Icons call on culture

BT’s modernised pay phones have been slated by critics. True, they are not on a par with the K6 but, restricted both financially and by society, what other choices did BT have, asks Gaynor Williams. In fact, she says, compared to competitors BT has done u

Take this scenario. A private company is given thousands of free advertising sites in prime locations across the entire country. It is then allowed to turn those 95 000 billboards into little shops selling a certain crucial service. Occasionally, a single site has been known to turn over 20 000 a year. The total profit is 20m annually.

The quality of the advertising has become part of the fabric of British life, and is not just accepted but loved by the population. Then disaster strikes. The company introduces a redesign. The new campaign seems tinny, soulless. The sense that this service is there for the public good flies out of the window. It is replaced by the now-universal gods of money and efficiency.

The time? January 1985, when British Telecom announced a 160m modernisation of Britain’s pay phones. BT spent 35m replacing Gilbert Scott’s K6 and Bruce Martin’s K8 with American boxes in aluminium and stainless steel, with a few differently designed kiosks flung in for good measure.

These new designs blended in successfully with their backgrounds, in tawdry city centres and litter-filled empty bus stations. Worst of all, they were designed with little sense of public responsibility, only of user effectiveness. They were cheap, flimsy, and had a projected life of only 15 years, while the K6 was designed to last for 50. The word “beauty” had no place in the new lexicon of business efficiency.

And now BT is to spend 30m converting 35 000 kiosks into new-style boxes, with an extra shelf and a sort of baby cupola on the top. The public response has so far been an entertaining round of Aunt Sally. “Hideous” (Rowan Moore, The Daily Telegraph). “Incoherent and unsatisfactory” (Lord St John of Fawsley, Royal Fine Art Commission). “Nothing could better sum up the corporate dreariness of modern Britain” (Rebecca Fowler, The Independent), and so on.

But there has to be a defence of BT here. It chose to do something when it could have done nothing. And it chose to build on its existing infrastructure because its quarter of a billion-pound rough costing of a complete redesign programme didn’t sit well with its financial imperatives. It is, after all, a quoted company, bringing in dividends to thousands of people who profit from the sell-off of something they already owned.

Lyn Haville, the senior product manager at BT, tactfully suggests that the people who criticise its “enhancement” programme on aesthetic grounds are not the same people who use the kiosks. In fact, BT’s market research tells us that most people who use public telephones think the service has improved greatly in terms of safety, reliability, and cleanliness.

BT’s decision should be seen against a background of an already highly functional infrastructure. Few totally new sites, needing totally new kiosks, are likely to pop up for quite a few years. According to Haville: “In an ideal world any designer or product manager would like to design from a clean slate, but we do not have an open book like new operators in the market.” And look what they’ve done with it: New World and Interphone, BT’s main competitors, have come up with even worse efforts.

As possibly the most significant piece of street furniture around, the telephone kiosk should be seen as a crucial totem of civic culture. That is why the K6 worked. You would undoubtedly improve things if you allowed one single designer or company the freedom to work for several years on redesigning all of them, so that there was coherence between BT’s, New World’s and lnterphone’s designs. I entertain pleasing fantasies of Sir Norman Foster threatening to sue the lot of them because of an assault of gross indecency on his eyes.

But the issue is larger than any one company, or indeed designer. As a culture, we have willingly destroyed the sorts of values that Scott’s designs stood for – collective and individual responsibility, public service, and honour. These things now carry with them the taint of other associations, like empire.

So we have to make the best of a bad job, as BT itself has done. But what of the product semantics of the modern telephone booth? What do they say about Britain? That it’s a goldfish bowl? That it’s boring, unadventurous and unimaginative? It’s quite hard to imagine Doctor Who staging inter-galactic travel inside any one of them.

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