New Life for Britain’s Red Telephone Boxes

As an armchair traveler, I always like to read about offbeat, seldom-visited or forgotten destinations. That’s why I like Urban Ghosts Media, an e-magazine “about abandoned places, hidden history and alternative places.”

The writers consider art to be a component of the urban landscape and often discuss works “created from discarded objects” in Britain (their home base) and abroad. This fits into their coverage of “the abandoned and the repurposed” – which neatly fits with our interest in art made from recycled, repurposed and natural materials.

Urban Ghosts recently published a story about what has happened to Britain’s iconic red telephone boxes since they were replaced with a more utilitarian model. When the booths were separated from their phones, they began to fall into decay but some enterprising recyclers have found new and imaginative uses for them. The editor of Urban Ghosts has kindly permitted us to reprint their findings.

When Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s red telephone box was introduced in the 1920s, few could have known that it was destined to become an enduring icon of Britishness.  But almost 90 years later, the colourful kiosks have largely become a thing of the past.  Of course, the upside is that many have come up for sale, some creatively recycled and repurposed in surprising ways, others transformed into urban art exhibits.

Repurposed Kiosks – Libraries, Cash Machines, Art Galleries and … Toilets!

red telephone box library Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Images: David Hillas; Geoff Pick; cc-sa-3.0)

Years ago, country folk weren’t impressed by the bright red boxes, lobbying local councils to tone them down.  But times change and several communities have gone to great lengths to preserve what they consider a part of their heritage.  One of the most celebrated examples is the kiosk in Westbury-sub-Mendip (above left), transformed into the smallest library in Britain, and open 24/7, 365 days a year.

red telephone box art gallery Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Image: John Grayson, cc-sa-3.0)

According to the BBC: “BT has received 770 applications for communities to ‘adopt a kiosk’, and so far 350 boxes have been handed over to parish councils”.  In addition to libraries and book exchanges, abandoned red telephone boxes and found new leases of life as ATM cash machines (below) and possibly Britain’s smallest art gallery (above).

red telephone box atm cash machine Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Images: John S. TurnerChristine Matthews; cc-sa-3.0)

And while some kiosks have been recycled into miniature art galleries – others have themselves become urban art installations.  Check them out below, and don’t miss this article about a Somerset pensioner who converted a kiosk into his personal toilet.

Red Telephone Boxes as Recycled Art Installations

red telephone box art Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Images: Steve FarehamOast House Archive; cc-sa-3.0)

From the local and the homemade (above) to grand designs and professionally commissioned installations (below), these recycled artworks reflect the popularity of the red boxes in the national psyche.

red telephone box urban art Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Image: Don Swanson (see website), cc-nc-sa-3.0)

Whether artistically symbolising the decline of an icon, the graffiti and vandalism such objects inevitably endure, or simply using this denizen of Britishness as a departure point for a truly offbeat creation, Gilbert Scott‘s distinctive design remains an integral part of the street-scene.

urban art red telephone box Urban Art, Libraries & More: Recycling Britains Iconic Red Telephone Boxes

(Images: sharkbait (website); Pete Jordan (website); yoga mama; Katy Stoddard (website); cc-nc-sa-3.0)

Finally, an example (above right) outside Archway Tube station in London has been recycled as a flower box, adding a splash of green and yellow, as well as red, to this utilitarian public square.

The red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, is as quintessentially British as fish and chips, the Shipping Forecast, eccentric place names and – sadly – doomed pubs.  But after years of dedicated service, this icon of cities, towns and villages throughout Britain and her former colonies has largely become a thing of the past.

red telephone box 3 Decaying Red Telephone Boxes: An Abandoned British Institution

(Image: Garry Knight, cc-sa-3.0)

The popular red kiosk was the result of a 1924 competition initiated due to widespread dissatisfaction with the original K1 (Kiosk No. 1) design across London.  The winning design, in the classic tradition, was submitted by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station.

red telephone box 4 Decaying Red Telephone Boxes: An Abandoned British Institution

(Image: rofanator, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

Scott had intended his K2 kiosk, with domed roof likely inspired by Sir John Soane’s tomb in St Pancras’ Old Churchyard, to be painted silver.  But the Post Office selected red to ensure the boxes were noticeable.  This stirred a public outcry at the time, and boxes located in areas of natural and historic beauty were painted a more subdued grey with red glazing bars.

red telephone box 5 Decaying Red Telephone Boxes: An Abandoned British Institution

(Image: pauldriscoll, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

Ironically, it wasn’t strictly modernisation that led to the demise of the red telephone box, as the classical K2 model gave way to the definitive K6 in 1935, commemorating the silver jubilee of King George V.  The death blow was dealt by privatisation in the form of British Telecom, which, from the 1980s, installed the more utilitarian KX100 in place of thousands of traditional kiosks.

red telephone box 6 Decaying Red Telephone Boxes: An Abandoned British Institution

(Image: Jon Burney, cc-nc-sa-3.0)

Around 2000 red phone boxes have historical listed status, but many stand neglected, vandalised, or simply abandoned, with a lucky few re-purposed.  In an ironic twist, the public outcry that had accompanied the introduction of the red telephone box was matched by protests over its demise, as many who had originally opposed it campaigned for the preservation of their beloved kiosks.

red telephone box 2 Decaying Red Telephone Boxes: An Abandoned British Institution

(Image: Rick Harris, cc-sa-3.0)

Its appearance in various urban art exhibits reflects the kiosk’s cult status, while adaptive reuse and popularity with collectors underscores its enduring legacy as an eccentric symbol if Britishness.  But the all-too-common sight of decaying red phone boxes are perhaps the most poignant reminder that things have moved on, and that eras always come to an end.

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