Sir Giles Gilbert Scott: Architect of the British red telephone kiosk (and a few other things)

K6 Telephone Kiosks outside Preston Town Hall, Preston, Lancashire. Photo by author 2020.

The iconic red telephone kiosk is a fixture of most towns and villages in Britain. Although since the wide adoption of mobile phones, many are now converted into other uses: art galleries, defibrillator stations and local information repositories. BT Telecom, the UK telecoms provider, started to decommission them more than ten years ago, offering them for sale for £1 to local councils under the Adopt-a-Kiosk scheme. The many creative uses reflect the deep affection for and strong sense that these small buildings are a vital part of the British heritage.

A Family of Architects

Perhaps appropriately, the designer of these distinctive kiosks, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, came from a quintessentially British dynasty of eminent architects. His grandfather, Sir George Gilbert Scott, designed the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Railway Station in London, the Albert Memorial, also in London and many cathedrals, churches, other public and private buildings, all over the world. His son, George Gilbert Scott junior, and his grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott followed in his footsteps to become architects, as did several cousins and other family members. A granddaughter of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s brother, Elisabeth Scott, became the first female architect to design a major public building, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. Her image is featured, as well as that of her second cousin, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, in the new British passport.

In 1924, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott won a commission to design what was to be the K2 telephone kiosk. At this time, the telephone was still quite a luxury item and it must have been quite an exciting idea to be able to make a call from a box in the street. There had been a small number of K1 kiosks erected from 1921, really to prototype the concept. Scott’s K2 kiosks proved popular, but they were expensive to manufacture. He was commissioned to improve the design for mass production, leading to three more variants (the K3, K4 and K5) being produced. However, the kiosk we see today and that has become so special in the hearts of the British people is the K6, or Jubilee design, commissioned for the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 and launched in 1936. By this time there were 19,000 kiosks in Britain. The new K6 design was far more successful than its predecessors, expanding the total number of kiosks to 35,000 by 1940. The K6 was so popular, that, even though later designs were introduced from the 1950s onwards, there still remain many thousands across the country. In total, 60,000 K6 phone kiosks were produced and over 11,000 remain, of which more than 1500 have been adopted for other uses.

A distinguished portfolio

However, significant though the telephone kiosk design was, it was by no means the only important legacy from Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Indeed, his son’s biography of him does not mention the telephone kiosk at all, focusing rather on his more major architecture. Scott’s most significant work was Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, which took over 70 years to build. Scott, rather ambitiously, entered a competition to be the architect for this epic project in 1901, while still a ‘pupil architect’. In 1903, his anonymised drawings were selected by the panel, who were rather taken aback to discover that the entrant was only 22 years old and had not yet completed any existing buildings. Even worse, they discovered that he was a Roman Catholic. Nonetheless, he was appointed, with the stipulation that he had to work with an experienced architect, G.F.Bodley. The two architects had very different approaches and aspirations, which did not get the project off to a good start. Scott was on the point of resigning as architect in 1907, when Bodley died suddenly.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in the sun. Photo by the author 2020.

Thereafter he was able to develop his own more modern ideas. I visited Liverpool Cathedral in July 2020 and saw for myself this huge and incredible edifice. Scott’s style was simpler and more angular than that of his immediate predecessors, moving away from the nineteenth century Gothic style of architects such as his famous grandfather. However, in its scale and structure, Liverpool Cathedral harks back almost to a medieval style and used building methods unchanged for centuries. Interrupted by both the First and Second World Wars, some of the stonemasons spent their entire working lives on the build. It must be one of the last such cathedrals in the world. It was not fully completed until 1978, eighteen years after Scott’s death, although parts of the building had been operational much earlier.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott also designed many other well-known public buildings, including the Tate Modern (formerly Bankside Power Station), Cambridge University Library, Battersea Power Station and many churches, war memorials, bridges and private dwellings. He was influenced by modernism, art deco and new gothic movements in architecture and developed a unique style, fusing these different elements and retaining a connection to earlier styles.

With their geometric structures and regularly placed windows, I am always struck by the resemblance of many of these great buildings to the humble phone kiosk.

References

The Scott Dynasty https://gilbertscott.org/

Scott, Richard Gilbert (2011). Giles Gilbert Scott: His Son’s View. London: Lyndhurst Road Publications. ISBN 978–0–9567609–1–3. (available from The Scott Dynasty website).

The Telephone Box http://www.the-telephone-box.co.uk/

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral https://www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk/

Writer, traveller, researcher

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