DP Architects' Koh Seow Chuan And Angelene Chan On Building A Legacy That Lasts

Close Up

October 18, 2018 | BY Hong Xinyi

As redevelopment threatens some of Singapore's most recognisable architectures, DP Architects co-founder Koh Seow Chuan and CEO Angelene Chan talk about building a resilient legacy that can stand the test of time

The year 2018 has been a bit of a brutal one for some of Singapore’s iconic modernist buildings. In February, Pearl Bank Apartments was sold in a collective sale, and the owners of People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Golden Mile Tower are working towards the same goal.

All four buildings were wholly designed by homegrown architects and completed in the 1970s. They do not have conservation status. Once sold, demolishment is their likeliest fate.

The prospect has sparked a lively public debate. Heritage advocates argue that these buildings embody significant facets of Singapore’s architectural and national history, while pragmatists point out the increasingly arduous maintenance needs of these ageing structures, and the possibility that redevelopment will offer better solutions for current population demands.

People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex were among the earliest projects undertaken by DP Architects, which was founded in 1967 as Design Partnership.

So, of course, we had to ask the firm’s co-founder and senior consultant Koh Seow Chuan for his take on the hot-button issue. “Well, this is going to be a real test of Singapore’s collective spirit,” he replies.

His pivot away from a subjective viewpoint is striking. This veteran architect, we swiftly realise, is fastidious about the importance of seeing—and serving—the bigger picture.

“I am a part of the pioneer generation and we faced a lot of challenges before and after Singapore achieved independence,” Seow Chuan continues.

What he learnt was this: “Singapore is small. Everything works better when we work as a team; and when there is collective will, we can find solutions. So firstly, we have to agree on one question as a society: are these buildings the best examples of projects that are reflective of the spirit of early independent Singapore?”

At the time, this uniquely diverse nation was intent on staking its place in the world, and Seow Chuan and fellow DP co-founders William SW Lim and Tay Kheng Soon wanted the firm’s work to reflect and nurture these aspirations.

“We believed that a small country like Singapore that was going to survive and prosper couldn’t just have hard buildings. We wanted to create spaces within buildings, for people to interact.”

This led to the creation of the People’s Park Complex central atrium, which the firm even decked out with colourful custom-made chandeliers.

“It was a space for celebration, where a multiracial society of this new nation could come together,” he explains.

This communal space was a new feature for shopping centres at the time, and the building was one of the first mixed-use complexes in Asia and an influential prototype for subsequent malls.

“We created a home-grown, home-made architecture that looked beyond the walls, roofs and image of a building, and focused on the spirit that manifests when you are in that space,” says Seow Chuan proudly.

“Singapore is unique, and sometimes you cannot parachute ideas in. We ourselves are creative. If we don’t believe in ourselves, then we are in trouble.”

(Related: DP Architects' Jeremy Tan On The Uniqueness Of Singaporean Design)


The Heart Of The Matter

When the nation-building project in Singapore entered a new phase in the 1990s, the firm’s foundational spirit of creative self-determination was still burning bright. Seow Chuan led the DP team that won the 1992 design competition for the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which he describes as “the most important post‑independence national building”.

To formulate ideas for this project, “we travelled for three months, scouring the region, learning about the genesis of performing arts in Southeast Asia”, he remembers.

“We wanted to create something unique—not the last theatre of the 20th century, but the first theatre of the 21st century.”

The result displayed the same care for context and communality that had been infused into DP’s earlier modernist projects.

“Esplanade is very porous. From the foyers, you can look out and see this building in the context of the city, and the people from outside can look in.”

At the time, no local firm had a track record in successful theatre planning and design, one of the conditions of participation, so those who took part collaborated with foreign firms experienced in such projects.

DP’s partner was UK firm Michael Wilford & Partners. Before the winning design was selected, the Singaporean partner of each shortlisted team was invited to speak to the public about their submissions.

“That gave us a chance to express the heart of our design,” Seow Chuan recalls. “And when the results of the competition were announced, the fact that they announced DP Architects, the Singaporean firm, as the winner first, was important to us.”

The project earned DP the 2005 Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) Worldwide Design Award and the 2006 President’s Design Award. Today, the Durian, as the performing arts centre is fondly nicknamed, has become an indisputable architectural and cultural icon.

Remarkably, it is not the only such landmark that Seow Chuan has been involved in. An esteemed philatelist and collector of works by Singapore pioneer artists, he chaired the board of what would become known as the National Gallery Singapore from 2009 to 2013, helping to shape the institution’s strategic framework and architectural developments.

Today, as chairman of the Visual Arts Cluster advisory board (an umbrella platform for the National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Tyler Print Institute), he is sanguine about the ongoing project of developing Singapore into an arts hub. “I think it’s very much a work in progress. We may achieve this dream maybe 10 years from now,” he believes.

With “hardware” like beautiful theatres and museums in place, strategies that build up the “software”, such as strengthening arts education in schools, have to kick in and be given time to bear fruit. “We are still a very young nation. Developing an arts hub organically takes time.”


