Giles Gilbert Scott: Designer of Britain's Red Phoneboxes

Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) was a member of an architectural dynasty that had dominated British architecture since the Victoria period. His work fused tradition and modernity by applying historical styles to modern industrial structures. His buildings

Keywords: Giles Gilbert Scott, Sir George Gilbert Scott, Albert Memorial, Foreign Office, St Pancras Station, George Gilbert Scott Jnr, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, K2 telephone kiosk, red phonebox, Battersea power station, Bankside power station, Tate Modern Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) was a member of an architectural dynasty that had dominated British architecture since the Victorian period. Giles Gilbert Scott's work fused tradition and modernity by applying historical styles to modern industrial structures. His buildings include the Battersea and Bankside power stations in London and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Giles Gilbert Scott's single most iconic design is the famous K2 telephone kiosk, which was once a ubiquitous feature of Britain’s built environment.

Scott’s grandfather was Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), the renowned High Victorian Gothic architect who designed the Albert Memorial, the Foreign Office and St Pancras Station hotel. His father was George Gilbert Scott Jnr., who was a gifted but tragic figure. Scott Jnr designed a series of churches in London and Yorkshire that bridged the Gothic and Arts and Crafts movements. Unfortunately, he succumbed to alcoholism and was eventually committed to a mental asylum.

Giles Gilbert Scott was born in 1880. He was only three years old when his father was declared insane. He later claimed only to remember having met him twice, but he revered him as an architect: “Grandfather was the successful practical man, and a phenomenal scholar in gothic precedent, but father was an artist”. Scott Jnr adviced on his children’s upbringing, and Scott studied under Temple Moore, one of his father’s former students.

In 1902 Scott entered a competition to design a new Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. This was Britain’s most prestigious architectural competition and surprisingly Scott won it. He was only 22. The project was fraught with problems. The dean was concerned by Scott’s youth and inexperience, and insisted that Scott work with an older architect. George Frederick Bodley was appointed as joint architect, but Scott clashed with him. Bodley died in 1907, and Scott was given sole control. The competition had asked for a “20th century cathedral” and in 1910 he insisted on reworking the design for the main building, by refining its Gothic style into a simpler, symmetrical structure with a monumental central tower. Construction was finally completed in 1980, twenty years after Scott’s death.

In 1924 he entered a competition to design a public telephone kiosk. The shape of his design was inspired by a tomb designed by the 19th century architect Sir John Soane. Soane designed a tomb for himself, his wife and son in St Pancras churchyard (1815). Scott admired Soane’s work and had recently become a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum. The design of the K2 telephone kiosk was based on this tomb. By rooting his design in Britain’s architectural history, Scott transformed the telephone kiosk from what could have been an intimidating symbol of modernity into something reassuringly familiar.

Sir John Soane's tomb

K2 kiosk

The kiosk was traditional in style, but functionally it was very advanced. Scott used an ingenious ventilation system and the glass was divided into small panels for easy replacement in case of breakages. Scott’s original proposal was for a mild steel structure, but the Post Office insisted on changing it to cast iron. It also insisted on painting the kiosks bright red for maximum visibility. Scott has wanted to paint them blue. The K2 kiosk was a popular success. In 1935 Scott was recalled to design the K6 to commemorate King George V’s silver jubilee. This became the most widely used version of the kiosk, with thousands being installed.

K6 Kiosk

Scott continued temper modernity with traditionalism throughout his career. By the 1930s, Britain was finally succumbing to Modernism and the architectural profession was split into ‘trads’ and ‘rads’. In his inaugural address as president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1933, Scott advocated a ‘middle line’ embracing both technological progress and the human qualities of architecture. This middle line is evident in Scott’s best known London buildings, the power stations at Battersea (1929-35) and Bankside (1947-60). These were imposing modern buildings, but Scott disguised their industrial purpose behind Gothic facades. This suited mainstream British tastes, but in an age when progressive architects such as Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé celebrated technology, Scott’s attempts to popularise industrial buildings by obfuscating their function seemed conservative.

In 1923, Scott was commissioned to design Memorial Court, a hall of residence at Clare College, Cambridge (1923-1934). This was designed in a Georgian style. Scott adopted a restrained style for his University Library (1931-34) in Cambridge, and the Guinness Brewery (1933-1935) at Park Royal in west London. Scott designed dozens of churches throughout his career, as well as more modest public projects such as monuments.

He was hired was as a consultant to Battersea Power Station in south London. Charged with making the power station more appealing, Scott suggested brick as the main material and turned the four chimneys into reassuringly familiar neo-classical columns. The design has a trace of Art Deco in it too. Art Deco cinemas were being constructed across Britain in the same period.

Scott’s most significant post-war commission came in 1947 when he was invited to design a second London power station at Bankside beside the Thames in Southwark. The design is more austere than Battersea and Scott combined all of the chimneys into a single central tower. In 2000, the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron transformed the building into the Tate Modern museum.

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