From his high-rise office in the heart of Causeway Bay, Dennis Lau Wing-kwong has a bird's-eye view of many buildings his firm has designed over the past three decades. The panorama takes in local landmarks such as Lee Theatre Plaza in Causeway Bay, K11 in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Harbourfront in Hung Hom and Central Plaza in Wan Chai, and five-star hotels and apartment blocks towering above Mid-Levels and Happy Valley. It is a changed prospect from his early days with a small local firm, working on tenement buildings and learning on the job from site foremen and engineers after graduating from the University of Hong Kong. Later, as a partner, he pushed for expansion to capitalise on the city's construction boom. And now, as chairman and managing director of the 300-strong Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers (HK), he is overseeing some of the world's most ambitious development projects. He talks to John Cremer
What first interested you in architecture?
I was one of a big family growing up in Hong Kong after the second world war. At the time, many people were poor and buying toys was a luxury. So, I started making toys for myself from paper and old furniture, a habit which trained me to look at things in 3D and create something out of nothing. Later, I was always making models of ships, aeroplanes and houses, but what I especially remember is when my school - St Joseph's College - redeveloped an old European-style building. I found the process fascinating and spent an hour a day visiting the site, looking at the construction plans, scaffolding and foundation work, and determining that's what I wanted to do.
What are the turning points for the firm?
There were three important periods. In the late 1970s, local Chinese developers started to pop up and gave us more opportunities. Up to then, five or six established firms of architects had monopolised the bigger projects. Then, when the [MTR] Island Line started in the '80s, we worked on new development sites like Kornhill and Vicwood Plaza. And when we designed Central Plaza - the fourth highest in the world in the early '90s - we used new techniques with reinforced concrete, which helped us become famous for high-rises.
Which parts of the job can still prove difficult?
These days, I leave project management to the team captains. They can come to me for help or more resources but, overall, they are very experienced and know what I want. That part, and convincing clients, is not so difficult. But convincing government officials to approve a project can be very frustrating - there is so much red tape. I have a reputation for being tough and not giving up that easily if something isn't approved. After 40 years in the business, I am prepared to go to the top. I don't ask for special treatment, just what's reasonable.
Of the buildings you have designed, which are personal favourites?
I've done more than 200 projects, but there is never one I think is perfect. Afterwards, you always see something that could be better if you did it now. Maybe, though, that is what provides the drive for an architect to keep on improving. That said, the Grand Lisboa in Macau was exciting because there were no restrictions on design or budget. And I'm proud that my first complete building - the Chung Chi Hall Student Centre at the Chinese University - is still there.
What general advice do you give people considering the profession?
Of course, things are changing now. When I was at university, the target was to get a job, design a building, and steadily gain experience. It seems many of today's graduates just want to get their professional licence as quickly as possible, make a lot of money, and buy a flat. They often have very short-sighted targets and unreasonable demands that create pressures for themselves and their employers. They should remember that architecture is a life-long career and not expect everything at once.
Work at home
Lau finds it more effective to stay in Hong Kong instead of always travelling to overseas project sites and offices
He believes the key to good architecture is to plan from inside out, thinking first about the needs of users
His priority at weekends is to visit outlying islands and see his grandchildren