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Summer 1996
City Journal Summer 1996.
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  U rbanities

Why Lampposts and Phone Booths Matter
Roger Scruton
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There used to be one object in every English village that stood out as a symbol of stable government and a refuge to the traveler: the telephone booth. This cast-iron structure in imperial red was designed in 1924 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, itself the last great British venture in the Gothic style. Like many architects who worked in the Indian summer of the British Empire, Scott was eclectic, able to draw on classical, Gothic, and proto-modern motifs in order to provide a rich vocabulary of detail, responsive to the new demands of the industrial age. His telephone booth is a case in point: classical in outline and inspired by Sir John Soane’s tomb for his wife in Saint Pancras Churchyard, it is nevertheless an unashamed product of the industrial age, with a suggestion of Bauhaus naughtiness in its fenestration. Raised on a slight plinth, and in the form of a classical column base, it is capped by a gentle pediment, beneath which a panel of opalescent glass, lit from behind, makes a kind of cornice, bearing the word “telephone” in sober classical letters. The door, divided into three parts by its mullions, has a brass handle set into the cast-iron frame, and above the cornice a little crown is embossed or perforated, symbol of national identity and promise of enduring government. So suitable did this form prove to the streets, countryside, and villages of England that it would often be seen on Christmas cards, upright in a sea of snow, beside the Gothic spire, the gabled cottage, and the five-barred gate. And it was a paradigm of what street architecture should be: permanent, dignified, and expressing an idea of public and legitimate order.

With the privatization of the telephone network, Britain took a giant leap into the future. The first sign of this was the rapid disappearance of Scott’s familiar landmark in favor of a barbarous concoction in alloy and shatterproof glass, of the kind familiar from the streets of New York. The new telephone booth is open to the elements and to the commotion of the city street. It offers neither shelter nor privacy to its occupant; it is void of style or architectural meaning and looks as impermanent and provisional as the activities that invade it. It represents not stability and lawful order but hectic movement and unceasing change. It is a visible reminder of the futility of listening for ancestral voices amid the din of a modern city. You do not enter the New York telephone booth but reach out to it as you pass. It is not the reassuring symbol of a permanent home, with which you can at any moment make soothing contact. It is a place from which you cry for help, into a void from which help can never come.

The contrast that I have just drawn illustrates a profound change in our perception of public space. The street is the public place par excellence, the place in which the city impresses its character on those who live in it and vindicates, if it can, the society that it exists to sustain. The design of a city street was never, in the great epochs of civilization, left to chance. The height, alignment, fenestration, and doorways of city houses were the subject of regulation, and the objects that were placed in the street for the benefit of passersby expressed and confirmed the sense of a common, legitimate, and public way of life.

This is one reason why the classical styles acquired such stability: they enshrined an idea of legitimacy. Gradually their forms and details came to have a permanent meaning and could therefore be relied upon to convey their messages without the benefit of words, and in a serene and genial idiom that mitigated the urgencies of city business. A classical doorway does not need the sign marked entrance; the classical steps need no supplement of words to direct the attention and the movement of those who walk on them. The use and meaning of a building were laid before the public in a series of visual cues that both expressed and endorsed the common understanding of the purposes of civic life.

That is why classical railway stations, like McKim, Mead, and White’s Penn Station, destroyed during the sixties, had so few verbal markings: you knew at once, from the height and proportions of the arches, from the varied decorations and the dialogue of moldings, exactly where to buy your ticket, leave your luggage, or catch your train. Contrast this with the modern airport, in which a babel of words cries out on every side and in every style of lettering, precisely because the architecture, in its uniform stylelessness, is mute.

This babel of signs has erupted also in our streets. The facades of shops bear no mark of the goods contained in them; doorways are obscured, unembellished, scarcely noticeable without an explicit entrance sign. Bus stops are mere posts, on which bus stop must be written if we are to know their use. And the signs themselves have declined to the same level of impermanence as the functions they describe. The lettering is not weighty or dignified but imbued with motion; it seems to go whizzing past,  throwing out a trail of sparks or dynamic shading, in some garish hue that clamors for attention. Even churches and chapels, whose Gothic porches make unambiguous display of their function, are now equipped with billboards, lest people should be unaware of their use. Contrast with this busy clamor the old enamel street signs of New York, which told us, though in a quietly authoritative whisper, that this street has been here forever.

