Arthur Lau

B.Arch. 1962
Montreal, QC
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Architecture has always been an interest for me even when I was in high school. Buildings and artwork, it always has been my interest. And that’s really an involvement of a long period of time for me to get into architecture. Now, the reason I came to McGill is, strange enough, some of my former classmates came to McGill studying different courses. However, our communications always continued. And through his introduction, then I chose McGill.

That was, what, 1958?

That was 1958, I came, yeah. My classmate came one year earlier, so he knows about the university at that time that I was coming so-.

And I guess you were here five years more or less because you graduated in ‘62.

No, four years, ’62.

Four years, okay.

Yeah, ’58.


Maybe we’d like to have you talk a little bit about some of your memories of when you were here at McGill like some of the professors that influenced you, some of the courses that you enjoyed and some that influenced you. And then perhaps some anecdotes of Sketching School or something. Just talk about your memories.

Yes, well, at first I recall the difficult part, the difficult course I like to talk about, that I had was history. As you know, history, first of all, we started third year, when I came, of the six-year course. So I missed the second-year history. Without the background of the second year and you come into the third year and studying history, that was a nightmare. To listen to Professor Collins in his reverence, as you remember, constantly back to the earlier architecture and I had just absolutely no clue what he was talking about. So we had to develop a system in order to understand the course. The system is, I had to work with another classmate. Basically, one continued to do sketching during the course and other one listening. And we’d switch from one lecture to another so that the two of us worked as a team in order to follow up this course. But finally, we did get through, both of us got through the course, but it was a [unclear]


I don’t think anybody was really aware of that in the class, other than you and whoever- who was your associate on this?

That was Eddie Chang.

Oh, Eddie Chang, okay. So history was a difficulty and- but you eventually got through it.

Well, eventually, we got through it and actually, got through quite well, to be frank, but that is interesting, a lot of hard work. However, the easy course for me was the structural engineering and that kind of thing, which I had some exposure before. Otherwise, I find the whole time through the four years in general, I must say, I enjoyed it as far as academic training is concerned. Being a foreigner that came to Montreal, of course, there were difficulties, culturally as well as other kinds of social activities, which is quite different, in those days especially. However, as a whole, as I said earlier, it was a very good experience and I did enjoy that.


Do you have any memories of Stuart Wilson, for example? Did he have an influence on you?

Oh yes. We all remember his visiting of the studios was always at midnight! And quite often, I remember, he came in while he was already having a couple of drinks. The comments he has sometimes were very, very sensible, analytical. On the other hand, if he’d have maybe one drink too much, then his comment could be quite confusing to say the least. He’d confuse the student to the extent sometime that you don’t really know what he meant. On the other hand, I think he has this practical sense of construction, which was important for me, anyway. I think it was important for a lot of the other students as well.


How about, I’m thinking of people, Gordon Webber? Did you enjoy his course?

Yes I did. That was a totally sort of strange experience, but having had the early interest in artwork, myself, as I mentioned earlier that even when I was just entering high school, I was interested in arts, exposing to a new form of arts under Webber I think was very stimulating. It takes a little bit of time in the beginning to get sort of into the way that why he was doing this kind of and that kind of experimental artwork, but I think it was very important and I think it was important, although a lot of people would not realize it, it was important in your actual design process, even during the practice time. Those kind of interesting, experimental artwork gives you the idea of how do you try to find experimental elements in the design as well as the choosing of materials or this kind of thing has a certain influence from that course.


Unfortunately, because of the age, which was an advantage, we were also not as mature as we could have been, you know, ten years- a little bit later. So we tended to take a lot of courses a little bit frivolously. What I wanted to ask you is John Bland, did he teach you at all? He used to do Canadian Architecture?

Yes, yes. As a matter of fact, he was my supervisor in the thesis in sixth year. But I think John Bland has a certain knack in teaching in that he seems to understand the students. Somehow, he’s very diplomatic in the way he’s dealing with each student. He has the knack of bringing out the best of you in the training period, as far as I’m concerned. To a certain degree, I know someone would find him that he really never criticizes. On the other hand, if he can encourage you to do the best of yourself, that’s really more important. And another professor I find has exactly the same kind of- different approach but the same kind of inducement to learning is our art professor, Professor Tondino.

