The Restoration of Otto Laird (9 page)

BOOK: The Restoration of Otto Laird
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Otto now reached Portland Place and stood before the imposing Georgian terrace that had once sheltered, in its upper storeys, the offices of their long-disbanded architectural partnership. He climbed the steps to inspect the brass nameplates beside the door. A legal firm, financial advisors, someone fashionable in graphic design. Stepping back, he counted up to the fourth-floor window, its thick sill permitting just a glint of tall pane above. It was enough for him. He felt no wish to trouble the current occupants, no urge to enter the building and mount its winding stairs. Besides which, everything inside would doubtless be different. Only the dimensions of the rooms were likely to be the same. And Otto needed no assistance to recall the light-filled space of their former office. He could still see the brilliantined heads, bent in concentration over the worktables. He could sense the thick, creative silence – the slide and loop of set-square and compass; hear the scrape of pencil on paper, a reed-thin sound giving birth to new forms. The sensations Otto had experienced within its walls would stay with him all his life. They represented a time when he had been at his most productive; maybe at his happiest.

In another corner of Portland Place stood the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects. In the mid-1960s, when moving their partnership across from Fitzrovia into offices on this square, Otto, Cynthia and their colleagues at Unit 5 had believed they were challenging the architectural establishment, as represented by this edifice. All these years later, however, Otto wondered if they had secretly been hankering to join it. He stood before the entrance, which was flanked by two nude statues in stone. Again he felt no impulse to go inside, not even to visit the bookshop near its entrance. There was a danger that he would be recognised, for one thing, and then he might find himself caught up in lots of interminable conversations.

More than sixty years earlier, in November 1951, it was exactly the opposite concern that had preoccupied the eighteen-year-old Otto. He was standing on this self-same spot, staring up at the giant building and shivering inside a rented tuxedo. A curious dampness seeped into the folds of his shirt, as his nervous sweat mingled with the oily secretions of the London night. His jet-black hair lay flattened across his scalp, parted and plastered down by the twin effects of Brylcreem and smog.

Then, as now, Otto stood hesitant before the RIBA, reluctant to step inside the lions' den. Deterred as usual by the cost of public transport, he had attempted to walk that evening from his distant bedsit to the drinks party being thrown for the recent intake of architectural students in the city. As a newcomer to this country, Otto had underestimated both the strangeness of its climate and his own physical reaction to the enfolding chill of autumn. He was feeling a little feverish, and had no great wish to join the party he could now see taking place at an upper-storey window.

The dense London smog, the first experienced by Otto, had descended on the city earlier that afternoon. In a few short hours it had oozed down, thick and heavy, onto the streets, worming its way through bridges and into alleyways, filling the interstices within and between buildings, the majority of which stood whole and complete. Others, mainly to the east of the city, had been damaged or shattered by falling bombs and by periods of long neglect. Having completed its silent act of effacement, the smog had hung immobile across the breadth of the capital, obliterating in the process all notions of space.

From his rented room on a Lambeth backstreet, where he had spent that day reading through a large pile of books, Otto remained unaware of the scale of the transformation outside. He realised that something had changed only when he rose from his desk to open the window. The stuffiness from the heater was making his head spin. As he lifted the grime-streaked pane, he searched in vain above the rooftops for a sign of Battersea Power Station, the one landmark, at present, that served to anchor him in this metropolis that was now his home. When he saw the shape of a giant chimney emerge faintly through the haze, the slight sense of panic that had risen in his breast began to wane. He decided to stick with his original plan and take his chances on foot. It was only a few miles to the West End, he reasoned, and he had been sent a map (rather a sketchy one, admittedly) along with the invitation to that evening's party.

A bowl of thin onion soup, heated on the single hob that occupied one corner of the room, took the edge off his hunger and prepared him for the long walk to come. He felt further emboldened by the warmth of the paraffin heater, its fumes clearly visible in the dimly lit room as he sat on the edge of the narrow bed drinking his soup.

