Architecture: Reversing the charge of the naff phone box

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The Independent Culture
When I hear the word 'heritage', I reach for my ghetto blaster. There are times, however, when the restoration of what went before is exactly right. Over the past few weeks, engineers have been replanting 62 Giles Gilbert Scott-designed red telephone boxes in central London.

These are original telephone kiosks, dating from the late Thirties, that had been uprooted over the past decade by British Telecom in its pointless display of second-rate modernisation. When the Scott boxes began to disappear in the Eighties, there was a national outcry. The traditional red telephone kiosk was not only much loved, it was exceptionally good looking, practical and an adornment.

Scott, architect of Liverpool's Anglican cathedral, Battersea Power Station and Waterloo Bridge, designed several versions of the classic red telephone box, the last - the K5 - in 1936. In London, the GPO employed architects to site the handsome new kiosks both where they were needed and where they would look best. The Scott kiosks became a part of the capital's scarlet public service uniform. Red telephone boxes accompanied red pillar boxes and red buses. This visual harmony was destroyed when madcap privatisation schemes meant that thrusting companies which took over public services insisted on painting public service equipment any colour under the sun to gain attention.

The comeback of the Scott boxes is a limited experiment by Westminster City Council and BT. Although there are approximately 300 in store, Westminster plans to reinstate these superb public servants only along the processional route from the Mall to Fleet Street. While this is welcome, the scheme will only reinforce the system of apartheid at work in the provision of public services in Britain. In the smartest streets, the best public equipment is provided; in lesser and poorer streets, the public must make do with tat.

Westminster council has done many silly things in its attempt to improve central London, including making a mockery of Regent Street by littering this great thoroughfare with 'heritage'-style Victorian traffic lights, street lamps and bus shelters in a garish blue. The restoration of the Scott boxes is some compensation. The finest telephone box to date, the K5, is not a 'heritage' design, but a functional object carrying out the job for which it was originally designed, doing it well and looking good while doing it. We would all benefit if BT could renovate and reinstate as many of the Scott kiosks as possible. If it wants a new design, it should hold a competition to find the best - as the Post Office did more than 60 years ago when it found Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

(Photograph omitted)

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