One cannot think of London without imagining the English telephone booth, especially when trying to list the most important symbols of the city. Of course there are many icons in the British capital: the Big Ben, the Tower of London, the black taxi, the red two-story bus…and then the association with the red phone booth comes spontaneously. Surely the red phone booth is one of London’s most important icons and is one of those most photographed objects in the city. I challenge anyone to leave London without a photo in it.But why an apparently common ‘object’ has become a cult among generations of Londoners and tourists coming from all over the world? Our coin-operated booth, or “The Red Telephone Box” as Londoners call it, was created after the Mayor of the city launched a competition in the early 1920s.The Royal Fine Arts Commission organized a private competition inviting only the three most successful architects of the time, including Giles Scott, known for the Battersea Power Plant project and the Liverpool Cathedral.The competition was won by Sir Scott who proposed his K2 phone booth giving the box an elegant and classic look, with no frills. He chose to give the booth a shallow dome, with holes for ventilation and opaque windows. The colour originally intended by the architect was a sober grey-silver shade but the Royal Fine Arts Commission opted for a bright red, so it could be visible from afar (and in the rain I would add). About 1500 K2 phone booths were installed and 200 of the original ones still exist today and are protected by the city council.You can see this first example of the red telephone booth at the majestic entrance gates of the Burlington House in Piccadilly, now home to the Royal Academy of Arts.The original K2 phone booth weighed 1.200 kilograms and was 2.75 meter high and therefore it was quite expensive, also for the continuous maintenance it needed. Some alternatives were then explored and created with the names of K3,K4 and K5 booth, all made with different characteristics in material, weight, features and durability.The one that best stands out and it is popular and scattered all over the city is the K6 booth, another red booth that Sir Gilbert Scott designed in the 1930s. The K6 was lighter than the previous models and it had a teak door, strictly red with the golden royal crown drawn on the top. Of the 60,000 K6 specimens commissioned and installed in the 30s, there are still about 10,000 still functioning today.Unfortunately, today, with the advent of mobile phones, the use of the beautiful red booths in London is less and less and the management costs are always high to keep them clean and efficient. They are often used as shelter from the rain or by homeless people. Today many of these red phone booths are sold at private auctions and they leave London to destinations worldwide, bought for a few thousand pounds by London lovers and collectors.Londoners oppose the possibility of witnessing the total disappearance of one of the city’s most iconic symbols and, as for all its other treasures, I am sure that the city will preserve this important London icon. Just a few years ago the city of London launched the 21st-century “phone box”: a black phone booth with free Wi-Fi access, free local calls, recharging station for mobile phones or computers, digital city maps and tourist information. It was called the evolution of the species when compared to its coin-operated ‘cousin.’ Some of the new booths are proper phone booths resembling the red ones while others are grey parallelepiped that look like an advertisement poster (and they indeed have one).In the coming months and years, 750 of these new booths will be installed on the streets of the British capital, the first in Europe to take this step forward. These new ‘booths’ will also be equipped with sensors to detect the levels of atmospheric and acoustic pollution, outdoor temperature and traffic conditions. And they will not cost anything to the taxpayer because they are funded by the advertising that will cover some of these.
I moved to London over 2 years ago but only last year I started writing for a local newsletter for Expats in London telling about my experience in this big city and giving advice to newcomers. London is a very dynamic city and has a lot for everyone but it’s important to have a local point of view to navigate it without getting lost. Let me be your guide to hidden London!