Otto had not yet invested in one of the handsome tan overcoats he had seen worn by the commuters as they crossed over Lambeth Bridge each morning. The few pounds he kept in the dresser were always needed for a more pressing purpose: food, rent, the occasional trip to the cinema when his head was too full with reading. Yet he felt confident, on this particular evening, that the thick material of his rented suit, together with the natural swiftness of his stride, would protect him against any potential chill.

Otto took his turn in the communal shower that was stationed two floors below his room. The appearance of a growth of fungi in one corner of the cubicle had become a cause for concern in recent days. He returned to his room in order to brush his teeth and shave with difficulty in the low porcelain basin. Even for a person of average height, the modest mirror above it would have been hard to use. For Otto, it meant stooping down impossibly low, then peering into it to inspect his cheeks for signs of stray bristles.

His face still smarting from two quick splashes of eau de cologne, he unwrapped the black dinner suit he had rented for several shillings and dressed himself with care. But it was to no avail. At the sight of his pale ankles above the sock-line, and the long stretches of shirt that protruded from his jacket sleeves, he cursed again his freakish height and the limited range of choice at the local rental shop. For once, he welcomed the size and position of his bedsit's only mirror, which made a full-length inspection unthinkable.

Locking the door to his room, Otto carefully picked his way down the stairs, the carpet frayed and treacherous. Opposite the front door to the terraced house, the door of his landlady's apartment stood ajar. The sound of the Glenn Miller Orchestra blared from inside. After pausing for a moment, Otto decided to skip the usual ritual of wishing her a pleasant evening – one of the few opportunities he had found so far to practise his English. Instead he reached for the latch and stepped out into the smog.

Outside, all navigation proved impossible. Soon he was lost within this city in the clouds. He drifted blindly through the dreamlike streets, the shapes before him blurred or indistinguishable. His growing familiarity with this district had melted in a moment into confusion. The intersections between roads, even the order in which those roads appeared, had been rearranged at random by some malevolent hand. The glowing smudge of the constantly passing headlights disorientated him further.

Heading northwards towards the Thames, Otto sought out Albert Embankment, hailing passers-by to ask for directions. But on a night like this no one would stop, even for the briefest of exchanges. The commuters hurried past or ignored this exceptionally tall young man, who emerged from the fog to address them in an accent that evoked, for them, vague images of spies. Unaided by the figures brushing past him, Otto found his way across Lambeth Bridge and up towards Charing Cross Station. Cold, lost and now late for the party, he decided to board a passing bus, checking his pockets for the loose change he had brought as a precaution, and calculating that the remains of the onion soup must last him another day.

Standing inside the cramped and swaying carriage, he felt warmed by the bodies pressed around him. He tried to check his map, but gave up at the sound of a sharp tut, which came from a bowler-hatted man whose newspaper Otto's elbow had just nudged. Stepping off the footplate, somewhere along Oxford Street, he used a combination of map and intuition to guide him towards Portland Place. But arriving at last before his destination, and watching the shadows move across the lighted upstairs window, he longed once more for his paraffin heater and the comforting smell of stewed onions.

This desire to flee back to the safety of his digs was an instinct Otto had to fight on a daily basis. The scale of London itself did not intimidate him. He was used to labyrinthine cities, having been born and raised in Vienna, before fleeing with his family to the port of Antwerp. London's people, however, were a mystery he had yet to fathom. Here at the party, he realised, he must face their peculiarities undiluted.

For Otto, his three sisters and their frail and careworn mother, the British had been their wartime liberators, a fact that always moved him deeply. He remembered, even now, the tears that came to his mother's eyes whenever she spoke of the young soldier who had helped Otto bring her – almost blind – up from the darkness of the cellar and into the afternoon sunlight, one distant morning in September 1944. Otto, therefore, felt immensely proud when seven years later, at the age of eighteen, he was offered the chance to study in this country of ingenious and fair-minded people: the country of Sir Christopher Wren, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and David Niven. Yet shortly after he first set foot on English soil, the romantic stereotypes gleaned from those childhood trips to the cinema had faded, and a more complex picture of Britain and its people had emerged.

