Some amazing photos of pay phones in Africa from The Payphone Project. In some places, they can be quite active communal spaces.
Unfortunately, it's a different story in the U.S. and elsewhere. They're dead spaces.
For some reason, I've come to associate pay phones with architectures of waiting. Or landscapes of waiting. The anticipation of a call, or the prank call, ticking silently but surely like a bomb counting down to an as yet unknown detonation time. You can even watch Colin Farrell sweating, quivering, crapping his pants, waiting to see if Kiefer Sutherland shoots him in the head, all the while an entire New York City block erupts into pandemonium. And of course, all it takes to neutralize the anxious terrain of Metropolis begins with a phone booth.
Much has been written about architecture as event. Frequently cited as a classic example are those flying buttresses keeping so many gothic cathedrals upright. From a very early BLDGBLOG post: “They're events of gravity channeled downward toward the earth's core; they're the building always on the verge of falling apart – and then not falling apart.” I suppose Hoover Dam can be described as an event: tons of concrete and the entire Colorado Plateau in a delicate dance for equilibrium (and counter-equilibrium) with hydrology and gravity.
But can you situate architecture as event in the larger context of landscape as waiting? Can we say that Notre Dame Cathedral was built to ride out tourists and lost Dan Brown fans, biding its time until its buttresses reach a critical structural point and collapses in on itself? And Hoover Dam ticks and tocks away the centuries until the Colorado River has eaten away the canyon walls?
Last I've heard, the Army Corps of Engineers will rebuild New Orleans's levee system, this time bigger, stronger, and better, whatever that means. No doubt they're anticipating another Katrina or an even more damaging one. Judging from precedents, however, it won't be entirely immune. So a city waits. Perhaps somebody decides to build levees of levees. Are there levees of levees of levees? The landscapes of waiting.
Meanwhile, how do quaint Swiss villages wait for the next avalanche? How is Tokyo waiting for the next big earthquake? San Francisco for Los Angeles? Yellowstone for the next major wildfire or even for the impending cataclysmic eruption of its supervolcano?
Ultimately however, I'm more intrigued by the idea of a landscape in which you're perpetually waiting. Godot finally arrives, even Guffman and the Messiah, and yet you keep on waiting. And while you're waiting, you go and tend to your garden, plant some cucumbers, prune some trees, water your roses. It doesn't come, whatever it is. You're waiting. Still. So you decide to build a pergola, go to TruValue, and buy some lumber. It's a beautiful pergola, the best in the neighborhood. But rather than admiring it, checking out the views from inside, you take a look at your watch. Twice. And twice again. The summer solstice arrives. And here comes the winter solstice at last, finally. But you only stare at the horizon. Summer and winter again. You harvest your crops. Everything else wilts and dies. But still you and everyone else wait, tense, ecstatic, and apprehensive. Speculating. North America returns to the equator. New landscapes, new species. You wait. The sun becomes a red giant. You wait.