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Katherine Shonfield

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In the first volume of the AJ's classic series The Best of Architects' Working Details (circa 1952), there is a detail of a phone booth in the Royal Festival Hall. Innumerable revisions to Gilbert Scott Junior's original Red One might make one think that it is only the armature of phone booths that is of interest to designers.

Functionalism deals with all things which appear 'given': an insubstantial ledge for your address book to slide off and lots of tuck-in space between glazing and frame for cards advertising obscene services.

In contrast, the piquancy of making a private phone call is given careful architectural expression in the Festival Hall booth, via a minute spatial hierarchy. The insulated booth finishes at waist height, sloping outwards to provide increasing enclosure as it reaches the head.

A recessed light is fitted towards the rear, illuminating the phone and its accoutrements, rather than the caller. The upper section, where your body will lean, is of polished glass: on the horizontal the glass is ground to provide a writing surface. The slightly erotic quality of intimacy, shielded yet public, is underlined by the 6 inch mirror which reflects a close-up view of your own face.

The mobile phone has trounced such architectural choreography, eliminating all spatial, physical borders between intimacy and publicity - there is no delicate hierarchy to contain the spoken sweet nothings, nothing to prevent their metamorphosis into cliched banality as they hit the robust outside air inhabited by strangers.

Are mobiles then merely an expression of the logic of modernity and modernism, the living embodiment of Marx 's aphorism about capitalism, 'All that is solid melts into air'?

Or are they the unconscious harbingers of the paradoxical brutalisation of privacy that comes, ironically, with the elimination of the trappings of public life - the demise of the public phone?

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