Now that everyone and his dog has a cell, we’ve hung up on the trusty old phone booth. But the public phone was never just for making calls: It has always inspired alternative uses – just look at Clark Kent, ducking into a call box to morph into Superman. So, rather than getting rid of their analog-age relics, these cities have come up with innovative uses to give them a new lease of life.
1. Phone charging in London and at the BWI airport
Brits are known for their sense of humor – maybe that’s why they picked rainy London Town for their solar-powered phone box. Painting the venerable telephone kiosk a garish green, they’ve replaced the redundant telephone and receiver with charging points for your smartphone: a lifesaver when you urgently need to update your Facebook status or find yourself running out of juice just as you’re whatsapping a date. And if you get stood up in the rain, the Solarbox makes for an excellent shelter. Not to be outdone, Washington-Baltimore International Airport has converted a bank of phone booths in one of its terminals into charging points. With more and more airlines offering onboard Wi-Fi, this idea is bound to take off.
2. Wi-Fi in Sydney and NYC
You’re having a game of beach volleyball on Manly Beach and your team is on fire. You’re itching to instagram your pics, but shy away from the eye-watering data roaming charges. Thankfully, help is at hand: Australian phone company Telstra is converting 1,000 phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots. The service is free to Telstra customers – everybody else has to buy a guest pass. And it doesn’t end there: Over the next five years, our friends Down Under are rolling out 2 million hotspots, creating one of the biggest networks in the world. Yet New York City goes one better: The city is converting 6,400 old phone booths into charging points that offer free Wi-Fi to everyone, including tourists. On top of that, the city is to install 3,600 entirely new stations. Best of all: Advertising panels ensure that the service comes at no cost to city hall – or the users.
3. Top up your car in Madrid
Phone booths have two distinct advantages: They sit right by the curb and they’re wired to the mains grid. As early as 2009, the city of Madrid drew the logical conclusion and converted its 13,500 public telephones into charging stations for electric cars. Every new charging point comes with its own reserved parking space. Once owners have registered their car with the city, a personal charge card allows them to top up their batteries – on the house. The idea has proved so successful that New York is poised to follow suit.
4. Money talks
Especially in the phone booths of Ho Chi Minh City’s grand Central Post Office. Built by Gustave Eiffel (among others), the palatial utility building boasts a row of antique wooden telephone booths kitted out with ATMs. So what if you can’t use them to give folks at home a ring? Just top up your dongs, as the Vietnamese currency is known.
5. Brighton’s Red Box Coffee
Hold the line for a skinny latte. Brighton’s Red Box Coffee is the first mini-business to take over Britain’s iconic red telephone kiosks, designed in 1926 and voted the greatest British icon of all time. In all, 100 kiosks are set to be converted for business use – other ideas include an ice cream stand, a shoeshine booth, an internet café, and even a life-saving defibrillator box. If you want to adopt a booth for your own bright idea, you only need to write a £5,000 ($8,000) check to the Red Kiosk company. In turn, they’ll kit out your kiosk – and use part of the money to combat homelessness and unemployment.
6. Osaka’s artists’ collective Kingyobu
Fish will listen to anything and yet they are famously discrete – maybe that’s why they’re a theme in at least two separate phone booth projects. In Osaka, the artists’ collective Kingyobu (“goldfish club”) has repurposed the city’s unwanted public call boxes into public goldfish tanks – to the delight of residents who, like all Japanese, consider the critters a symbol of prosperity and good luck. Maybe they got the idea from Benedetto Bufalino and Benoît Deseille. Since 2007, the installation artist and lighting designer have been converting call boxes all over the world into aquariums. Their project is designed to “question the redundancy of old structures and offer a moment for urban dwellers to escape from their daily environment.”
7. Phone booth libraries
Phone booths and books have always gone well together. In years gone by, we used to match name with number by perusing the tatty, dog-eared directory found in the call box. Small wonder, then, that this association between public telephones and reading continues to this day. Phone booth libraries have sprung up all over Germany, from Buxtehude to Berlin. Britain, too, has seen its share of micro-libraries – in rural Horsley as well as London. Literary telephone kiosks have also been sighted in New York City and Syracuse, both New York State. Are these outposts of erudition here to stay? That very much depends on us.
8. Berlin’s teledisko
Finally, Berlin once again lives up to its reputation as party central. Its trendy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district is home to teledisko, the world’s smallest nightclub. Simply feed the booth some shrapnel to unlock the door – and start partying with your best friend to your favorite song, complete with glitter ball, lights, and dry ice. As if that weren’t enough, the booth prints out a souvenir photo. Want to try this at home? Now you can. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom is selling off its yellow booths at a risible four hundred bucks (€350) apiece. The only snag: You’ll have to pick it up from the phone booth graveyard near Potsdam. And the possibilities are endless: Across the world, old phone booths have been upcycled into bike-racks, pull-out beds, showers, and even toilets.
Header image: Daniel Jones / Getty Images