In 1972 Louis Kahn travelled to London to receive the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. What is not commonly known is that the next day he travelled to Manchester, where he delivered the same speech he gave in the capital. The visit came about because my father, John Bishop, who was a member of the Manchester Society of Architects, wrote to Kahn suggesting that the provinces were missing out.
Kahn travelled up by train and it was arranged that my father would meet him at Piccadilly Station. As the last of the passengers disembarked there was no sign of Kahn. Becoming worried, my father bought a platform ticket and searched the train. He found Kahn fast asleep in the corner of the carriage surrounded by plastic bags filled with books. He was wearing an old creased mackintosh and my father thought he bore a passing resemblance to the TV detective Columbo.
After waking him, my father helped Kahn carry his bags to the car for the short drive to the Piccadilly Plaza Hotel – selected by my father for its proud status as the latest modernist addition to the city. Designed by Covell Matthews & Partners in 1965, this ‘brutalist’ building, with its three blocks separately expressed and connected by a first floor podium, was inspired by Kahn’s ideas on the differentiation of space. As with most of Manchester’s recent buildings, the pedestrian level was raised above the vehicular traffic. This was a recommendation of the 1963 Buchanan report, which was itself influenced by Louis Kahn’s Philadelphia Traffic Studies from the 1950s.
The reception drop off was at first floor level and was accessed from street level by a helical ramp. My father’s dilapidated Renault 4 van gave up just near the top. Extremely embarrassed, my father asked Kahn to move over to the driver’s seat and steer, whilst he attempted to push the van the rest of the way. As he began to push a people carrier pulled up behind and out stepped a group of men who began to help. Soon the van was outside the reception and my father and Kahn thanked the men. The young female receptionist was very excited: ‘Do you know who just pushed your car up the ramp? The Commodores!’