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DP architects CEO Angelene Chan is a woman used to standing tall—1.75m tall, to be exact. This former netballer displays an athlete’s self-possession when she says she has never felt self-conscious about often being the tallest person in any given room.

Of course, having a commanding physical presence is not exactly a disadvantage when you’re leading Singapore’s largest (and the world’s 12th largest) architecture firm. But perhaps confidence is simply part of her disposition. Angelene decided to become an architect at age 12, after successfully handling her family’s home renovation. “I just never thought it was something I couldn’t do,” she says.

Her instincts proved correct. Today, Angelene is a two-time winner of the prestigious President’s Design Award—first in 2009, for leading the team responsible for the serene Republic Polytechnic campus, designed in partnership with Japan’s Fumihiko Maki; and again in 2015, for the cheerful stacked timber box design of the Sunray Woodcraft Construction headquarters in Sungei Kadut.
Among all of her projects, “I have a soft spot for Wisma Atria because I had to reinvent it twice, in 2004 and 2012,” she says. “It makes me sentimental to replace one’s own design, but both facelifts aimed to convert the atrium-centric mall into one that is more connected with the people using the pedestrian promenade.”

Creating such human connections is something very close to her heart, and it is also an important DP tenet. The Dubai Mall is another instance where she was able to create “a wonderful social space for residents of Dubai to gather, socialise and make memories”, she says.

This project is also an example of how Angelene has spearheaded DP’s shift onto the global stage. “Singapore is small, which is why DP is going abroad to grow our overseas revenue. As a homegrown firm, we are also passionate about bringing the Singapore brand to the world. Our clients expect the Singaporean ethos of efficiency and integrity, and that is something we are very proud of,” she says.
Regardless of a project’s location, “we always take cues from the users, the context and the climate”, she says. “My three rules of design are: listen closely, research extensively and innovate. We never settle for the first idea, because it is through critical questioning and exploration that the best solutions emerge.”

“We absolutely must protect our heritage buildings. In fact, what we think of as ‘heritage’ may even extend to everyday buildings such as public housing.”

Having been with DP for 26 years, Angelene is keenly aware of how the firm’s contributions to Singapore’s physical landscape also reflect the country’s evolving aspirations. So as the firm prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, its thoughts about the future are inevitably intertwined with Singapore’s direction as a nation.

Angelene explains, “To shape our future as a highly liveable city state, it is important to consider community integration, because cohesive communities are part of the foundation of a successful society. Architects will need to ensure the spaces they design can be used by groups of all ages and ability. This is especially important given Singapore’s ageing population.”

She also believes in the conservation cause. “We absolutely must protect our heritage buildings,” Angelene asserts. “In fact, what we think of as ‘heritage’ may even extend to everyday buildings such as public housing. These hold many memories for Singaporeans, and it is only through preserving such buildings that we will be able to understand the transition of Singapore from a colonial city to a strong and independent nation.”

That said, she doesn’t believe in designing for posterity. “We have to design responsibly for the people who are going to use the space today. Nobody knows what the future is going to be. But if you do a good job now, chances are the work will stand the test of time.”  

Photography: Jeff Chang.
Hair and make-up: Linda Kuo.

Tags: design, angelene chan