From the yellow traffic lights in New York City to the trams in Lisbon, street furniture is part of one’s everyday life in a city. These can become essential props supporting people’s everyday practices, as the yellow traffic lights do in New York City, keeping people safe on the busy streets.
However, the significance of street furniture does not only exist as the background to our everyday lives and practices, but they also have the traditional role of shaping the characteristics of a city and creating a sense of cohesion. The red telephone boxes in London are no exceptions to this; throughout the history of London, this palimpsest has developed its role not only as a symbol of London, but also one of the most essential “British of icons” (Heathcote, 2016).
Whilst such role of street furnitures can emerge unintentionally, cities often deliberately design and install them as a representation of a city’s identity, like it is in the case for the red phone boxes in London. Yet, there is a global pattern of growing homogenization of city landscapes today, as we may notice the similarities between Times Square in New York City and Piccadilly Circus in London, in which cities are losing some of its unique qualities as well as its identity and cohesion. Amongst the various reasons behind this, the major actor in this phenomena are the multinational firms privatizing public space across the world.
This paper will study such paradoxical nature of the city landscape by focusing on the red telephone boxes in London. It will firstly introduce the theory of palimpsest in which the paper examines the red telephone boxes as. It will then identify the research methods employed for this investigation, which include drawing on literatures on the historical development of the phone boxes and analysing some of its observable usages today. This will allow the paper to approach the three key stages in the development of the red phone boxes as a representation of British identity: emergence, decline and reemergence. Moreover, such examination of the transformation of actors involving in the creation of city landscape from the public to private is important, as “the street is a civic place, and is an important marker of where we are, and who we are” (Herring, 2014).
In simplified terms, the notion of a palimpsest is an artefact of a product of the multiple layering and overwriting of meanings (Crang, 1996; De Quincey, 2003; Dilon, 2005). It argues that in interpreting an artefact, it is essential to consider the historical context that the artefact has lived through, since meaning is influenced and shaped by the past.
Such relative thinking is one that is radical yet essential in the discourse of geography; a study of the relationship between physical space and society. In traditional geography, space and society were studied as separate entities; this theorisation of defining space as “the dead, the fixed, the undialectical and the immobile” (Foucault, 1980:177) is known as ‘absolute space’. Such thinking was before the emergence of radical geographers like Massey who famously argues that “space […] is a product of relations-between” which is always in “the process of being made” (Massey, 2005:9). This understanding, as opposed to the former theorisation, recognises the relative nature of space in which time and space are seen to be interdependent and progressive.
In a similar way, the paper sees the red telephone boxes as not just a piece of technology on the streets of London, but a palimpsest in which their meaning affects and is affected by the changes in socio-economic context of London as well as the UK, Thus, the paper will analyse the history of the red telephone boxes and London in relation to one another, to investigate how this intersectionality has shaped the telephone boxes today.
The research began by conducting literature review on the London phone boxes, specifically, its history of development. This research led to themes such as British identity, grounding the specific case of the London telephone boxes to the broader language of palimpsest and nationalism. This method was specifically used due to its ability to dwell into the non-observable past; however, resources were limited on the specific site of investigation, thus the results were complemented with the following methods.
After collecting data on the history of the telephone boxes, descriptive, qualitative observational data was further collected for data on the usages of the boxes today. A non-participant observation was conducted at red telephone boxes in Hampstead High Street and Covent Garden, which allowed a social insight on the understanding of the interaction between the telephone boxes, people and the landscape within the everyday, lived experience (Cloke et al., 2004). Whilst there is a limitation in which the rationalisation behind one’s behaviour lacks in this methodology, however, it gave a precise insight to what people ‘actually do’ as opposed to interviews that may present data of what people want others think they do (Cloke et al., 2004). Moreover, through the absence of interaction with the people at the sites, ethical concerns were reduced and it was ensured that the environment was not disrupted. There may also be, however, human bias in the way data is interpreted and transcribed (Schensul et al, 1999). Whilst this also has the benefit of engaging with the environment at a deeper, emotional level (Clifford, 1986), the danger of this bias will be minimised through the addition of photographic evidence, which is a less subjective type of data.
The final research method undertaken was image analysis, in which two album covers by internationally renowned British pop stars were analysed. This method also added to the collection of data on the usages of telephone boxes today. Moreover, it also provided cultural insights to the study, giving greater dimensions to the approach the study takes. However, as the data is insufficient by itself, it is integrated within other methods.
