Who is he? Hong Kong is peppered with buildings created by this man, a 66-year-old veteran architect behind some of the most prominent skyscrapers that shape the city’s skyline, including the Central Plaza and The Center. A Hong Kong native, Dennis Lau is a prolific figure in the industry and his company Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers was recently named one of the Top Ten 2008 Architects in Hong Kong by construction media group BCI Asia. His portfolio has a broad geographical spread, covering places including Beijing, Taiwan, Thailand and Ukraine.
How did he get into architecture? Unsurprisingly, art and craft was Lau’s favourite subject at school, and he became curious about architecture at around 17, when a building at his school on Kennedy Road was reconstructed. Inquisitive, he seeped into the “dangerous” construction site one day and discovered an intriguing world filled with red bricks, sticky concrete and toiling workers. For the following year, he kept sneaking in and out of the site in between classes to follow the construction progress. “I got to know the workers very well. I would ask them how to do this and that,” Lau says. “I even knew on which dates they would pour the concrete.” In the 1960s, ambitious young people with good grades tended to study medicine or engineering at university, but Lau surprised his teachers by choosing to read architecture at the University of Hong Kong.
Then what? Lau’s career has been closely linked to Hong Kong’s economic ups and downs over the last three decades. When he began practicing at an architectural firm in Central in the late 1960s, jobs were scant as the city was still reeling from the riot in 1967. By 1976, things had picked up and Lau had become the director of a different firm (which later evolved into the company he heads today). Yet in 1983, the economy was dragged down again by the Sino-British talks on the future of Hong Kong, and Lau was forced to trim a quarter of his staff. “It was a huge setback. But architects are resilient people. We’ve been through tough training, so we’re quite good at dealing with challenges,” he says. After the crisis, big jobs kept coming Lau’s way, and that had led to a number of award-winning projects, including the Center, the Highcliff in Happy Valley and the Beijing New World Centre.
What has been his biggest challenge? The first phase of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre completed in the 1980s. “It’s a complex project that brings under one roof a convention and exhibition centre, a hotel and an office building within a relatively small area. We went to the US, the UK and Japan to try to draw some experience, but all the experts told us our plan was impossible,” Lau says. In the end, he and his team came up with a range of “Hong Kong style” solutions, which included a big bespoke lift measuring 50 in depth to transport container trucks to exhibition halls. “The high density of the complex was a crazy idea in other countries, but it works well in Hong Kong,” he adds.
What is his motto? “People are the centre. Keeping users of a building happy is the imperative,” Lau says. He doesn’t like to stick to a fixed architectural style as that will hinder progress and, after all, he believes it is wrong to “build a monument for the architect himself”.