The new red telephone box? Or an alien in cold Perspex

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The Independent Online
It was like waiting for the return of a reassuring old friend, only to be greeted by a Perspex stranger. Nothing could better sum up the corporate dreariness of modern Britain than the unveiling of the new BT red telephone box yesterday.

The new look, the first change in design for 10 years, will make its debut this autumn and is based on market research that suggested people wanted to return to a familiar red.

There was no sign yesterday of the solid red frame, the cosy glass windows, and the comforting roof that formed the basis for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's design. His first model, the K2, became as English an institution as village cricket, black taxis, and the World Service.

Sir Giles was the winner of a national post office competition in 1924, 18 years after the first coin-operated telephone box was installed in London. His 1935 update, the beloved K6, became a reassuring sight at village greens, train stations, and remote roadsides across Britain, beaming out from afar. But the future is an impersonal transparent box, with a red stripe across the top and middle. Only one thing is in the new box's favour: that it is better suited to the needs of disabled people.

Giles Worsley, editor of Perspectives on Architecture said: "The tragedy is that in the Twenties they thought terribly hard about it and went to a leading architect. Here it looks as if they've pretty much bought an off-the-peg design and adapted it slightly."

He added: "What the original was, in a very small way, was a piece of architecture, whereas all these boxes that have followed have been just boxes. The danger is that as there are more telephone companies, we're going to have more of these boxes, all different, cluttering up the place."

More than 40,000 red telephone classics were removed in 1990, to almost universal dismay, amid criticisms from BT that they were losing money and were all too often mistaken for lavatories. There are only 15,000 of the old-style boxes left on British streets.

Despite the criticism BT was standing by its new boxes yesterday, which may yet become a classic for future generations. Bob Warner, BT's director of payphones, said: "We can only judge these things after 50 years. When the Scott phone box came out there was a lot of criticism, that it was too garish, the red was too bright and it conflicted with the High Street, but people came to love it."