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Louis Kahn and the Commodores

Theo Bishop

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!’
My father returned after an hour to pick up Kahn, this time at ground level. He drove him to the Kantorovich Building, where he was to deliver his speech to a sold-out audience from across the North.
The speech Kahn gave was one he had given numerous times during the later part of his career; a period in which his theories had been described as verging on ‘cantankerous mysticism’. In the speech he explored ideas that were both cosmic and poetic, and at times esoteric. At one point he described how ‘all material is spent light, light that has become exhausted; that eternity, which is certainly the most nebulous and most sought after meaning may be said to be two brothers ... the one light non-luminous, the other light pervading, luminous, entering into a wild dance of flame and exhausting itself as materials’.

The August 1972 issue of the RIBA Journal quoted theGuardian review, which described Kahn as ‘a preacher, musing to himself, difficult to follow and almost impossible to summarise’. Rather than attempt the impossible the magazine decided to publish the speech verbatim. However it was agreed by many in the audience that despite his obscure mysticism Kahn’s words were still eloquent and his architecture remained profound and moving.
The talk overran by an hour and they only just made their reservation at the Plaza Hotel restaurant. As well as Kahn and my father, the meal was attended by a number of eminent Manchester architects from both local authority and private practice. All were devotees of Kahn’s work.
Kahn was relaxed, genial and had a warm sense of humour. A guest asked him if he intended to wear the gold medal. Kahn grinned and disappeared up to his room. A few minutes later the house band began to play stars and stripes and through the tables came Kahn resplendent with his award.
The group’s conversation tended towards the recent modernist architecture of Manchester but Kahn was more interested in the Victorian essence of the city. He asked questions about the warehouse architecture and the detailing of the salt glazed terracotta tiles that covered buildings such as the Midland Hotel. My father happily agreed to Kahn’s request for a guided tour of the city’s Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
The next morning the tour began in the warehouse district. It was York House on Major Street that particularly impressed Kahn. Designed by Harry S Fairhurst in 1911, the building had a classical stone façade and a sloping rear wall of cascading glass, which allowed in light for the inspection of cloth. Kahn immediately recognised its importance as a precursor to the constructivist modernism of the twenties, a view that was also shared by Walter Gropius and Nikolaus Pevsner. It was a building that had a significant influence on younger architects like James Stirling, in particular his Florey Building in Oxford and the History Faculty Library in Cambridge. The building was due for demolition and my father told Kahn of his and Joe D’Urso’s work on the conservation campaign, which had culminated in an exhibition at the MoMA in New York. Despite its eventual listed status York House was demolished in 1974.
The tour continued through the centre of the City and took in the Town Hall by Alfred Waterhouse, the Midland Hotel with its terracotta cladding and the John Rylands Library. On the way back to the station Kahn spotted the cast iron and glass dome of the Barton Arcade. To my father’s surprise, and the bemusement of passers by, Kahn insisted that they both lie down face up on the floor of the arcade. ‘This is the only way you can truly appreciate this amazing roof,’ he exclaimed, ‘the pattern is like a line drawing of Brunelleschi’s dome.’
With this the tour was at an end and, boarding a train at Piccadilly, Kahn began his journey back to Philadelphia.