Written by Victoria
After a long and busy life at the forefront of modern architecture, Otto Laird at 78 is more than happy to live peacefully in Switzerland with his second wife, Anika, his days spent gazing at the glorious views of the Alps and pondering, among other things, the perfection of eggs. But it seems that there are urgent demands still to be made of him. His landmark building, Marlowe House, a tower block in south London dating from the 1960s and made in the concrete he loved so much, is to be demolished, unless Otto and his supporters can put together a compelling case for its renovation.
Otto hands the project over to his friend and disciple, Angelo, feeling a twinge of guilt that he is bypassing his own son, with whom relations have been strained since he married again. And then he learns that a television documentary is going to be made about Marlowe House and the producers are very keen that he should be central to it.
The decision to travel to London is not an easy one to make. Otto has not long had serious surgery, and Anika is afraid not only for his physical health but for his mental soundness too. Otto’s general absent-mindedness, his ability to stare into space for hours on end or appear around the house naked have raised her concerns about the possibility of dementia. For Otto, this tendency to transfixed inertia isn’t about mental weakness at all, though it is about old age and the spectre of mortality.
Sitting at his writing desk one summer afternoon, he had suddenly savoured as never before the slight breeze through his study window, the sweet scent of pine from the adjacent forest…Laying down his pen, he had wandered into the forest in a state of unthinking rapture; bending to stroke the wild flowers carpeting its banks, pausing to enjoy a shaft of light as it fell between the trees, briefly illuminating a patch of blue gentians…. Like a modern day Wordsworth, Otto was drunk on nature, drunk on existence, his own above all. The surge of elation had resurfaced often in the weeks that followed. It seemed as though, faced with the failings of his anatomy, he had embarked on the one act of defiance now left him: to turn whatever remained of his life into a conscious celebration of the physical world.
When he is obliged to leave his paradise behind him, the London Otto travels to holds more than the ugliness of urban living to disturb him. Marlowe House is a shock when he revisits it. Covered in graffiti, crumbling and dirty, its once landscaped grounds now scarred and littered, the lifts of which they had all been so proud now repeatedly breaking down, Otto has to realise the building has not aged well. And we readers can see that Marlowe House is a metaphor for Otto’s life, whose deteriorations are more severe and far-reaching than Otto cares to realise. In London, he must confront the unresolved past and come to terms with events he has carefully kept out of sight for many years.
Alone in London, Otto’s architectural sensibilities are alive to the pull of the past:
Otto carried a detailed map of his personal geography, buried and ignored within his psyche. He knew the location of every mental blemish, each emotional welt and scar – places he had avoided thinking about, in some cases for decades. Joyous memories, too, but sometimes made painful by subsequent events. Now it was time to unearth this map of memories and go in search of them once more.
So begins a personal odyssey that takes us through Otto’s terrible years in the war as a child, hiding with his Jewish family in the basement of an apartment block in Antwerp, then the period of his studies in London as an exile and an immigrant with poor English but amazing talent. After that his marriage to Cynthia, another architect who quickly branched out into textile design, and the difficult years of estrangement they lived, sharing a house and bringing up their son, but conflicted and hurt and mistrustful of each other. And finally, Otto must decide what to do about his now grown son and the state of disrepair their relationship has fallen into. How can the fabric of their lives be restored?
This is a charming, poignant book that is particularly strong on the way that places are embedded with memory, and on the last-ditch compulsion Otto feels to reap every possible benefit life might still have to offer him. Although it risks being sentimental in places, it has its heart very much in the right place, and it isn’t afraid to be funny and farcical too. Well-written and evocative, it’s a story about the illusions of eternity in art and the unexpected grace that can be found with courage in the here and now. Warmly recommended.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Nigel Packer, The Restoration of Otto Laird, (Sphere, London, 2015) 978-0751553079, 352 pp., paperback.