Not many people still use the phone booths on New York streets, but a Columbia alumnus is giving Upper West Siders a reason to make a call—or at least to take a second look.
John Locke, GSAPP ’09, has installed a public library of sorts in two Upper West Side phone booths over the last year and is planning more installations in the neighborhood next month.
The libraries consist of several bookshelves attached to the inside of the phone booths and built around the phone itself, leaving callers uninhibited while giving them a selection of books to peruse and borrow for free.
The first library, in a booth on 103rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, was put up last August but taken down by the city two weeks later. The second, on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, went up in September and lasted five weeks until the city removed it.
Locke, who did not get permission for the installations, said they were taken out because city technicians collecting coins were unable to access the coin compartments.
The next installations, due in May, will address this issue by leaving room for coin removal.
Locke, who lives in Morningside Heights with his fiance, was first inspired to go ahead with the project when he noticed how little the phone booths were used.
“They’re a constant detriment to the neighborhood used solely for advertising,” he said. “I was looking for a way to convert something negative into something positive.”
In addition to working on the project, Locke teaches an architecture class at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation called “Hacking the Urban Experience.” He teaches students how to think out of the box when it comes to architecture.
Usually, he said, architects “wait for a client to come and tell us what to do and within those narrow confines we try to develop something fine or shiny or something that looks good in a magazine.” But, in his class, “you think more about the question, about the opportunity,” he said.
In this case, the project is all about asking, “Where can design thinking have a place outside the traditional architectural realm of buildings?” he said.
He constructed and installed the libraries himself using a metal fabricator, a machine that outlines the parts of the shelves on plastic and “prints” them to be put together.
“I want people to have books, but that’s not my goal,” he said. “My goal is to see if there are additional uses for outdated, obsolete street technology.”
People passing by have had different reactions to the installations. The first library’s books—culled from Locke’s own collection—were gone in a few hours, leaving the shelves empty. Locke said he worried the books may have been taken to be resold, and, in response, tagged the spines of the next set of books with library bar codes, indicating that they were free.
Another lot of books had the opposite problem, as confused passersby browsed the selection but didn’t take any of them.
“If you see something, it might not be obvious what the function is,” Locke said. “I didn’t want to be prescriptive and put up a sign to explain ‘this is how you use this thing,’ but next time I might have a sign like ‘share’ or ‘take.’”
More than 500 people from around the world have emailed him seeking to collaborate on expanding the phone booth library project or to design other public street art projects. Going forward, he hopes to organize and assist those who are interested.
Locke encourages his students to be cognizant of the cityscape and re-imagine the architect as entrepreneur. “At GSAPP we ask, ‘What is the role of the architect?’ ‘How do we push past the confines of traditional architecture?’” he said.
His students are currently working on their own projects using standard construction materials to redesign street life in New York, and are due for installation at the end of the semester.