The Restoration of Otto Laird

BOOK: The Restoration of Otto Laird
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For my parents, Judith and John.


Many thanks to all those who have made this book possible, including my agent, Hannah Ferguson, for finding the manuscript a good home, and my editor, Lucy Malagoni, for her patient work and invaluable advice during the process of revision. Thanks also to desk editor Thalia Proctor, copyeditor Celia Levett, proofreader Peter McAdie, cover designer Hannah Wood and everyone else at Sphere involved in its production and promotion.

Special thanks to my parents, brother Neil and nephew Arvo for their support and humour, and to all the friends and colleagues who have offered words of encouragement over the years.


It was not uncommon, these days, for Anika Laird to return from one of her morning trips to town to find her husband standing naked in the kitchen window. The first time it happened she was mildly surprised; by now it had become the stuff of routine. She would catch a peripheral glimpse of Otto as she cycled up the pathway, but the oblique angle of her approach, and a remnant of brick wall standing just beyond the window, prevented a more detailed study as she pedalled round the side of the villa to the front door. Once she was inside, the image that greeted her as she propped up her bicycle and paused in the kitchen doorway was always the same. Otto stood with his back to her, his pale buttocks luminous in the gloom, and stared through the window with a still intensity. Sometimes, during rain, she would discover him pressing his fingertips lightly to the pane, one arm stretched before him in an attitude of silent reverence.

Anika watched in fascination from the cinnamon-scented doorway. Otto's ageing body was transformed by the quivering half-light into something elegant and weightless: an elderly sea lion, moving through the depths. He never seemed to hear her enter the house, or wheel her creaking bicycle through the hallway, and so she would watch him quietly for minutes at a time, breaking the silence with a soft call of his name. Invariably Otto came to with a start, the rimless spectacles (his sole attire) bouncing on the bridge of his nose.

‘Anika,' he would say, turning without embarrassment, ‘such terrible weather we are having – you must be soaked right through. Let me fix some luncheon for you while you change.'

Then he would gather up his discarded silk kimono from the stone floor, pull it about his unusually tall frame and tie the strings firmly round his scarred belly, closing each episode with a decisive gesture that seemed to rule out any need for explanation.

Rubbing a towel through her hair before the bathroom mirror, Anika pondered this odd, recurring scene with her husband. It troubled her to find Otto staring into space like that, not least because the kitchen window had no view. It was the only room in the house without one. Positioned immediately beyond it, the crumbling section of wall – part of an old cottage that once stood upon the plot – effectively blocked any sight of the surrounding hills, save for a hint of open landscape through a gap where some bricks had eroded. Despite Anika's protests, Otto had insisted on leaving the wall in place when overseeing construction of the villa some eighteen years earlier. This was done partly from a sentimental attachment to vernacular architecture, partly from a sensuous attraction to the rough mauve bricks, with their regular intervals of vivid moss strata.

All the same, Otto's choice of this particular window for his episodes of silent communion struck Anika as perverse. They had chosen this location specifically for its spectacular natural setting. Otto had designed their home with the greatest of care in order to maximise its potential. For anyone lucky enough to enter the Lairds' hillside villa, the interior of the building never failed to draw gasps. It offered a dizzying profusion of light, glass and distant vistas; a three-dimensional frame through which to admire the pristine beauty of the Franco-Swiss borderlands. The blue hills of the Jura could be seen to the north; southward, the giant peaks of the Savoy Alps. Broken and discoloured as a dentist's dream during summer, they were restored each year to a glinting perfection by the first winter snows. Underscoring this rampant geology was the wide expanse of Lake Geneva: implausibly blue when bathed in sunlight, impregnably grey when not. This, all of this, was available to the Lairds for moments of quiet contemplation; the same timeless landscapes that had once inspired Voltaire, the Shelleys and Byron. Yet Otto – thinker, visionary, the avant-garde's answer to Sir Christopher Wren – Otto seemed much happier with his piece of crumbling wall.

‘The inscrutability of genius,' Anika told her reflection in the bathroom mirror.

In truth, she was not convinced by the term, but others had used it when describing her husband, so who was she to argue?

Wandering about naked, too. He must be losing his marbles. Thank God we don't have neighbours for him to scare.

She thought of a Dutch phrase, and spoke it aloud.

Een gek.
A crazy man. Whatever was I thinking?'

But she smiled to herself as she spoke.

