It used to make me smile, walking around Bristol or London, or any large British city, and seeing tourists grinning by the typical red telephone kiosks while getting their photo or selfie taken. But with time, I got very used to that scene and stopped noticing. They are, after the double decker buses, The Beatles, and the British monarchy just another icon of the land I once called my home, so I could understand the excitement of visitors when recognizing one of the most famous symbols of Britain right in the street. As I transitioned from visitor to resident, however, I became just another passer-by rushing in London on my way to another part of town and I stopped smiling at this most typical touristic scene.
The boxes have long stopped fulfilling their original purpose, but Britain cannot get rid of them -nostalgia, I suppose- and you can still see them everywhere. I used to love finding them during my walks in the English countryside, sometimes recycled as a mini-library, or defibrillator, or simply just there; a familiar sight in a remote place. Tucked in a corner, colors fading, covered in various layers of rust and sometimes ivy, whether serving as a tiny neighborhood library or just standing below a tree and without an obvious purpose, these boxes just refused to go away. Somehow, it always made sense to see them, blending into the landscape along with sheep and cows.
They were the creation of very prolific British architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960), one head in a British architect dynasty: his grandfather was Sir George Gilbert Scott, who had designed, among other recognizable buildings, the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station (now St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London). It is possible today we would not be able to identify London without his touch or that of his grandson; in addition to these famous phone kiosks, the younger Gilbert Scott (Giles, I mean) was also responsible for the creation of the Battersea and Bankside Power Stations (the latter now Tate Modern). His work extended way beyond London, however. Like his grandfather, he was a church architect: his magna opus being Liverpool Cathedral, which he was named to design at the very young age of 22 and did not live to see completed. It is said that the design of the red telephone kiosks was actually inspired by the dome of English architect Sir John Soane‘s mausoleum.
Going back to the telephone kiosks, or booths or boxes, in 1924 a competition took place calling for designs. There was a model already, the K1 (the letter refers to “kiosk”), actually made of concrete and not widely accepted. After the first try failed to deliver satisfactory results, another competition was organized and three respected architects of the time were invited. Giles Gilbert Scott was one of them, and his design was picked. Interestingly, Gilbert Scott had initially suggested an exterior silvery look, but it was changed to the bright red we see today. The next version of the box was named K2 and mostly deployed around London. About ten years later, the design was polished and thus the K6 was born (there were other versions in between). Its deployment was then extended to the rest of the country. Most of the kiosks we see today outside the capital are K6s, including the ones that I photographed below.
Featured photo on top: An abandoned telephone box covered by ivy in Pensford, near Bristol.
If the reader is curious about how to tell a K2 box apart from a K6, I suggest this page, which explains the difference between the two.
Most likely you come across a telephone box all by itself, but sometimes they are in groups.
A discolored fellow, below, all by itself.