Despite the time constraints in data collection and the limitations each methods may have, the overall data of this paper can be argued to be reasonably valid and accurate, as it takes the qualitative mixed method. This approach allows data collected from the different methods to corroborate and enhance each other, thus allows for triangulation and complementarity (Muskat and Blackman, 2012).
Stage One: the emergence and expansion of the red telephone boxes
Discussion of the stage of the emergence and expansion of the red telephone boxes in London cannot be told without the mentioning of the British government, due to the strong intersectionality between the two. In fact, the telephone boxes were not only a newly introduced mechanical device to support the daily life of Londoners, but it was also the early attempts of Britain’s agenda to create a physical representation of its new social and cultural attitude, as well as conservative values of nationalism and British identity. Due to this, the 20th century is characterised by the belief that architecture could be used to instill “democratic principles, pride and identity” (McNeill and Tewdwr-Jones, 2003:743).
The emergence of the red phone boxes date back to 1924 when the design of K2 model by Giles Gilbert Scott won a competition run by the General Post Office (hereafter GPO) (Coltman, 2018). In the early years of the development of telecommunication, the GPO was part of the government department, and it was one of the two actors capable of providing telecommunication under multiple Acts of Parliament. For example, under the Telegraph Acts, private companies were restricted in their ability to engage in the telecommunication industry, such as having to take licenses from the GPO and paying the GPO a 10% royalty on gross receipts. n 1912, the GPO took over the assets owned by the National Telephone Company, which was the other actor that controlled telecommunication in London (Coltman, 2018). Thus, by the time in which K2 was introduced on the streets of London, the GPO had nationalised and monopolised all telegraphic communication in Britain including the telephone boxes. In 1926, this model of the telephone box was renewed by the K6 model that we see today, in which the GPO commissioned Scott to create a new design to celebrate the Jubilee of King George V (Coltman, 2018). This model newly included a prominent crown, emblazoned at all sides of the box, and quickly expanded throughout the City of London due to its immense popularity. As the history displays, the emergence of the red telephone boxes was controlled largely by the British government.
Further analysis of the development of the red phone boxes display the reasons for the expansion of British power over the street furniture, one of which is the expression of British modernity. During this period in the 20th century, Britain was also seeking to express its capability of modernisation and its forward-looking attitude towards “progress, change, fresh vision and invention” (Herring, 2014:129). This was especially crucial as a political agenda in the context of economic crisis of postwar Britain and the rapid development of science and technology in the USA; the UK needed evidence of their competitive technological capabilities and development to reconstruct itself after the war. In fact, in this period, the Council of Industrial Design was established; a state-funded organization founded in 1944 under the agenda of rebuilding Britain’s economy and improving the state of the Londoners by endorsing and practicing the social ideals of modernism through street furniture (CoID, 1946). In a similar way, the red phone boxes were a source of expression of technological advancement for the British government.
However, despite the belief towards forward-looking principles, it was also crucial for the British Government to ensure that the telephone boxes were ‘British-looking’. In fact, the government assessed the quality of modern street furniture on the basis of its ability to represent national characteristics. Even long after the war, values such as patriotism and victory continued to dominate political agendas in Britain, even influencing the design standards of street furniture. This may be portrayed in the red colour of the telephone boxes that is one of the representational colours of Britain as a colour in the flag, and the inclusion of a crown in K6 to celebrate the British monarchy.
Another actor that played a role in influencing the importance of nationalism in street furniture design was the US. Due to the rapid industrial progress in the this country, the UK export was threatened, in which some trade dealers saw British design to be ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘less acceptable’ (CoID, 1946) whilst the US design was seen to be ‘functionally excellent’ (Grange, 2012). Thus, rather than competing in the global market, street furniture design sought to be more acceptable in the Britain’s streets. In fact, designers were encouraged to focus on the expression of unique national qualities rather than “looking over their shoulders at what other countries were creating” (The Guardian, 1962). Therefore, towards the end of the 20th century, heritage-style street furniture had become the top trend across London and the UK, as a way to restore the long-established prestigious quality of being British, but also as a way to summon national identity. Thus, it could be argued that political ideologies had inseparable ties with the development of the red telephone boxes, as a institutionalised cultural symbol with the force to bind people together (Stein, 1996).