Combing out the damp strands of vanilla hair, as long and striking now, when she was in her early sixties, as it had been when she first met Otto more than twenty years before, Anika glided from the bathroom to the south-facing lounge, pausing for a moment before its great wall of glass. An autumn breeze rippled the surface of the lake, while Mont Blanc in the distance lay truncated by the dark clouds troubling its heights, a legacy of the morning's storm.

I could always knock it down, she told herself, thinking once more of the length of wall. One day when he's off at a conference somewhere.

She would blame it on the
the brutal northerly wind that sometimes froze the lake-edge solid during winter, and could turn even the mildest spring days suddenly raw and hostile.

Otto entered the room, looking perplexed. He was carrying a tray laden with two mugs and a silver coffee pot. Setting down the tray on a low glass table, he retrieved a rolled-up magazine from the silk folds beneath his armpit, tossing it down with venom.

‘Unbelievable,' he said, pausing to find a better word, before settling on the one he had already. ‘Quite unbelievable.'

Recognising the masthead of
The Architectural Eye
– Otto's last remaining link, via monthly subscription, to a profession he had once helped to shape – Anika searched out her glasses in the pocket of her bathrobe and slid them onto her nose. The contours of the masthead sharpened before her as she picked up the magazine.

‘What's upset you?' she asked.

‘Page five, bastards,' said Otto, whose habit of compressing two separate thoughts into a single phrase was familiar enough to Anika for her not to take offence. The expletive, she realised, wasn't directed at her. She found the page and absorbed the headline.


‘One of yours,' she said.

‘They want to demolish it, buggers,' said Otto.

There was a pause. Anika was browsing through a mental scrapbook of Otto's landmark buildings, but she couldn't place Marlowe House with any certainty. She took a chance.


He nodded.

‘The concrete tower block south of the river. The one that looks a little off balance?'

‘That's the one,' he replied, somewhat testily.

Built in the early 1960s, Marlowe House had been one of Unit 5's defining achievements. Anika remembered Otto once telling her it had won a major architectural prize.

‘And what's their reasoning?'

‘People don't like living there, apparently. The local newspapers have been campaigning for years. Finally they have their wish. The plan is to knock it down and replace it with private apartments. Stupid arseholes, the lot of them.'

Otto bent angrily to pour out the coffee. He struggled to tailor his movements to the task in hand, spoiling the delicate operation with a spill and a low muttering.

Anika was reading the article.

‘But I thought it was listed,' she said, looking up at him above the frame of her glasses.

‘They listed its twin, Taylor House, the building out west. But not Marlowe House. It was always the more problematic of the two. The wrong part of London. Social problems and poor maintenance. No fashionable young people to buy up the apartments and trumpet their architectural value. Still consists almost entirely of local-authority tenants, as far as I'm aware. Damned shame we never tried for a listing, though. It's much the better building.'

He became lost in memory then, an increasingly common occurrence during recent years. Unlike most of his work, scattered around the world and rarely visited by Otto after completion, Marlowe House was a building he had observed for many years at first hand. This came about by chance, rather than design, as its distinctive profile could clearly be seen from the stands at the Oval cricket ground, a place where Otto, a keen follower of the game, had spent many a spare summer day during his three-and-a-half decades in England. Consequently, during quieter moments in matches, or in the blissful afternoon reverie that usually followed a teatime scotch, he would find his attention wandering from the field of play, over the gasworks and across the skyline, before coming to rest upon Marlowe House, its lines in the lowering sunlight as crisp and elegant as a well-timed shot to the boundary.

During the early 1960s, Otto had watched with paternal pride as the construction reached its full height of twenty-seven storeys, thereafter looking on with quiet satisfaction as it matured and settled into the urban fabric of south-east London. It had been joined over time by buildings of a similar scale, stretching out in all directions, transforming genteel suburbs into inner-city badlands, and pushing the dark smudge of the Surrey Hills ever further into the distance. Yet despite the burgeoning development around it, the heroic mass of Marlowe House had refused to be overshadowed. Even when finally outgrown by a 1970s upstart several storeys higher (the architect responsible was a long-time rival of Otto's), it had somehow retained its dominant position on the skyline. For Otto, therefore, it remained throughout the 1970s, and into the 1980s, an object of aesthetic contemplation; one to rival the finest sweep shot or a giant blow for six.

BOOK: The Restoration of Otto Laird
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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