At the same time, the design of street furniture has become subservient to function. The bus shelter in my village is a cottagelike cabin built of local stone and designed to blend into its surroundings. The modern bus shelter is an assembly of metal-framed screens, with no other meaning than its function—a function that it performs badly, precisely because it is the only function that it performs. Just as a house ceases to be a home when built as a “machine for living,” so does a shelter cease to be a shelter when built as a “machine for standing in.” Ever since Jane Jacobs mounted her devastating attack on the modernist theories of town planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it has been clear that the “disaggregation of functions” in the modern city is a primary cause of social disaffection. Modernist planning, which places shops in one place, streets in another, parks in another, and offices in yet another, compels people to be constantly on the move and deprives them of the city as their collective home. It is the same with neighborhoods as with street furnishings: those designed purely according to an idea of their function are unable to fulfill it—unable to fulfill it, that is, in a human way.

Consider the English postbox—a wonderful structure that can be found, thanks to the Empire, in every corner of the globe, though not everywhere decked out in the imperial red that used to enliven it. Like the old-fashioned telephone booth, the English “pillar-box” has a permanent air. Its base and cornice, its solid cast-iron structure, and its open mouth emphasized by moldings are, from the point of view of the functionalist architect, entirely superfluous, a waste of labor and materials, which could not be justified by the box’s use. In fact, however, they are precisely what is necessary to create confidence in the national post office: placing your letters in such a box, through such a decisive aperture, you feel that they are in safe hands and already on their way to their destination. This confidence has created a public expectation that the post office will live up to its promise, and that the royal insignia embossed on its boxes expresses a genuine spirit of public service and obedience.

And so it has always been. Our postal service has remained reliable, able to deliver a letter safely within a day. The contrast with the U.S. Postal Service is evident—and evident also to the eye, in the functional stylelessness of the American postbox. During my first stay in America, I refused to place letters in that scrappy tin receptacle, unable to believe that anyone would take charge of delivering them. It looked like junk, seemed designed for junk, and promised to make junk of anything that was dropped in it. It provides a clear illustration of the way in which explicit functionality is the enemy of function. Maybe the American postbox has played its own small part in creating public distrust toward the federal service.

Such examples serve to show that solidity and self-confidence are every bit as important as style. This is illustrated by another American instance: the city fire hydrant. In the nature of the case, it is difficult to impose the discipline of the orders on such a structure, or to do very much by way of moldings and ornaments. Nevertheless, the fire hydrant has become one of the few reliable symbols of urbanity in American cities: the solid cast-iron structure, with its polished brass caps, standing rooted in its own inviolable space, expresses the vigilant guardianship of the city, durable, immovable, and prepared for every emergency. It is a visible pledge that the city intends to live longer than its local disasters.

When it comes to lighting, requirements of style are more directly involved, and easier to satisfy. The old gas lamp was a  descendant of the architectural orders, with plinth, shaft, and capital, and an eruption of moldings at the places where they met. It was designed to stand in the street like a soldier, smartly dressed, unflinching, and reliable. The modern sodium lamp has a flimsy and slovenly appearance. It hangs above the street in a half-completed arch, its unembellished curve clashing equally with the upright housefronts and the horizontal pavement. In a high wind it will wave or rattle, and an air of precarious impermanence attaches to it: at any moment it might lose its balance and come crashing down. Its being has been absorbed into its function, and when it replaces the disciplined rows of gas lamps, the effect can be compared to replacing a row of uniformed policemen with a gang of efficient guerillas. In the heat of action, a policeman’s uniform is far less functional than the jeans, guns, and ski mask of the urban guerilla. But it has a deeper function, which comes from transcending functionality. It reassures, elevates, and legitimizes: it reminds us that the power of the police is not arbitrary but authorized power, expressing the very same spirit of citizenship that prompts us also to submit to it.

Street lighting is a gauge of security, a sign that the city has eyes. Even so, people seem to be less interested in the quantity of light than in the urbanity of its source. The cold, hard stare of the modern street lamp is received more as a threat than a comfort. Its all-seeing shadowless glare seems to sweep the street of its social meanings, robbing us of intimacy and inviting the very danger against which it warns—for we instinctively sense that the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, crime and law, are wiped away by this soulless illumination. Modern street lighting is totalitarian, Orwellian; everything beneath it is pallid and impersonal. When people are allowed to choose their townscape, they frequently insist that gas lamps be retained, or replaced by electric lamps that copy traditional forms and soften the street with a familiar chiaroscuro.

One final instance: the public lavatory. In the street where I passed my childhood, there stood an iron chapel in forest green, the sections of which had been cast in the form of cathedral arches, decorated with leaf moldings and filled with sheets of perforated metal. Only the word gentlemen, in black Gothic lettering on a framed window of opalescent glass, indicated the building’s function. And not a soul objected to its presence, so much did this sanctuary add dignity to our undistinguished terraces. The Parisian pissoir, in the same soothing color, was a comparable triumph of street architecture. In place of these happy solutions to a permanent human problem, we now have transportable cabins of pale cement, with sliding metal doors that give the appearance of a space capsule. They have neither roots in the pavement nor orientation to the surrounding buildings but are merely dumped in the street like trash cans, vivid reminders of the garbage that we humans really are.

