Alum Joseph Yau is making his mark on Canadian skylines

November 15, 2022 by David Goldberg - A&S News

Arts & Science graduate Joseph Yau may be the perfect person to help design the Ādisōke Central Library in Ottawa.

After all, Yau earned his honours bachelor of arts with majors in English literature and architectural studies in 2006 as a member of New College — and that was after assembling Lego skyscrapers in his parents' basement as a child.

"Yeah, you could talk symbolically about the structure of narrative and that you're building a story,” laughs Yau, who also earned his master of architecture from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design in 2011. “But I really just love books and architecture.”

"When it opens in 2026, the $245 million Ādisōke Facility will serve as Ottawa Public Library's central branch, as well as be home to Library Archives Canada and some of the country's most precious artifacts. The eco-friendly building designed in consultation with Indigenous partners features a striking stone and wood façade; its stunning shape evokes visions of the adjacent Ottawa river and escarpment.

Yau says he feels immense pride working on this project.

Rendering of the exterior of the Ādisōke Library, North View
Rendering of Ādisōke, North View. Rendering by Cicada Design courtesy of Diamond Schmitt. 

“When you’re spending weeks designing millwork or window details, it’s easy to lose sight of how all those components play a role in how people experience the building. But you have moments where you step back and realize the profound impact your work will have, and it’s truly humbling.”

Yau is entering the prime of his career as an architect with the renowned Diamond Schmitt firm, lending his talents to impressive projects, including the Ādisōke Library and Archives, a new performing arts centre in Fredericton and the third largest YMCA in North America.

But long before he was drafting plans for structures across the country, Yau kindled his architectural interests while taking in the scenic views of his Toronto commute.

“I was always fascinated by everything built around me,” says Yau. "My family rode public transit a lot and I was enamoured with everything we’d pass. I remember waiting for the train to emerge from the tunnel to see all the bridges, buildings, people and platforms.”

At U of T, Yau’s first exposure to big league architecture was made possible through a professional experience program akin to today’s Arts & Science Internship Program, and he made the trek overseas to intern with Behnisch, a prominent German architecture firm.

“Living and working abroad does so much,” he says. "It takes you out of your comfort zone, forcing you to adapt and learn, while at the same time showing you entirely new ways to live, think and see the world. I think it’s these broadened perspectives that truly enrich and benefit your life.”

And there was no shortage of enriching experiences back home in Toronto either.

Rendering of the Ādisōke Library's interior atrium.
Rendering of Ādisōke, Interior Atrium. Rendering by Cicada Design courtesy of Diamond Schmitt. 

When Yau wasn’t attending class, studying in the E.J. Pratt Library or admiring the diverse architecture of the St. George Campus, he was saddling up with the Varsity Blues as a member of the University of Toronto Mountain Bike Team.

According to those who knew him best, Yau never shied away from the challenges before him — whether in athletics or academics.

“He had this insane love of a challenge,” recalls renowned author Ian Williams, who instructed Yau as a TA before becoming an associate professor in the Department of English. “Undergrad was tough; it wasn’t all romance and drawing buildings, but he put in the hours.

“It didn’t matter if he was biking 100 kilometres or pulling an all-nighter to finish a class project, Joseph approached every seemingly impossible task with the same amount of grit.”

Yau says that grit, along with eagerness to learn are essential attributes for any aspiring architect.

“Contemporary architects need to be a designer, a programmer and a craftsperson,” says Yau. “There are so many facets of the field to master. Be prepared to spend your life learning.”