Such institutional expression of nationalism in the everyday life is theorised as ‘banal nationalism’ by Billig (1995). By using the visual sense of the public, states inform and educate their citizens of their identity of “where they are, who they are, and what they are about” (Brunn, 2011:19) as well as ‘inspire loyality and unity’ (Penrose, 2011). This deliberate creation of a representation of historical British values is also known as ‘invented traditions’. Hobsbawm (1983) argues for this type of nationalism, which is institutionally practiced like banal nationalism. However, in addition to this, invented tradition also seeks to instill a value through repetition that automatically implies continuity with the past although it is often created within a few years. The practice of inventing traditions was especially popular in the early age of the modernisation in the 20th century, as a way to construct a structure in social life, which seemed necessary. Thus, in the context of postwar Britain, nationalism was a theme naturally yet intentionally merged with the design styles of street furniture like the red telephone boxes, exposing and reinforcing the public to the representation of British values in the banal life.
Stage Two: the decline of the red telephone boxes and emergence of privatisation and globalisation
Whilst it seemed that the British government had successfully monopolised the telecommunication industry and commodified its nationalistic political agenda through street furnitures like the phone boxes, this became threatened by the global phenomena of privatisation. This can be seen as not only a decline of the red phone boxes as a street furniture, but also a symbolic shift in power relation between the private and public sector in influencing the London landscape.
After the height of the expansion of telephone boxes, they began suffering from vandalism by the 1980s. Whilst the red telephone boxes had begun to establish its position as a national street furniture in which Londoners appreciated its technical usage and expression of identity, in 1985, Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time, agreed to sell off values in the public realism, including the telecommunication network. This resulted in the BT to announce the replacement the K6 models with newly designed phone boxes to improve conditions of vandalism— a project seen as “a complete rejection of the civilised attitude towards public amenities” (Stamp 1989:25-26) as well as “an attack on the very fabric of British identity” (Herring, 2014:133).
As a result, whilst there were over 70,000 phone boxes in 1980, the statistics has declined to under 50,000 today in which only 8,000 have the traditional design (Lee, 2017). This decline in the red phone boxes reflects the declining power of the state and the increasing power of private transnational corporations, in which the nation could not be considered as the only means to exercise power anymore. Instead, private firms had become the initiator and the shaper of the landscape of London.
Thus, whilst street furniture has the important role in expressing an identity through landscape, the decline in the phone boxes demonstrates the widespread phenomena of “the challenges posed by globalization and privatization of public space” (Herring, 2014:128).
Stage Three: the reemergence of the red telephone boxes as a representation of British nationalism through globalisation
Despite the decreasing use of the red telephone boxes and the increasing privatisation of telecommunication, 2,000 of the traditional K2 and K6 telephone boxes are declared listed buildings in London (Heathcote, 2016). Some have completely altered its role as a digital device of telecommunication, such as the one in Hampstead High Street which is now converted into a coffee shop, Kape Barako. Placed on a quiet neighbourhood in North London, this phone box is rented to the owner of the coffee shop by the Red Kiosk, a company with the aim to “redefine their [the telephone boxes’] usage to suit modern day needs and requirements without compromising their external appearance” and “ensure that the future of one of our countries most identifiable pieces of heritage is kept alive and well” (Red Kiosk, 2015). This unique retail shop seems to run a successful business, as people stop by and complement the unique idea of converting the phone box into a shop as they buy coffee, or if not walk past whilst carefully glancing and examining the unique object. Pedestrians and customers seem happy in the way that the telephone box is being preserved rather than removed, with an additional unique usage that suits the needs of the modern day society.
Moreover, according to some observations at Covent Garden, the red telephone boxes are not only suffering from privatisation and globalisation, but also benefiting. Contemporary red telephone boxes seem to be not only an important heritage and representation of British identity, but also an iconic monument for the global audience. At the popular tourist destination of Covent Garden, crowds formulate around the telephone box, as tourists take turns to take a picture with it, holding the phone and smiling at the camera (See Figure 1). In the nearby souvenir shops, the red phone box is a popular icon used in many of the products, including key chains, postcards, and tea tin boxes.
