said...

I seem to remember reading that some of Gilbert Scott's designs, in The City, were slightly taller so as to accommodate the user's top-hat. Did I imagine that?
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

That rings a bell...but I THINK it is just a confusion with the difference between the original, tall K2 box and the slightly shorter, and more common, K6, which was made differently mainly for economic reasons.

E Berris said...

Red telephone boxes in clusters gave winning points in our family spotting game on long car journeys - looking for red letter boxes, red telephone kiosks and Post offices. The driver would be deafened by everyone in the back shouting "bags" in highly competitive unison. I am reminded of holiday trips every time I see one.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Great. Miles of tension as only the odd letterbox is seen on country roads - then frantic 'spotting' in towns and clusters of telephone boxes hove into view. Marvellous.

Hels said...

I have a very soft spot in my heart for Herts (pun intended) but I am not sure that Henry Moore would have approved the gallery. Does the small exhibition space help to preserve a small landmark on the village green? Does it enable people to engage with Moore's art in an active way?

Mind you, I still want us to keep all the old public photon boxes! My then-boyfriend lived in another city in the 1960s and we would never have got married had it not been for the red phone box.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: The gallery absolutely does both of those things. When I was last there it contained a series of drawings by children responding to things they had seen at the Henry Moore house opposite (as you probably know, it, and its garden, are full of Moore's work). And without the gallery, the box would probably have been taken away. A result, I feel, in every way. I do hope the project endures.

Anonymous said...

I remember on my first trip to London the omnipresence of the red boxes everywhere. It was a reminder of where I was and what I was doing there. I can't imagine a London without them. How many are left, anyway ?
Cell phones have made lots of things disappear besides politeness.
The Castle Lady

Philip Wilkinson said...

Castle Lady: Thank you so much for your comment. The last (BBC) article I read with figures (this was a couple of years ago) said that at the peak there were about 92,000 payphones in the UK, of which 58,000 remain. As of a couple years ago, about 10,000 of these were red boxes (mostly K6s, plus a few K2s and a very few others); the other 48,000 were the various types of more modern boxes, booths, and wall-mounted payphones. In addition, over 1,500 red boxes had been converted to other uses – many for housing defibrillators. By now these figures will gave changed, but they give us an idea. There are still quite a few red boxes about, but nowhere near as many as there were.

Peter Ashley said...

I'm almost ashamed to say that I collected telephone box numbers and their locations when I was about eleven. It was something to do with creating a spy network I think. My notebook was labelled 'British Kiosk Network' and a great deal of time was spent pedalling around Leicester and the surrounding county. Of course a fainting fit was induced on arriving at St.Pancras railway station and seeing serried ranks of them. I can still hear my father: "What on earth are you dong boy?".

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: A fresh link between the profession of espionage and telephone boxes (see also my post 'Peekaboo, peekaboo, here's looking at you'). And a new (to me) addition to list of things young boys collected (locomotive numbers, car registration numbers, bus numbers, coats of arms...). I've heard it all now.