‘Ascot’ by Martin Parr, from ‘Think of England’ (1999)
‘Ascot’ by Martin Parr, from ‘Think of England’ (1999) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The phone box is a very curious piece of architecture. A kind of glass coffin for communication, it is a very personal and very public place. It is also, now, almost perfectly obsolete. Yet either because they are protected or might, in some rare circumstances, be desperately needed, they frequently survive, these odd sarcophagi to a defunct technology.

The first public telephone box was installed in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz in 1881, almost as soon as the first phones became available. Yet the most perfect manifestation of this miniature building type was perhaps the classic, quirky red British K2. The design dates from a competition in 1924 won by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral and London’s Battersea and Bankside power stations.

Scott based his design for the phone kiosk on the unlikely model of Sir John Soane’s 1816 mausoleum for his wife in St Pancras Old Church yard in London. Scott’s original timber prototype can still be seen beneath the arch of the Royal Academy on Piccadilly.

You could argue that with the mausoleum inscribed in its design, the phone box has a kind of morbidity embedded in its very form. I can’t help thinking of Antonio Mercero’s weird short film La Cabina (The Telephone Box, 1972). This Spanish TV short silently tells the story of a man who enters a glass phone box to make a call, finds the phone isn’t working but is then unable to exit. The door stays resolutely shut, despite help from passers-by. Finally, a phone company truck arrives and the phone box is lifted on to it. At one point, stuck in traffic on the truck like a caged animal, the unfortunate prisoner sees another phone box with another individual trapped inside. For a moment they just look at each other until the lights change and they pass. The film ends in a vast subterranean warehouse packed with phone boxes full of live and dead occupants.

It is a typically Spanish, subversive and surreal take on the city (this was still the Franco era and it can be taken as a metaphor for becoming trapped in bureaucracy). It also reveals something of the psychic awkwardness of being isolated and cocooned yet in full view while talking (or failing to talk) to someone somewhere else entirely.

A phone box and Battersea Power Station, both designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
A phone box and Battersea Power Station, both designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott © Mark Fiennes

The phone box is an experience of disembodiment but also of transformation — and transportation. Cartoon strips of Clark Kent rushing to a phone booth to change into Superman led to endless parodies and homages. From Doctor Who to The Matrix, the phone booth became a place of transition, between states or even dimensions.

British popular culture in particular seems to be soaked in the mythology of the phone box. Perhaps the British version is more robust, more architectural, certainly more visible (except in Hull, where examples are beige rather than red), than its global counterparts. From the cover of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to The Ladykillers, the phone box keeps popping up. Yet even in Hollywood, phone booths are a persistent presence — think of The Blues Brothers, Phone Booth, Blow Out or The Birds.

Colin Farrell is held hostage by a sniper in ‘Phone Booth’ (2002)
Colin Farrell is held hostage by a sniper in ‘Phone Booth’ (2002) © Allstar/20th Century Fox

And Oldboy suggests they play a similar role in South Korean culture, when the protagonist is snatched from a booth and imprisoned, the isolation of the booth anticipating the subsequent years of his solitary confinement.

Yet despite their rather sinister roles in movies, there is a nostalgic view of the few phone booths that survive, particularly in the UK. They were night-time beacons, lanterns in the streetscape that indicated communication and (relative) warmth and escape from the cold and rain. They were the smallest of civic buildings, open, undiscriminating and genuinely public.

Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (1963)
Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (1963) © Alamy

But that view may be oversentimentalised. The phone boxes I remember reeked of urine, their floors carpeted with fag-ends. To enter was to be enveloped in a fug of stale cigarette smoke and suspicious smells. If you found a phone that had not been vandalised, you had to keep fumbling for 2p pieces during a conversation flecked with beeps and clicks as the money ran out.

The phone books suspended on hinged brackets were invariably shredded or soaked, graffiti was scrawled on every surface and the ashtrays were full to overflowing. In their later lives, the interiors of British phone boxes became a rich, colourful collage of ads for prostitutes tacked to the glass. There was little pleasure to be had inside.

The K2 box is also a piece of hybrid heritage, an architecture devoted to communication technology, made of cast iron in imitation of classical plaster and timber mouldings and referring in its form to a Regency tomb. It embodies particularly British concerns, an attempt to conceal technology behind a cloak of history, a blend of heavy industry and historical reference, of modernity and tradition. Subsequent phone box designs that were more resolutely modern and easier to manufacture and maintain never attained the same status as the K2. That sentry-box design had become ingrained in the culture.

A vandalised phone box in Salford, 1986
A vandalised phone box in Salford, 1986 © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Other countries, especially in warmer climes, developed very different architectures. There were the hairdryer-style plastic hoods and there were minimalist glass boxes, plastic pods and mini-pagodas. In Malta and Gibraltar there were British colonial boxes left unglazed to allow the breeze to filter through.

Today, the ubiquity of the mobile phone has made the phone box seem pointless. Yet do they still serve a purpose? Many K2 boxes have survived because they are in conservation areas — the architecture of technology has become heritage, just as the technology itself has. They serve to suggest that street furniture can still be beautiful, even if its function has been superseded.

Indeed, phone boxes have become so much a part of the physical and psychic landscape that they have become indispensable. It is difficult to believe such an exquisite piece of architecture could be commissioned today from one of Britain’s leading architects. These days, you will find old phone boxes in bars, stores or converted into shower units in self-consciously quirky interiors. Some have been turned into micro-libraries in an effort to maintain their status as tokens of that disappearing idea of a public building. Others have been made into greenhouses, art installations or pub furniture, and there is now even a market for crude reproductions.

There have been attempts to revive the phone box. One recent example attempts to reconstruct the K2 as a kind of open coffin, painted black, its sides deconstructed so that it no longer offers shelter from the cold. But its day is gone. We all now exist in our own bubbles of communication, without shelter but only the light from the screens of our phones, the digitally deracinated. The phone box is relegated to heritage, as redundant as horse troughs and public drinking fountains, a fragment of a memory of a public architecture.

An old K2 box in London now used as a library
An old K2 box in London now used as a library © EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga
A scene from a 1967 episode of the BBC sci-fi series ‘Doctor Who’
A scene from a 1967 episode of the BBC sci-fi series ‘Doctor Who’ © Keystone/Getty Images

Photographs: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos; Mark Fiennes; Entertainment Pictures/Snap/Alamy; Keystone/Getty Images; Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos; EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga; Allstar/20th Century Fox

Get alerts on Architecture when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article