As one of the few female executives leading a top architectural firm in Asia, Angelene Chan has always set her sights high. Having joined DP Architects—a Singapore-based firm with over 1,200 employees and 15 offices worldwide—in 1990, Chan quickly rose to various leadership positions within the firm; she was appointed a director in 2000, a deputy CEO in 2013, and a CEO in early 2016. Spearheading international projects like the Dubai Mall andKazakhstan's Respublika Plaza Astana, Chan received numerous awards, including the President’s Design Award 2015—Singapore’s top design honor—for Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters. Here, Chan talks to Interior Design about her future goals for DP Architects and the importance of continuing education.
Interior Design: How did your career get started at DP Architects—and what was your journey like to CEO?
Angelene Chan: I studied architecture at the University of Adelaide and worked in Canberra with Woods Bagot upon graduation. Then I moved back to Singapore after three years and joined DP in 1990. DP was my first choice because the firm was involved in many significant projects that were changing Singapore’s built landscape in a big way—Marina Square, Millenia development, Suntec City, SAFTI Military Institute. I was also keen to work in a large office and handle complex projects with steeper learning curves.
ID: What are some of the career-defining (or even personal favorite) projects that you have worked on at DP Architects?
AC: A personal favorite is the reinvention of Wisma Atria on Singapore’s Orchard Road. DP has a special relationship with Wisma Atria. The mall changed owners three times, and each time we were engaged to recreate a new facade. Our chairman, Francis Lee, was the architect of the original building in 1986 while I led the façade designs in 2004 and 2012. It is a rare opportunity for architects to redesign their own building, and I got to work on the project twice.
The 2004 facelift, with the blue grid and one of the first external escalators on Orchard Road, converted the introverted, atrium-centric mall into one that is integrated with the street, increasing connectivity between people, the activities of the pedestrian promenade and the internal retail shops. The 2012 jewel-inspired crystalline façade was built over the existing blue-grid frame. This second renovation gave Wisma Atria a new lease of life without extensive demolition or rebuilding, which is a more sustainable form of development.
ID: As CEO, what are your goals for the firm as a whole?
AC: My primary focus is to drive the ‘D’ in DP—Design First. DP has always been valued for high standards of design and service, but we would like to take that further and set design and service delivery benchmarks that are unprecedented. As a homegrown firm, we also fly the flag for the Singapore brand around the world; so it is important that we consistently strive for inspirational and world-class design.
Another goal is the ‘P’ in DP—People Empowerment. Successful firms involve and value their people. I believe that for DP to scale new heights, every employee must feel valued for their ideas, and be confident of their role in design and delivering good work. One way to achieve that is through the continuous development of everyone’s skills through technical, contracts and documentation courses that cover all aspects of the architecture process, and to ensure the well-rounded growth of every individual through workshops that enhance important values.
ID: You are also spearheading projects in Astana, Seoul, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. How do you balance these intercontinental projects?
AC: Teamwork is essential on projects of great complexity and size, so I am blessed to be working with talented and hardworking people within my various teams. Each project is also at a different stage, so the demands differ. It is about managing priorities, being ‘present’ and giving each task my full focus, and keeping tabs on important deadlines. I am also a list-maker, and I schedule my time tightly—no wasted moments.
ID: As DP Architects expands its reach beyond Asia, does the firm's design approach change or adapt to different contexts?
AC: Do the core principles remain the same? Yes, we always take cues from the users, the context and the climate. We try to understand and design to the culture and local materials, and are guided by our clients’ design briefs and requirements. It is part of my three rules of design: listen closely, research extensively and innovate. We listen closely to understand and fulfill the clients’ needs. No matter how tight the deadline, we always make time for comprehensive research. We never settle with the first idea, as it is through critical questioning and exploration of ideas that the best solutions emerge. Truly innovative design comes from understanding and addressing the fundamental requirements of the brief but also forecasting potential issues beyond the brief. At the end of the day, it is about creating spaces that are delightful and comfortable, and that enrich the human experience and spirit.
ID: You have recently clinched DP Architects’ first project in London, as part of an international design competition. What is the importance, in your eyes, in expanding from Asia into Europe?
AC: It’s always exciting to venture out. Our project in London is the first outside Asia and marks a milestone for us. Architecture is such a global industry—ideas don’t have borders; as long as you have a good idea, and the confidence to explore, you can work anywhere in the world.
ID: Why is it important to you as an architect to be involved in events such as the World Architecture Festival and the President’s Design Award Forum?
AC: Architecture is a lifelong journey of learning. I have always felt that you stop being a designer when you cease to be curious about the world and how people think, live, work and play. The architecture industry is one of constant innovation. These events are platforms where I can share ideas, and to gain new perspectives from respected peers and leading figures in the architecture fraternity. These events also offer opportunities to test ideas and design solutions on a wider audience, and see if they are aligned and accepted by the architecture industry.
ID: With plans to launch DP Academy, a skill-based class program for architects within the company, what are the benefits of continuing education?
AC: To produce relevant design solutions, we have to have a good understanding of changing user needs, be well-read and informed of design and consumer trends. Fresh graduates who work with us are up to speed at an academic level, but are not taught the more practical aspects of the business—improving design processes, how to conduct meetings, savviness, people management, how to deal with contractual conundrums that arise with real-life problems, how to deal with clients, developing good presentation skills, understanding new construction methods, material research etc. We go beyond what schools cover to include all aspects of contracts, construction and business, to ensure DP-ians are well-equipped and confident to deal with real-life issues and challenges at work.
ID: You are also involved with the Shirin Fozdar Program, which helps women in Singapore balance work and family. What are the current challenges for women architects and how do you hope this will change in the future?
AC: Fortunately, I have never felt that being a woman has disadvantaged me. In my experience, women are given equal opportunities to excel. That said, architecture is a profession that takes up a lot of energy and time; a project takes years to complete and requires dogged pursuit and total involvement. And the creative exercise of design is a 24/7, all-consuming thought process. Even with equal opportunities, women are still outnumbered by men at the senior level. This could be because many women architects chose to place family and the duties of being a parent and spouse above their career. So, I would say a big challenge for women architects is finding the balance between career and motherhood; but it is not impossible. I am a wife, daughter, and mother of two, and I am constantly juggling my career and family life. But the unfailing support of my spouse and children, in fact, spurs me to give my best at work. I hope this helps other women architects feel they can do it too.
ID: What do you hope your lasting contribution will be to DP Architects and the architectural profession as a whole?
AC: In serving my chosen firm and profession, I hope to preserve and build on the wonderful legacy of the DP pioneers, and create meaningful spaces that improve lives and the environment. I also hope to encourage the younger generation to see the importance of a well-designed built environment and to take up architecture to improve the urban landscape.