There was the coarse old woman in the launderette, for instance, who always made fun of Otto's accent, laughing at her own crude jokes and trying to draw the other customers into her cruel imitations. Usually they looked on, wholly uninterested, while a thin-lipped Otto sat listening to the churning of the suds in the monstrous machines. Then there was the pub on Streatham Hill, where a waxen young man, not much older than he was, started shouting drunken obscenities upon learning that Otto was Jewish, even drawing a knife with which to threaten him. The landlord of the pub forcibly ejected the culprit and apologised to Otto, yet he never felt the wish to go back there. This was by far the most troubling incident he had encountered since his arrival, yet others of a lesser magnitude occurred on a regular basis. Not hurtful events, exactly, but puzzling ones, which he often fretted about during the long nights alone in his digs.

While travelling on the Underground one morning, for example, a pretty young woman sitting opposite glanced repeatedly across at him. When eventually he dared smile at her, she firmly looked away, pausing only to glare at him as she rose to leave the train. There had been other inexplicable encounters of this kind. The smiling old gentleman in the local library would chat away warmly as he stamped Otto's books, but ignore him completely whenever they happened to pass each other on the street outside. Even at college, the behaviour of Otto's fellow students left him puzzled. They would nod and sometimes greet him with a smile outside the lecture hall, but showed no inclination to engage him in conversation, or invite him to the café where they routinely gathered.

In the weeks since Otto had come to Britain, the majority of people he had encountered had been polite but reserved. Not hostile towards him, but some way short of welcoming. Given his natural shyness and his problems with the English language, which he was rapidly mastering in its written form, but could not yet transfer into everyday conversation, he began to wonder whether he would ever break down the social barriers that existed here. The English were a strange and distant people, he decided, given to intricate and precise codes of behaviour, which to an outsider like him seemed impenetrable.

All these issues preyed on Otto's mind as he stood for the first time on the pavement outside the RIBA building. Damp, cold and faintly ridiculous in his undersized suit, he looked up at the severe stone sculptures, emerging intermittently from the smog, and wondered whether he had made a mistake in coming to this country. For all his sensitivities, however, he was a mentally tough young man. His life history so far had seen to that. He didn't give up easily on a challenge. Bracing himself, he mounted the steps to the assembled gathering, and there began his journey in from the English cold.

Looking at the entrance now, more than sixty years later, Otto saw himself emerge buoyant from the party.

It's even brought some colour to your cheeks, he observed from across the decades, with oddly paternal care.

The scenario the young Otto had most dreaded, standing alone and ignored in a corner while nursing a solitary glass of wine, had not materialised. Instead, the evening had turned into a personal triumph. A steady stream of guests had flowed towards him, thanking him for coming out on such a dreadful night and asking him lots of questions about his work. At no point did he have to seek out conversations for himself. On the contrary, he had to conduct two or three of them at once.

Otto began to notice, as the evening unfolded, that he was being treated somewhat differently to his peers. The other students approached him rather tentatively and respectfully, even those some years older than himself. A few of them asked if he would mind glancing over their work some day. Even the lecturers seemed eager to talk to him, waiting patiently in the wings for their moment to intervene. His suspicions that something was afoot were confirmed for him later on, when someone led across the room a venerable British architect, proudly introducing Otto as ‘the young genius everyone is talking about'.

Until that moment, Otto had assumed himself to be a common-or-garden outsider; his considerable height and overseas origins setting him apart from his peers. Now he realised that there were other, more flattering reasons for their reluctance to invite him to the café. The other students were, it seemed, slightly in awe of him, especially when it became established that his work was of an order rarely seen in someone of his age. Otto had known before the party that he had a flair for architectural design. The award of a scholarship had been proof enough of that. But only now was he becoming aware of the scale of that talent, and the possible future it might open up for him; one far removed from tackling fungi in the communal shower.

BOOK: The Restoration of Otto Laird
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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