Gerry Tondino.

Gerry Tondino. He has the same thing, I find. When he teaches you in painting, his way of getting you interested in the subject, the way he encouraged and a few touching- in the end, a few comments, then you somehow get yourself working towards it. To me, it’s just like bringing up children.


That a bit of encouragement through your learning can do wonders.


And of course those comments that you’ve made about Gerry Tondino and John Bland wouldn’t necessarily apply to Stuart Wilson.

No, no.

I mean, you had to have a very- if you’re an average student, you had to have a very thick skin because you wouldn’t have stayed in his classes.

That’s right. Exactly, yes.

Were there any other professors or events when you were there? I mean, there was a professor by the name of- not Balharrie but was it Valentine? Wasn’t there a gentleman who taught- a professor who taught-?

Balharrie taught- was teaching us.

Business. Architectural Practice.

Yes, Architectural Practice. The other one you mentioned, he taught- what was the name- the material, isn’t it? Building Materials.

Well, anyhow, it’s not really relevant because I think he only taught for about year.

That’s right.


Are there any memories of Sketching School? Because I guess like everybody else, you went twice.

Yeah. But I only went one time because I guess the other one was in the summer after the second year, which I wasn’t here yet, so I only went once. That was in Île d’Orléans that year and that was wonderful, wonderful enjoyment.

I remember that. I share that memory with you because I was down there too, Quebec City and Île d’Orléans.

That’s right. [Unclear] just Île d’Orléans off Quebec City. And there was the huge waterfall. It was a high waterfall but it’s a small one actually.

Montmorency Falls.

Yes, that’s right. It was a good experience in the sense that you still have the freedom to do things. As a matter of fact, I still keep one of the sketches framed up in my house during that trip!

And I think Gerry Tondino didn’t go on those. I think it was Stuart Wilson.

No, no it was Stuart Wilson.

And sometimes somebody else. Sometimes Webber.

That’s right. And that particular one, it was Stuart Wilson. It was literally- and he also completely changed while he is in more relaxed atmosphere in terms of teaching. I think it was very good.


So you graduated in 1962. And what happened after that?

Well, I was really lucky. As soon as I graduated, I had some job offers. And I was working for two different firms for about nine months all together during that period: Al Stone, I stayed longer with Ian Martin. And I had the opportunity to do cheerfully an awful lot of design in his office. And then the big opportunity came along and I was invited to be one of the seven architects to plan the Expo ’67. That was one of the projects of a lifetime, as far as I’m concerned, that I was just one year out of college and I got invited to join the team. And we had less than two months to get a new master plan done with this whole new team of people, because before that, before that time, the city was in control with the council in the Expo and they hired foreign architects. Unfortunately, they keep working on it and working on it. They just cannot get a plan passed by the parliament of Ottawa, in Ottawa. So this new team was formed and they chose seven architects, including Jerry Miller, which I think people know about her and then some other architects in town.


Who was heading up that team? Was it Fiset?

Fiset. Édouard Fiset. Édouard Fiset was heading it. And we had only, as I said, less than two months to do it. I remember distinctly we worked days and nights, and it was enjoyable days and nights to be working on such an exciting project. And we did finish that and got it passed by the parliament on December the 19th.

That would be, what 196-?

196- actually, 1963.


December 1963. So after that, when I joined the- I asked for permission to have a long holiday. Then I got my two-month holiday and I came back to join the team of Expo and then carried on the work as a section head in charge of Harbour City, which basically concerned with all the permanent buildings. And that was literally exciting several years until the expo was opened in 1967. I was involved with not only seeing through the planning but also all the consulting architects on different projects.


So that came to a close, what, at Expo in 1967? Or did it continue?

It was open.

Okay. When it was opened, the job was over?

