The 90th birthday of an architect once well known, but now largely overlooked, was marked on 20 December 2007. In 1956, Bruce Martin was picked as one of Astragal’s ‘Men of the Year’ (yes, they were all men) and was photographed, not at his desk or in front of a building, but next to a ‘modular chart’ of numbers printed on neat little coloured squares (AJ 19.01.56). He had been chosen ‘for his enthusiastic study of modular coordination problems’.
I came across Martin as the designer of the last good-looking red phone box – the K8. I recognised his name as an architect from the post-war Hertfordshire Schools Programme, but knew nothing else about him. It seemed unlikely he would still be around to talk to.
What prompted my interest? Everyone knows about Giles Gilbert Scott and his K2 and K6 phone boxes. Years ago, the Twentieth Century Society, under then chairman and phone-box enthusiast Gavin Stamp, campaigned to get them listed as individual little buildings. It seemed a fairly outrageous suggestion at first, but now they are universally admired. However, there is one more classic phone box that is fast disappearing – in fact, it is about to become extinct, with only 12 working examples left, from the 11,000 that were originally produced.
Martin’s K8 has the same overall proportions as its predecessors, and a similar robustness which subsequent versions singularly lack. As he explained when he was interviewed at its launch in 1968, the key to its success was a ‘meticulous analysis of detail’. Scott’s design uses ‘lots of mouldings and 78- odd pieces of glass’, making it very hard to clean and complex to assemble. Martin’s design was an overall rationalisation of the K6, paring down its 450 pieces (without fixings) to just 183, including every single screw and nut. In fact, the K8 consists of just seven major components: a sill ring, two identical sides, a back panel, a door, a top sill ring and the roof. Instead of requiring factory assembly, it can be put together on site and configured in a huge number of different ways, such as switching the swing of the door to suit the surroundings.