The KX100 phone box: A fond, foolish farewell 16.11.17

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It may not have the sex appeal of its predecessors, but we should pause a while before the KX100 phone box leaves our lives for good, says John Jervis

Take any Brit flick from the last couple of decades. A self-effacing coming-of-age tale set in suburban limbo perhaps, or a gritty drama about northern communities struggling to survive in post-industrial Britain. At some low point in the narrative, the camera will linger on a streetscape, panning slowly across an overflowing bin, a wall of shuttered windows, and our hero huddled in a dank bus stop. Invariably, somewhere in the half-light, a wan glow emanates from that overarching epitome of urban unloveliness – the KX100 telephone kiosk. 

Foisted on the nation in 1985 after British Telecom’s privatisation, the KX100 was intended to be modern, vandal-proof, rust-proof, well ventilated, cheap to build and maintain, and lifted high off the ground to avoid litter. In short, it was to be all the things its predecessors – most notably Giles Gilbert Scott’s revered K6, which ruled the roost from 1936 to 1968 – were not. 

And there was no room for nostalgia in this £160 million modernisation scheme. Over the next decade, over 100,000 KX100 kiosks were rolled out – the very first was thrust, with a certain gutsy impudence, into the heart of London’s Leicester Square. In tandem, tens of thousands of older kiosks were swept away. Around 2,000 were spot-listed to prevent their removal; those that remained narrowly avoided being repainted in British Telecom’s corporate yellow. 

Yet, despite its aluminium frame, steel panels and reinforced glass, and the aspiration that it ‘blend in with any surroundings’, the KX100 remained a beacon for acts of petty vandalism. More, it exuded misery: a certain grim failure to aspire to any real aesthetic standard. Perhaps, if you were feeling generous, you might compare its functional styling to the considered modernity of Neville Conder’s aluminium-framed K7 kiosk of 1959, abandoned at prototype stage. Yet, in reality, the KX100 is a graceless piece of urban detritus, a status reinforced in 1991 when British Telecom’s serviceable circular logo was replaced by the much-ridiculed ‘prancing pervert’, an effete trumpeting Hermes created by a 40-strong team at renowned ‘brand consultant’ Wolff Olins to announce a radical new trading name: BT. 

Strangely, the firm behind the KX100, David Carter Associates, has a strong design heritage. A long relationship with Stanley Tools began with the famous red utility knife of 1962, while previous work for British Telecom had resulted in the rather funky Viewphone – an early attempt at a video phone – and the Ambassador, the first plug-and-socket phone, which, in various derivatives, became a pervasive but only partially reassuring component of British offices during the 1980s and 90s.

Now the KX100 kiosk is itself redundant, ousted from its primary role as a cradle of drunken rescue calls late at night. Its secondary, more recent role as a shabby billboard merely proclaims that this is infrastructure for corporate profit not common good. Around half have been removed; a few have even been replaced by renovated K6s. For anyone born after the mid-1970s, it’s clear that the streets of our childhood have been rejected in favour of richer fantasies around Britain’s past. 

There may only be so much nostalgia you can summon up for an object that failed in both design and civic intent, yet this battered icon, its glass etched with the names of generations of lovers, has served its time, and we should raise a glass before committing it to the landfill. 

 

Words

John Jervis

 

Image: FLPA / Alamy Stock Photo

quotes story

Somewhere in the half-light, a wan glow emanates from that overarching epitome of urban unloveliness – the KX100 telephone kiosk

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