Find out why the K2 'London' phone kiosk is a classic
In 2015, nearly 90 years after the first model hit the streets, the K2 (K stands for ‘kiosk’) red London telephone box won a national survey. The aim was to find out what the public thought was the most quintessentially British design. The humble public phone box didn’t just come out on top of the Great British Design Survey: it left its competitors for dead, scooping 39 per cent of the popular vote. Its closest rival – the Routemaster double decker bus – could only scrape together 28 per cent. Concorde, the Spitfire and the Mini barely got a look in.Yet the K2 was certainly not as humble as the public thought. Distinctly neo-classical in aspect, it was designed by one of the great British architects of the era – Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He had already made his name as the creator of Coventry Cathedral and would go on to confirm it with such London landmarks as Waterloo Bridge and Battersea Power Station. Scott had emerged triumphant from a national design competition established by the Royal Fine Art Commission to provide the Metropolitan Boroughs of London with something a little less rustic than the distinctly Victorian looking K1 (the General Post Office’s first national kiosk), whose introduction onto the capital’s streets had been hotly resisted.
Scott’s winning design could hardly be accused of being modest in its aspirations either. Its domed roof is modelled on nothing less than the tomb of Sir John Soane in London’s St Pancras Old Church. Its door was made of the expensive tropical hardwood teak, while the side panels were of cast iron. There are moulded cornices, a backlit emblature, reeded moulding, internal beading and fluted architraves. As design critic Stephen Bayley explains: “It reminds us of a moment long passed, when public service companies maintained a notion of civic responsibility – and used beauty and utility to meet that end.”
Yet such metropolitan luxury came at a cost that was eventually to be the downfall of this design classic. For a public phone box, the unit cost was clearly and wildly disproportionate to its function. Coming in at £35 14s 0d, it was almost three times more expensive to manufacture than its predecessor, the K1, which had a more manageable build cost of £13. On top of which, the size and weight of K2s made them expensive to transport and install. In 1935, production came to an end. Because of the high cost of the K2, the General Post Office decided that it was to be installed only in London, resulting in only 1,700 units being manufactured (about a quarter of the total number of K1s installed nationally.)
Strangely, Scott was held to be blameless in the debacle of the K2, to the point where he was even invited back by the General Post Office to design a successor, the K3. This model was to prove but a shadow of the regal K2, having been constructed from cheap precast concrete (which would often break in transit). The fragility of the concrete also meant that it became impossible to incorporate fine detail such as Sir Giles’s fluted architraves into the design. The final insult came when the K3 was painted white as a pacifying gesture to members of the public who disliked the distinctive ‘currant red’ of its predecessor. A total of 12,000 K3s were made, but only two of these monstrosities remain, while there are still at least 200 heritage-listed K2s dotted around London.