Then the job was over and I was asked to stay until January 1968, actually, to take care of all the projects of the site. And the reason why it’s up until January ’68 is because they still had a few months to close off the whole exposition. Then- before that, I was invited to be the chief architect of a firm, an American firm, called Smith, Hinchman and Grilles to be the chief architect of their Canadian operation. So I went to Windsor to head up that architectural division. I stayed there just a few months again and then an opportunity came along that I could set up my office back in Montreal. And I came back to Montreal and started my practice. Just a few months later, there’s another opportunity that came along. That’s the competition of the Hamilton project. And that was a national competition for development proposals for a huge project in Hamilton. It consisted of city blocks. So with that project, we submitted our planning and the programme for the whole thing and it so happened that we won the competition. And we started building that project right in 1970 and that project actually was developed in four phases. It went on for almost fifteen years.


So that kept you pretty busy for a while!

That’s right. And then other projects come along. Professionally, I feel quite satisfied.

And you still have your own practice.

Yes, I do.

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to talk a little bit about the future of architecture. I guess, the education both undergraduate and post-graduate. Could you-?

Yes, as you know, McGill’s School of Architecture has gone through a number of transitions. All these years, of course, the graduate students are quite high calibre. Over the years, you see different architects get on to their profession and become well known in the country or even internationally. However, there is a certain aspect of undergraduate study I find that possibly the school curriculum should look at is the technical aspect of it. Now, not so much that it’s a technical school, but the general introduction of building science is important. What I mean by that is, in our lifetime, the number of hours we spend inside a building is nearly the majority of the time. We work in an office seven hours a day, minimum.

At least, yeah.

At least. And then we stay in a house, sleep in a house. The house and the office is literally the environment that we spend most of our time. And yet, even architects, we are still sort of experimenting all of the time to see what is really the impact of the environment we are working and living in to our health. The building science should concentrate on this point in what are the effects of that, the mental effects, both the enjoyment of it as well as the health effect of it. If we can put on a science course as your introductory to study the effect. For example, in an office building, we are still living in a totally enclosed environment. What does that mean? We keep breathing the air that’s being circulated and you don’t know the impact of it. Recently only then they start saying this will affect you, there’s the air and all these kinds of things, but I think a concerted effort should be introduced. Then we are talking about green architecture. What is green architecture? This kind of thing can literally have a major impact to our daily living. So that can be introduced in undergraduate study then go a little bit further in the post-graduate. I find even some of the professionals, they don’t literally understand the implication of some of their detail work. Just as an example, in curtain wall, which is the envelope of a building, so important. And yet very few even professional architects understand the function of it and how do you design it properly. And even you look at the curtain system, basically, they specify certain perimeters, what do you need, and then they count on the contractor or the manufacturer to come back to tell you what is in the market without literally knowing the detail of it. The research is done by curtain-wall contractors or manufacturers and they are not really working in an independent environment of research. So in those kind of special areas, I feel a Master degree or even a PhD in a certain area of science then you can work with industry to develop the research so that you are one step ahead of what is in the market rather than always counting on the manufacturer to tell you what is good and what is not good. Now, curtain wall, again, it’s an easy example simply because usually an architect specifies anything. The contractor will take you to a supplier. They will give you an existing solution, usually, already several years old. And they don’t know that a certain type of wall has to be tested. If you vary slightly for the reason of architectural design, as an architect, we should be able to design new curtain walls for the need of the design concept of the building. We should not just pick an item on the shelf and then adapt it to your design. We should be able to design things new. I’ ll give you an example that’s in my area as far as that area is concerned. I’ ve designed buildings with complete new systems. And some of those systems are being adapted for years after that, such as the one in Toronto. When we designed the curtain wall, we took it from a fresh and new concept: how do you integrate granite material? How do you pick out certain metal in there and how do you even anchor it. Then developing the new system, we test it in a full-scale manner in a laboratory. And then, that became a new system. We did it. Up to today, it’s still working very well and I understand that same system was just being followed by a number of the manufacturers now. But I think we should be one step ahead of that as far as university is concerned. We should be able to get industry to support a programme, a PhD programme, or a Master programme. It depends which field. And I think they would be willing to do so. One there’s a research programme in university then you can develop the system independent of the manufacturer’s influence. With that, you can come up with systems that will be used by the different manufacturers. And you’re one step ahead of the need. I can go on and on on different aspects of it.


