London’s sense of identity has an undeniably old-school feel to it. Rootling around deep in the national consciousness ahead of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, what looms large is a red blur of Routemaster buses, post boxes, phone booths and Beefeater livery – perhaps with Paddington Bear’s red rain hat and Wellington boots thrown in for good measure.
Despite decades of multicultural transformation and the boom in creative industries, when London projects itself onto a global stage rose tinted nostalgia seems to dominate, leaving a rather monochrome picture.
And so the recent announcement that British Telecom are planning to sell off a slice of the capital’s scarlet soul in the form of the iconic K6 phone boxes, had many Londoners seeing, well, red. For a very reasonable £1,950 (€2,400) you can now own your a slice of British design history, plus postage and VAT.
Ever since the K6 model was introduced in 1936, the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott design has been seen by many as the beating heart of the capital. By 1968 there were nearly 70,000 in Britain and its status as a design classic of national importance was sealed when some 2,000 of them were given a grade II listing by English Heritage.
This isn’t the first time K6s have been sold off of course – and privatization in the mid-1980s saw them winging their way around the world, from private gardens in Beirut to beach resorts in Lamu and farmyards in Dorset. The singer Tom Jones is even reported to have dropped a hefty £50,000 (€61,000) in getting a Welsh phone box – that he used to spend hours chatting in to his future wife Linda – imported to his house in Los Angeles. Others have been turned into art galleries, public libraries or medical stores.
These are arguably far better uses than the repositories for “masseur” calling cards and convenient street urinals that they’d become in recent years. Demand for public phone booths has flatlined as they have failed to keep up with mobile phone coverage and payment schemes. Their place in public life has become ever more redundant.
And yet the furor that the recent round of sales has stirred up is a reminder of the importance that design reference points have in the fabric of a city. As technology becomes ever more personal and mobile, well-designed public service facilities are increasingly forgotten. Perhaps this is why the Boris bike system has been seized upon with such gusto by city-dwellers, even if the design and manufacturing was Canadian and has echoes of children’s toys, it created an undeniable urban network with a clear character and purpose.
The next major network on the horizon will, in all likelihood, be electric charging points for cars, set to revolutionise curb culture over the next decade as viable electronic transport takes to the streets.
With careful design and planning, maybe then they can even take over from London’s flagging red army.