Using the ability to connect with the global audience through globalisation, red telephone boxes are also serving to portray ‘British-ness’ to people across the world through the music industry. David Bowie and One Direction are both internationally renowned artists, if not the iconic British pop stars of the 20th and 21st century. The two also share commonality by using the telephone box in their album cover; the Ziggy Stardust album back-sleeve for Bowie (See Figure 2) and Take Me Home for One Direction (See Figure 3). Both artists engage with the red phone box, placed at the centre of both images, which emphasise the existence of the object and encourages the global viewers to associate the two actors, producing a strong sense of ‘Britishness’.
Counter to Hobsbawm’s theory of globalization that the phenomena has an effect that can create “the world into a single unit of interconnected activities unhampered by local boundaries” (Hobsbawm, 2007:1), the telephone boxes continue to shape London boundaries as “a cipher of British-ness” (Herring, 2014: 133). Such belief is also strong amongst today’s British population, as, according to a survey conducted by YouGov, one-fifth of the public believes that the red phone boxes are a ‘very important’ aspect of the British culture (Kellner, 2009).
Moreover, despite the claims that the globalization and privatization on the streets of London is threatening the role of the government in having influence over the telephone boxes, there remains to be demonstrations of governmental power even to this day. On 1 September 2001, the Criminal Justice and Police Act outlawed the advertisement of prostitution in any public telephone boxes, making it into a criminal offense (The Guardian, 2001).
There are two elements to this Act that demonstrate the power of state over the red telephone boxes. First is the power of the public sphere over the private, commercial industry of prostitution. The telephone boxes had been a site for prostitutes to advertise their work through the placement of calling cards, in which 13 million of these were distributed in London every year (Hubbard, 2002a). Since the increase in complaints in the early 1990s, efforts had been made for the reduction of such cards, including the cooperation between the British Telecom and the Westminster City Council to remove the cards on a regular basis; however, the number of card advertisements had increased by the late 1990s. With the passing of the law, prostitution cards have become illegal in any public telephone boxes, and the consequence of such behaviour is a fine or up to six months imprisonment. Through the governments’ exercise of power to take control over the private prostitution industry, this Act can be seen as part of the wider “geopolitical strategy of containment that is used to regulate the commercial sexuality” (Hubbard, 2002a: 358).
The second element of the exercise of governmental power over the telephone boxes through this Act is the control of the public sphere over the penetration of certain values and the hiding of another image. As the Act has no control over the display of prostitution advertisements in the private sphere and does not make prostitution illegal, it has merely reduced the activity rather than eradicated. Thus, it may be characterised as an act that attempt to exclude illicit sexuality from the public gaze to cleanse the ideas that may influence British citizens or the red telephone boxes.
This paper examined the red telephone boxes in London as a palimpsest. Through the examination, three interesting stages to the development of the red phone boxes has been uncovered, which proved to be highly influenced by the changes in the socio-economic context of London and Britain:
Firstly, throughout the analysis, it was evident that the British government was the most prominent actor in the emergence and expansion of the telephone boxes in London, in which the government practiced its political ideologies using the phone boxes as a street furniture in which every citizen is exposed to in their everyday lives. Through the literature review, the paper argued that, whilst the palimpsest was used to portray the British attitude towards modernisation, we can also identify two types of nationalism that the phone boxes reflect, which was penetrated to the citizens of London; banal nationalism and invented tradition.
Secondly, the influence of globalization and privatization is evident to have affected the decline of the control of the government over the red telephone boxes, leading to the overall decline in the number of phone boxes. It can be suggested that this is an example of the homogenisation of city landscape in which cities are directing towards.
Lastly, the paper identified the stage that the telephone boxes are at today, in which they seem to maintain its role as a representation of British values, if not expanded its influence to the international audience. Thus, despite the characterisation of the red phone boxes as “beautiful but useless” (Heathcote, 2016) because the decline in the usage of the telephone boxes as a technological device, its essential role as a symbol of nationalism has expanded through globalisation of London.
The paper aknowledges some limitations, as the research was conducted over a limited time, and interviews may have provided greater insight to how valuable the telephone boxes may be as an identity for Londoners today. However, through the mixed qualitative research method, the paper can be considered as a valuable insight to why the telephone boxes may still be considered as the “perfect metaphor for Britain’s sense of self” (Heathcote, 2016), even to this day.
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