A Chat with Angelene Chan
The chairman of dp architects and its group of companies is empassioned as ever about environmental issues
“In the future, the effects of environmental deterioration will be more keenly felt than now. When we face the depletion of resources like clean air and water, rising sea level and temperatures, the design principles that we employ now will no longer apply. The criteria for comfort will be different. Architects will have to think like ecologists and environmentalists.”
DP Architects is one of the most successful companies in the world with a footprint in many countries. What is the unifying philosophy for business and creativity that connects each of these companies?
Angelene Chan: DP Architects was founded two years after Singapore’s independence on a need to create architecture of excellence that enrich the human experience and uplift the human spirit. Our founders believe in the power of architecture to help foster a national identity. We have since evolved in tandem with the country’s nation building and have worked on some of the country’ most important public projects and notable building. The practice is still guided by this philosophy today.
Team work and collaboration is the cornerstone of our practice. We believe in the collective over the individual, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This belief has helped us become the largest practice in Singapore, and among the largest in the world. The practice of architecture is a collaborative process; so, it is important to work as a team towards a common vision. This applies to our people and also our partners. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is very much part of the built environment industry, and working with other disciplines is an essential part of the practice of architecture.
What Singapore vernacular architecture do you have a soft spot for?
Angelene Chan: I see architecture as a visual narrative of a city and its identity, so they are all special because they express different traditions, social and cultural values and influences of different periods. They add charm and character to our city. Vernacular architecture tells us a lot about the changing constitution of a society.
I like the colonial-era black and white bungalows for their high ceilings, large windows, pitched roofs and verandahs, and how well adapted they are for the tropical climate. Active building technologies are becoming more sophisticated, but passive design, excellently integrated in these bungalows, is still the key to sustainable architecture. You can learn a lot about sustainability solutions through vernacular architecture.
How do you add a bit of ‘Singapore’ to the architecture you create worldwide – for example The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall?
Angelene Chan: What we, and most Singaporean firms, bring to their overseas work is not a specific style, but the qualities associated with Singapore – our culture of honour, quality of design and service, appreciation of cultural diversity and efficient delivery.
Having said that, a distinct feature of Singapore architecture is its approach to planning. In the short span of 50 years, Singapore has leap-frogged from a city with a drastic shortage of housing and infrastructure to a thriving metropolis and one of the most desirable places to live on the planet. It is impossible to talk about Singaporean architecture without first recognising this. Stringent planning and a problem-and-solution approach determined Singapore architecture in its formative years. Contemporary Singapore architecture is a product of the wholehearted embrace with modernity and urban planning.
In the case of The Dubai Mall, the first thing that we focused on was circulation planning and wayfinding. If one gets lost in a mall of that scale, it would take some time to re-orientate, and the visitor is unlikely to want to return. The Mall is now the world’s most visited leisure and shopping destination, and we attribute this to the successful planning.
What materials do you love to work with in terms of architectural design? Are you an advocate of eco and sustainable design?
Angelene Chan: I love natural materials like wood, stone and bamboo. Choosing materials is an enjoyable part of the job, but what materials I work with depends on the design, function, climatic condition, and client’s budget.
With heightening awareness of the array of environmental issues that are threatening the quality of life, the responsibility of the architect as a custodian of the built environment has become more evident and critical. DP grew our in-house environmentally sustainable design unit to a full-fledged specialist firm, DP Sustainable Design, which comprises architects, engineers and environmental simulation experts. Our green design supported by an evidence base of intelligent simulations and empirical data.
In the future, the effects of environmental deterioration will be more keenly felt than now. When we face the depletion of resources like clean air and water, rising sea level and temperatures, the design principles that we employ now will no longer apply. The criteria for comfort will be different. Architects will have to think like ecologists and environmentalists.
How do you sketch your ideas?
Angelene Chan: I sketch on mylar paper roll. When I need to sketch something on the go, I will do it on iPad and email to my team. I carry a small notebook everywhere with me to jot down ideas, things to do, talking points for my presentations, and so forth.
You’re not only a successful architect and Chairman of one of the biggest companies in the world but also a mother. What are the most important character elements do you instil in your children?
Angelene Chan: I instill in my children the values of honesty and hard work, and faith in God. I also teach them to be polite, down to earth and to care for others.
I carry a small notebook everywhere with me to jot down ideas, things to do, talking points for my presentations, and so forth.
What food do you crave for after a hard day at work?
Angelene Chan：I don’t usually crave for a particular food. But I try to have dinner at home with my family every evening unless I have dinner engagements that I cannot miss. Sharing a meal with my family helps me to decompress after a day of meetings, emails, calls, design charettes and reviews.
I do look forward to certain food on specific occasions, like Johor Laksa during Chinese New Year; and the same food I always have at the restaurants I frequent, like the spaghetti vongole at a restaurant in Changi.
What advice would you give a young student who wants to be an award-winning architect like you?
Angelene Chan: You have to love architecture. If you have the passion, you will have the tenacity to endure the long training process and the arduous profession. Read constantly and travel often to open your eyes, to be inspired. Dream big and work hard. Have courage to pursue your ideas. Be curious always. Be ready to embrace change.
*The quote from Angelene Chan was adapted from National Design Centre interview: https://www.designsingapore.org/modules/design-news/in-conversation-with-angelene-chan-ceo-of-dp-architects
Story by Carol Kraal. Photographs courtesy of DP Architects Pte Ltd: RMZ Ecoworld IT Park photographs by Harshan Thomson; Novotel and Mercure on Stevens photograph 1 by Evan Lim; Angelene Chan photograph by Juliana Tan