A kiosk is much more than a box. Telephone boxes are mere boxes: crude, rectilinear constructions of metal and glass which, since the advent of British Telecom and its competitors, litter our streets in a tawdry cacophony of bad manners. Radiating ephemerality, they bring the once noble art of street furniture into disrepute. But kiosks are something more: they are Architecture, so that telephone kiosks – like sentry boxes – may be regarded as miniature buildings.
In origin, the kiosk was Turkish: a light open pavilion or summer house ‘generally not intended for permanent occupancy’ such as may still be found all over Istanbul. By 1865, so the Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us, a kiosk was also ‘a light structure resembling this, for the sale of newspapers, a bandstand, etc.’ And from these evolved the form of the first ‘public call offices’ authorised by the Postmaster General in 1884. Some were round or octagonal, with a tall, pointed domed top, like the old poster-covered newspaper kiosks of Paris which have suddenly invaded British cities in recent years. But most were like sentry boxes with a pitched roof, or, often, a pyramidal roof. Occasionally they were thatched, if appropriate. And the Arts and Crafts architect C.F.A. Voysey designed a gothic one in 1923 with alternative ogee or crenellated summits.
The point is that telephone kiosks, as miniature buildings, had proper roofs, and not wretched flat tops to collect litter. And this was true all over Europe: the curious Swedish model of 1924 with its tapering lattice bottom (for ventilation) was surmounted by a curved Mansard roof covered in fish-scale tiles, while peaked and pyramidal roofed kiosks appeared after the 1920s in most European cities. But of all kiosk roofs, surely the most beautiful and the most functional is the shallow domed top of the General Post Office’s No. 2 kiosk designed by our own Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1924. Beautiful as it is a classical form, derived from the shallow saucer domes beloved of that idiosyncratic Georgian architect Sir John Soane; functional as, sprung from segmental pediments which may be embellished with a crown, it is a natural and logical termination to a square pier and, furthermore, it does not waste space or material by rising too high, while its camber is sufficient to allow rainwater together with bottles and cans to roll off the summit.
A similar dome rises above Soane’s tomb in the churchyard behind St Pancras Station. It cannot be proved that Scott was inspired directly by this form, but it is surely significant that he became a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum in 1925 – the year he won the competition for the General Post Office’s new cast-iron telephone kiosk. Besides, although he was a product of the gothic revival and the architect of Liverpool Cathedral, Scott had designed a house in 1913 in Pimlico in the fashionable empire revival or what the English called Néo-Grec style. He was familiar with neo-classicism, and surely with the work of Soane. In consequence, red-painted Soanian kiosks began to appear in London in 1926 and, with the advent of the smaller and more moderne K6 or Jubilee kiosk designed by Scott in 1935, all over Britain a decade later.
Scott’s Soanian kiosks can also be found abroad – in India and New Zealand – while the Anglo-Portuguese Telephone Company exported Scott’s reinforced concrete K3 to the Iberian peninsula. But, apart from K6s exported to twin towns or wherever as gestures of goodwill or as publicity stunts in recent years – for the red telephone box remains one of the most powerful and potent symbols of Britishness – no European country seems to have adopted indigenous telephone kiosks with Soanian domed tops, with the single, tantalising exception of Hungary. For the first new public telephone kiosk design commissioned by MATART – the Hungarian Telephone Stock Company – and which,, in a green and cream livery, is still to be found in many parts of Budapest, has a domed top above segmental pediments. True, there are differences: the dome is crowned by a spike for the attachment of cables, while the deeper and more curvaceous form of the pediment is more baroque than neo-classical. Even so, the timing of the birth as well as the form of this kiosk suggests a debt to Scott and thus to Soane.
It was not the first Hungarian kiosk. An earlier, conventional model, like that manufactured in 1927 by Haas and Somogyi, with its prominent cornice and clerestory roof, has a strong family resemblance to the K1, the old-fashioned looking GPO box of 1923 which several London boroughs banned from their streets in disgust. András Ferkai, the historian of the Hungarian telephone box, dates the domed-top model to 1928-29. No designer is recorded, but it was manufactured by Farkas & Co. or Gyula Jungfer. And what is surely significant is that the design was commissioned after a thorough study of foreign telephone kiosks. A contemporary article mentions that the Hungarian kiosk was modelled on one used in Vienna. This is plausible, as Hungary so often looked to Austria, while cultural links with Britain were few and far between. Even so, because the method by which Scott’s K2 design was selected attracted widespread interest, an influence on the Budapest design is also possible.
Scott’s telephone kiosk was the product of a rare and special moment in modern British history when both public authorities and certain private companies were concerned to commission designs of high quality. Other manifestations of this were the work of the Design and Industries Association, founded in 1915, and the lettering and buildings commissioned by Frank Pick for the London Underground, while official interest in artistic quality was shown by the architectural and design policy of the Imperial War Graves Commission, created in 1917, and by the establishment of the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1924.
The RFAC was, indeed, instrumental in the choice of the British standard kiosk. Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the GPO’s design, the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee organised a competition for a superior one in 1923, but the results were disappointing. The Birmingham Civic Society then produced a design of its own – in reinforced concrete – but was informed by the Director of Telephones that the design produced by the Office of the Engineer-in-Chief was preferred; as the Architects’ Journal commented, ‘no one with any knowledge of design could feel anything but indignation with the pattern that seems to satisfy the official mind.’ But Birmingham did not give up and, with additional pressure from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Town Planning Institute and the Royal Academy, the Postmaster General was forced to think again; and the result was that the RFAC organised a limited competition.
Three knighted architects were also wheeled in to compete, and full-sized models of the five resulting designs were erected behind the National Gallery in London. The Commissioners – half of whom were architects, including Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Aston Webb and Sir Reginald Blomfield – announced the winner in February 1925. There was surely no doubt: Sir Robert Lorimer had produced a sort of Arts & Crafts kiosk with a twee double ogee roof while that other great Scot, Sir John Burnet, proposed a rather utilitarian box surmounted by a sort of giant Deco domed lampshade. Giles Scott, in contrast, produced an accomplished and digested classical design, with Georgian glazing bars and Grecian – Soanian? – fluting around the panels. It was solid, practical and beautiful – one of the very best examples of British industrial design, which enhances any street in which it stands.
And surely, in searching for models for its proposed new kiosk, MATART must have become aware of this competition, held a few years earlier – and of its happy conclusion. The Hungarian kiosk, although made of cast-iron, is certainly not a copy of Scott’s and, indeed, not really as good. The side panels were filled with single sheets of glass, while horizontal glazing bars only appeared – arbitrarily – on the door. But there is a reminiscence of the fluting within the thin corner piers, and the whole thing is elegant and well-proportioned, even though much lighter in structure than Scott’s one-and-a-quarter-ton giant. Above all, it has the noble and sensible dome top which, with its helmet spike, gives the whole think the air of a superior sentry box. In comparison with the heavy 1960s telephone boxes with, either singly or as Siamese twins, appear all over Budapest, this is a distinguished design – a proper kiosk rather than a box. And that – in a city where real Turkish Turkish baths survive from the 17th century – is thoroughly appropriate.
I am most grateful to Dr András Ferkai, architect, for his help in the preparation of this article.