A red-letter day for the UK's vanishing pillar box population
A few years ago the AJ published a revealing conversation between Berthold Lubetkin and Gavin Stamp in which these unlikely bedfellows united in deploring the disappearance of the red telephone box.
I remember being disappointed by this at the time. Did Lubetkin, the great modern architect, really want to preserve Gilbert Scott telephone boxes in the age of the mobile phone? More to the point, did he no longer subscribe to Antonio Sant' Elia's dictum, set forth nearly 100 years ago in the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture: 'The fundamental qualities of the architecture of the future will be impermanence and transience?'
If Lubetkin didn't believe this, then perhaps he was not really an out-and-out Modernist at all: if he did believe it, then he must have been hypnotized by the charismatic Stamp, and would have agreed with anything he said.
For whatever reason, neither man saw any connection between the threat to telephone boxes and the miniaturization of the mobile telephone, which was achieving saturation ownership by leaps and bounds even as they spoke. Both of them were distracted by the present (which has become a national failing), and as a result the future waltzed past them unrecognized and unchallenged.
Nor was this a new phenomenon, for Lubetkin, at least, was old enough to have lived through the rise and fall of the wireless aerial. In the 1920s this was a thing as tall as the mast of a J-Class yacht, with stays that occupied most of your garden, and had to be 'designed by naval experts'. Now, of course, 'wireless' means something else entirely and a radio aerial is either an inconspicuous nubbin stuck on the back window of a car or a bit of wire draped over a bookshelf. Nowadays, every private soldier has a cellular telephone in their knapsack, every cavalryman a hands-free telephone in their car, and every staff officer their own personal satellite. Why on earth, then, should we worry about the fate of old telephone boxes? The answer is we shouldn't.
They are all in the process of removal anyway.Time marches on.
But too few people enjoy the transience of technology. Even though Net surfing and e-mailing are now the sport of millions all over the world, doing in seconds what used to take days, the old Lubetkin/Stamp class action is rumbling into operation again.
Last week (you are excused if you did not notice it) marked the start of a campaign by English Heritage and Royal Mail to 'Save our red postboxes.'
From what? Presumably from the sort of Tardis-like ephemeralisation into thin air that is cutting such a swathe through the telephone box population. No wonder the reactionaries are worried. There are only just over 100,000 red letterboxes, while the telephone box population used to run into millions, so the odds on survival don't look too good. But hey! Never mind, there is no cause like a lost cause. We should never forget that this is the 150th anniversary of the installation of the first hexagonal iron red letterbox which was 'created' (does that mean designed or authorized? ) by the novelist Anthony Trollope, who seems to have worked the Christmas Post 100 years before John Osborne.
This time around it is not clear who is playing the part of the young fogey, but the late Berthold Lubetkin is being played by English Heritage's Sir Neil Cossons, once boss of the Science Museum and now firmly on the other side of the fence, who declares that red letter boxes 'are an enduring icon and a much-loved part of our everyday culture'.
A pity, but we shall not miss them. Not after a month or two, anyway.