The great mysteries are not the invisible things, but the visible ones. And to me, it is a great and fascinating mystery that the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, designed one of the world’s most awe-inspiring large buildings and one of its most exquisite small ones: Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and the General Post Office’s ‘K2’ telephone box.
I grew up in Liverpool and became familiar with the shiver of horror always caused by the sublime cathedral on its vertiginous mount above a macabre canyon of catacombs and monuments. There was a more obvious connection with death than the afterlife. Here you found the Huskisson Memorial, named for the local MP who was the first-ever victim of a train crash. Unfamiliar with speed, he had stuck his head out of the carriage window. And there was also John Foster Junior’s souvenir of his Grand Tour inspired by the Temple of Apollo at Bassae which, translated to Liverpool, became a mortuary chapel. More recently, a contemporary of mine from school, who had become a successful solicitor, threw himself off the Cathedral’s forbidding and dreadful tower.
And so I wonder if mortal thoughts were on Scott’s mind when he won the Royal Fine Art Commission’s 1924 competition for the design of the nation’s phone box. He had recently become a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum, itself a place whose single-most outstanding exhibit is Seti’s morbidly fascinating Sarcophagus, a container for a corpse. And in his design for the GPO, Scott was clearly inspired by Soane’s own mausoleum in the Old Church Yard of St Pancras’ church in London. The distinctive summit of the phone box with its composition of segments is a clear reference to the pendentives and tympana of the Mausoleum’s depressed dome.