All is not lost, however. Firms now exist that specialize in street furniture and offer plausible simulacra of those fixtures, from gas lamp to cast-iron bench, that endowed our streets with their civic meaning. The old bishop’s-crook street lamp and the World’s Fair park bench are proliferating again in New York, and architects are beginning to take street furniture seriously. Quinlan Terry’s development at Richmond Riverside, near London (City Journal, Spring 1996), pays as much attention to streets, steps, and walkways as to facades and is remarkable for its benches and litter bins, which have the same air of permanence as the buildings themselves. Nor is this revival of civic architecture confined to self-confessed classicists like Terry: witness the street lamps and railings whose beautiful rhythm lends festive dignity to the Battery Park esplanade in New York.

Nevertheless, we need to think hard about why the modern styles have so often failed to do justice to the street. Why is it that in this most simple matter, which had been so clearly understood by architects and city fathers from ancient Athens to the eve of the First World War, the wisdom of ages was so suddenly thrown away? Some will blame the corruption of popular taste; others will point accusingly to the market. But these are shallow explanations. In public matters there is no genuine market, since choices are made not by the citizens but on their behalf. And when the voice of the public is heard, it calls out for traditional designs and seems dissatisfied with their modern substitutes.

We are self-conscious beings, aware of our temporary nature and aware in our hearts that outside society, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The city is the symbol of our defiance: the monument to human aspiration and the pledge that life will endure in something like its present mold. The city depends upon elaborate self-restraint and courtesy; it functions only because the millions who inhabit it make tacit bargains with their neighbors, renouncing force for agreement in countless tiny transactions as they jostle in the streets and markets, queue for buses, take their seats in theaters and cinemas, or pass one another in the park.

This amazing achievement comes about only because there is a general air of benign authority: a vigilant overseer who makes her presence known without officiously intruding. This overseer is the city herself, made apparent through streets and monuments and standing over the human commotion with an air of unruffled command. Through the city we relate to time, not as rural people do, through a consciousness of the seasons and their passing, but in another way—through a carefully constructed dialogue of permanence and change, in which enduring symbols of order play host to our most temporary transactions, and eternal remembrance stands above a sea of forgetting. That is the true meaning of monuments, churches, and the classical styles. And it is the meaning that should be captured by street architecture, if it is to be seen as belonging in the city, rather than dumped there.

When people refer to the trashy nature of modern street furniture, this is what they really have in mind. The garish signs, functional objects, disposable benches, phone booths, lavatories, and bus shelters do not belong to the permanent background of the city but only to the transitory foreground of human bargaining. As a result, our perceptions are confused. For the transitory foreground is occupied by people, not by the city. We perceive the ice cream stand or the fruit seller’s stall as private property, part of the great sea of market dealings and movable from place to place. We cannot perceive street furniture in such a way, since we can attribute it to no one in particular. By its very nature it is removed from the world of private property and market dealings. If, however, it fails to speak of permanent things, fails to wear the badge of office that we witness in the classical styles, then we cannot perceive it as part of the background, either. It floats in a kind of no-man’s-land between private foreground and public background, unowned and uncared for, without meaning or authority, adrift in the city like a piece of debris. No wonder modern mailboxes are so often smeared with graffiti and modern phone booths so often vandalized—changed from implicit to explicit rubbish as a kind of punishment for having failed to belong.

It seems to me that once we have understood the real nature of street furniture, as a symbol of permanent civil order in the stream of time, we will recognize that it matters very much how we design it. There are many reasons for the growth of crime and disorder in our city streets, and architecture is fairly low down the list of causes. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that the standards of conduct and courtesy required by life in a modern conurbation are not easily produced. People can live peacefully at the accelerated pace of city life only on the assumption of elaborate good manners, rapidly established codes and conventions, and a general responsiveness to the collective good. The astonishing fact is not that people rob, rape, and murder in modern cities, but that they don’t. However, only a constant and vigilant self-denial can make the arrangement work. And it has to work, since the city is the heart of modern society, the place where all decisions are made, and from which all government emanates.

The old street furniture engendered and endorsed a civic attitude among those who lived with it. People spontaneously imitated the dignified postures of the objects that stood around them and absorbed from the city herself a vision of public order and the common good. This can be seen from old films of Manhattan life—including the life of Harlem—in which the orderly forms of the city matched the uniforms worn by people, and in which the genial furniture of the street reflected the decencies of street behavior. Reflecting on our historical experience, I cannot help feeling that the growing disorder of the modern city stems at least in part from the fact that it has lost its air of perma-nence. The city has become as temporary and disposable to the eye as the discarded junk that drifts through its streets and alleyways.

 

 


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