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Intelligent Machines

William M. C. Lam '49

Illuminating architecture

A pioneer in the field of architectural lighting, Bill Lam ‘49 has changed the way streets, airports, schools, office buildings, indoor tennis courts, and concert halls are illuminated.

Early in his career, Lam introduced the then-radical notion that lighting should be considered from the beginning of the architectural design process, not at the end. Further, he broadened the notion of lighting sources to include more daylight, when possible, and combinations of ambient and task lighting for interior spaces. “The way to make a structure glow is to light the walls and the ceilings,” says Lam, who likes to light rooms from the floor up. His design principles, which created more natural and pleasant rooms and buildings, are now in widespread use.

This story is part of the May/June 2011 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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Lam grew up in Honolulu and came to Cambridge in fall 1941. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, it took him several days to find out that his family was okay. Sophomore year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force; he flew 37 bombing missions in Southeast Asia before returning to school.

Lam returned to MIT to study architecture and was deeply influenced by Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, who designed Baker House and taught on campus. A lamp, however, launched his career. After graduation, Lam designed his own gooseneck floor lamp with a clip-on diffuser shade, and soon friends began to ask where they could get one. He started a lamp factory (as Aalto himself had done) and soon began winning design awards. In 1959 he sold the company—now a division of Philips—and began consulting with architects and others on the integration of lighting with architecture and urban design. His lighting design work includes the Washington Metro system, the San Diego Convention Center, Denver’s airport, and Manila’s government center, as well as Shanghai hotels and educational buildings at Stanford University.

Lam, who taught at MIT, Harvard, and Yale, is especially proud of his successful crusade against the lighting and electrical-power industries’ promotion of ever-increasing indoor light levels in the 1950s and ’60s. He argued that they wasted energy and created poor lighting conditions. He spoke at industry events and worked with an international committee to publish new lighting guidelines in 1976 that were based on good design, not increased energy sales. Today’s architects work with a lighting-energy budget, which limits energy use and encourages design innovation.

Since retiring from Lam Partners in 1995, Lam has been consulting part time from his antique house near Harvard Square. He has authored seminal books such as Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture and received honors from the American Institute of Architects, the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association, and the Architectural Lighting Hall of Fame.

Lam and his wife, Dianne, have two sons and one granddaughter. Firm believers in making life changes, the couple recently sold their Florida vacation home. “Now we go to more operas in more cities,” he says.

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