I guess my own comment, I agree with you, is that you can’t leave it to the practice of an architect, because he doesn’t have the liberty nor the funds to go and-.

They don’t have the funds; they don’t have the time. They’re always doing a project in a hurry, okay?

That’s right.

So they don’t even know, as a matter of fact, some of the practicing architects. They didn’t even know that they should experiment a certain thing before they put it up and when they put it up, if you meet a bad contractor, you have leakage. And that’s not good.


The other combination is you have to have a client that is prepared to work with- I mean, in your case, you had a good client who was prepared to-.

Right. In my case, I can develop such things. And of course, it needs a lot of presentations on the architect’s part to convince the client that goes through all these steps to get the best out of it. But that’s not lately common in the industry. That’s why the universities should take the lead to do this kind of work. And once that kind of thing is developed, then it will be easily distributed to the various practicing architects. They will see those documents, know the principle of it and then follow the whole industry along a certain line.


What you’re really asking is for the universities to take the lead to set these programmes up.

That’s right.

And get funding from the private sector to do it.

The funding is from the private sector, particularly from various industries. I can go on on other things. For example, even, you’re talking about the insulation. A simple thing, on the other hand, there’s still a lot of room to go that you can do things. You can improve it. And insulation combined, as you know, with roofing, all these kinds of things. Because on and on you can see each component of a building can be improved if the university takes the lead.


It’s interesting, we can just finish up on this, but if you asked a lot of architects about a roof, they will immediately refer to, “I know a good roofer” .

That’s right. And they count on a roofer.

A good roofer, that’s right.

They count on that.

So you’re leaving the whole situation up to a good contractor.

To individual trades. And if you hit a bad contractor, you’re in trouble. But on the other hand, if you have this research done and those research documents are circulated among the professionals, then they begin to understand it’s impractical to expect the undergraduate to understand all this, because there’s just not enough time. That’s why I concentrate on proposing to have that kind of research done, supported by the industry to do it at the graduate level. And this information is where we can sort of push the architectural profession one step ahead. [23:46:23] How do we carry this out to reality? Now, I’m sort of fortunate at this point in time that I’m a governor at McGill and possibly there’s a certain influence I can give to get the school- help the school to build these programmes. For example, my interest is in different areas. We have set up different special advisory committees to do different things in different faculties as well. For one that’s ongoing is called a technical library project and that’s a completely a new advisory board that I set up as a chair to develop a digital system to get the old Chinese classic as well as philosophy from the oldest library in China. This is one example that we have now ongoing. We’ve got the money, we’ve got the professor, and the librarian involved in it. The next project we’re going to look at is alternative medicine, in particular, the strategy of traditional Chinese medicine. And that kind of thing we can move. Again, of course, you need to have a certain amount of money to get the project rolling. Once it’s rolling, then the project will take care of itself. So by the same token, in the School of Architecture, I think we should look into what is literally the key research role related to building both commercial and residential; which area we can study in a more detailed manner, establish those programmes and then find ways of support, as I said earlier, from the industry, possibly plus some private individuals. Then we can set those programmes up and even maybe create a building science centre at McGill. Once there’s a centre, then you can draw the expertise from other faculties, as science, engineering, all this. [26:00:24]

You can get funding from chairs I guess too, I mean.

You can use chair but a centre at McGill means it’s an area that you have a general interest of that subject. Then you can pull the expertise from other faculties so that maybe a medical doctor who is interested in the environment will come in and say, “I want to work on the centre on this particular aspect of it”. Then you draw all the expertise rather than counting on individuals. So that is another area we should carefully look at to see better where can we go from here. Then within the centre, then we lead to the Master programme, the PhD programme on specific subjects. That’s the area I hope someday will happen.

So you’re going to lead McGill into the future hopefully.

We’ll see.

Or be a part of it. Thank you very much.