The Telephone Exchange | One Braham

This week, a different type of show than the ones I usually feature on here. The Telephone Exchange is a PhD project from the architect Lisa Kinch that I spotted on Instagram (she also has a Twitter/X account). Kinch is interested in the social impact of the telephone exchanges built in post war Britain by the then-publicly-owned General Post Office (GPO), before it split and became the now-private entity known as BT.

For my part, I started following because the drab, identikit architectural stylings of British telephone exchanges are lodged deep in my subconscious. Scrolling through her feed brought back memories of the Isleworth exchange on the corner of Syon Lane, and the bright blue and yellow tiles of the exchange on the Uxbridge Road, backdrop buildings from my west London childhood. So when I saw Kinch was hosting an exhibition of the project at a BT office, I jumped at the chance to attend.

The Telephone Exchange - installation view

One image on the boards at the exhibition made me stop dead: it was a plinth above a door of a 1950s exchange, just like the one in Isleworth. TELEPHONE EXCHANGE - the font was instantly evocative, both of a place I don’t live in anymore and a time long past. It was a time of effective government intervention for one thing - thousands of exchanges were built between the 50s and 80s, to catch up with the communications revolution.

It’s debatable whether or not architectural quality fell by the wayside as a result of the GPO’s need to meet demand, fast. But architectural variety certainly suffered: the GPO exchange buildings were rigorously templated and standardised, optimised for cost and utility. Kinch has found that even the identities of the architects behind many of the exchanges have been lost.

Through such standardisation, any British person of a certain age can hear the words “telephone exchange” and conjure up a mental image of what one looks like. Walking from the shiny privatised BT office up Shoreditch High Street after my visit, I spotted a hulking shadow over the road. I knew it was a telephone exchange building straight away. Crossing over for a closer look, my hunch was proven by seeing that telltale font on the letter box - though the word, LETTERS, was almost obliterated by graffiti.

Like many others, Shoreditch Telephone Exchange is still owned by BT, but is unused, inhabited only by building guardians to keep the thieves away. The buildings are unsuitable for retrofitting, given their reinforced floors and ceilings designed for industrial machinery. None are listed. Perhaps, one day, they’ll exist only in memory, and in Kinch’s PhD project.

The Telephone Exchange was at One Braham (London). September 21st and October 24th. Image credit tele_exchange