Near the end of his career, but not yet retired, Bill Lam in his own words, is still eager to meet the challenge of another project. But he is more than satisfied at what he’s already accomplished. And his achievements are many. “In looking back over my life, I think I’ve done some good design,” say Lam. “Projects I’ve worked on as part of a team have received many awards.” But more important than the actual projects he has designed is the contribution he has given to the field of lighting design in the form of influence: From the books he’s authored to the role he played in “getting rid of the design-constraining numerical standards,” as Lam so directly noted. “I think that I’ve helped to lay the foundation for my profession, and that’s a good feeling.” And indeed Lam has helped to create the lighting design profession as it is known today. A pioneer in the field of lighting design and consultation, Lam has enjoyed a career that spans more than 50 years as a designer, consultant to architects, teacher and author.
Lam was born in Honolulu, Hawaii 77 years ago. After serving three years with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Force as a B-25 pilot, he earned a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1949. Unintentionally, his entry into lighting design stemmed from an interest in the work of noted Finnish architect/designer Alvar Aalto, who has been considered a master of functionalism. “I designed a lamp for myself,” said Lam. “People were admiring it and seeking to obtain one—and the rest is lighting history.”
Lam founded Lam Inc. in 1951, now Lam Lighting Systems, to manufacturer these glare-free floor lamps and other products that immediately won a number of Good Design Awards from the Museum of Modern Art. However, after eight years as company president, Lam resigned to return to his original calling—architecture.
He founded the firm William Lam Associates, Consultants—Coordination of Lighting with Architecture and Urban Design in 1959 and for the next 40 years, won acclaim for notable projects including the Tennessee Valley Authority Headquarters complex, government centers in Quebec and Vancouver, Union Station restoration in Washington D.C. and the San Diego Convention Center. But more than the awards, projects and publications, Lam considers his nearly single-handed battle with the light and power industry against the unjustified promotion of ever-increasing light levels and energy use as one of his career highlights.
The long-running and public battle with the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) began in the early 1960s and ended during the energy crisis of the ‘70s. “Quality not quantity” was Lam’s battle cry. He related that at the time, the IES arbitrarily set high lighting levels at the expense of good design. Said Lam, “I wanted the emphasis on quality, judgment and common sense rather than numbers.” More footcandles usually led to more glare and worse environments.
This is characteristic of Lam’s practical design philosophy, which places the emphasis on having a vision. “Lighting is about design and not engineering,” Lam shared. “Engineering is the last thing you do… If you know what a good environment is, you can create it. Lighting is applied perception psychology. You have to know what makes a good environment.” As a result of his crusade, he light levels once recommended by the standards committee have been reconsidered and lighting design, no longer compelled to fulfill what Lam would term “ridiculously high requirements,” has evolved into the kind of design we have today: A combination of ambient lighting with task lighting. One can say that Lam was critical in changing the way we work now “perceive” our environments.
Lam’s works integrate lighting with architecture and urban design. His approach to lighting design is based on the conviction that lighting is part of the architecture and results from the integration of all design elements. This is what he has taught in his lectures at Harvard and MIT and in his writings. “What motivates me is designing buildings from the inside out. It’s creating a space that people want to live and work in,” explained Lam.
His books Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture and Sunlighting as Formgiver for Architecture have become definitive references for many students of architecture. Yet, Lam’s influence goes beyond his students to reach clients, government officials and the many people he has worked with on various projects—particularly his desire to “work as part of an interdisciplinary design team where all members come together and a concept is created,” according to Lam.
One of his finest examples of this collaborative approach is the Washington Metro System. For this project, Lam collaborated with Harry Weese-Architects and DeLeuw, Cather-Engineers. In Weese’s letter of recommendation to the American Institute of Architects (which bestowed Lam honors in 2000), he wrote: “In a field which is peopled with all manner of experts, mountebacks and stage lighting experts, Lam is one of the few who combines a respect for scientific method, aesthetic judgment and a penchant for the elimination of cant. He does not go by the book, he sets standards rather than follow them.”