As Time Goes By

The importance of time has been on his mind since the beginning of his career. Before founding DP, he was with Malayan Architects Co-Partnership, a firm that lasted from 1960 to 1967. “That is a very short span of time. Can you achieve a dream in seven years?” Learning from that formative experience, he was determined to build a firm that would last.

In 1975, Design Partnership was renamed DP Architects, and changed from a partnership to a private company. The partners formed a board of directors who held shares of the company. When they reach age 65, each shareholder relinquishes his or her shares, giving a younger generation of leaders the opportunity to own the firm. That is one example of how much thought has gone into building a cohesive and self‑sustaining corporate culture.

“In order for the firm to have longevity, all its leaders must be aligned and we must have people with talent and integrity, who see themselves as part of a team,” says Seow Chuan.

“It’s not easy. All architects have egos, perhaps more so than many other professions. A company is like a small United Nations sometimes, but we have to have a common vision.”

Even with that common vision, the firm has weathered its fair share of challenges over the years. (During the 1980s, Seow Chuan even placed his renowned stamp collection as collateral to help keep the firm going during a recession.) Its culture has proved resilient—the firm marked its 50th anniversary last year, and has 1,300 employees and 16 offices worldwide.

This makes DP the eighth largest architecture firm in the world, according to the World Architecture 100 survey. Since 2016, the firm has been led by CEO Angelene Chan, who joined the firm in 1990 after being interviewed by Seow Chuan.

(Related: From The Esplanade To The Dubai Mall, DP Architects Has Been Making Waves)

“I was quite nervous, but he was very friendly and approachable. I remember the interview as more of a chat. I felt very comfortable immediately,” she remembers.

At the time, she had clocked three years in design and consulting firm Woods Bagot’s small office in Canberra, Australia, and was looking for new learning experiences.

“From the first day, the company embraced me. When you work on larger projects, there are bigger teams, more complex buildings, and many different consultants. My learning curve was very accelerated, and that was fantastic.”

Today, Angelene is a three-time recipient of the President’s Design Award (PDA). Her work on Republic Polytechnic (designed along with Tokyo-based Maki and Associates) and the Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters won Design of the Year in 2009 and 2015, respectively.

This year, she became the first woman to win Designer of the Year. The accolade is particularly meaningful to her because a new criterion for PDA was introduced in 2017, placing emphasis not just on aesthetic excellence, but also design’s transformational impact on society, businesses and the public sector.

“I find that it makes for a much more holistic evaluation. Of course, that also makes the award tougher to win, but tougher is good,” she says.

That disarming confidence is very characteristic of Angelene, whose personable vibe during interviews is balanced with a laser-sharp focus on the direction and purpose of the questions she fields.

“Design isn’t just about aesthetics. What we do as architects can literally change the environment and landscape of how people live, not just during our lifetime but for generations after that. So we have to think of the environmental and social impact of our work, and make sure we are wise and creative enough to do good and responsible work that will be enjoyed by the users of today and of the future.”

True to DP’s socially attuned ethos, community spaces have also been key to her work, from Wisma Atria’s illuminated “grand steps” where pedestrians sit to people‑watch in Orchard Road, to The Dubai Mall’s outdoor plazas and indoor breakout spaces where shoppers gather.

Monitoring environmental impact has also grown in importance at DP. It formalised its DP Sustainable Design (DPSD) team 10 years ago, as Singapore’s regulatory standards for environmentally responsible buildings became more stringent.

This unit now advises DP offices worldwide on sustainable design solutions that are responsive to different climates, even creating a proprietary computer programme that allows the firm’s architects to run their designs through simulated conditions and see immediately whether adjustments need to be made.

Having been given the mandate of raising the firm’s quality of design when she became CEO, Angelene introduced a number of initiatives to strengthen DP’s culture of learning and innovation. These include designGate, a weekly presentation session where each DP project is critiqued by a board of design directors.

“Because each team knows that their projects will be reviewed in this way, they instill higher expectations of themselves,” she explains. “I call it a ‘gate’, because if it doesn’t open, the project can’t go through.”

(Related: DP Architects' Angelene Chan Shares Her Secrets To Being A Successful Leader)

There is also a more informal weekly sharing session as well as an annual in-house DP Inspire Award, where external judges select winners for categories like Design of the Year and Best Research and Innovation. The prize: up to $20,000 per award, to be used for study trips. She has also spearheaded typology research teams so that developments in areas like retail, healthcare and office design can be studied more intensively.

“In this day and age when disruption is fast and technology is advancing, we can’t just design a building based on past experiences. Moving forward, it is important to rely on evidence-based design, and know how others are doing things in other parts of the world,” she believes. “Creativity is about being innovative, not just repeating what has been done before. I want us to think about what we can do differently to stay ahead.”


Flying The Flag

Under her tenure, DP has embarked on a more aggressive overseas expansion. “Clients abroad hire us for the qualities that are synonymous with Singapore: our culture of honour, quality of design and service, appreciation of cultural diversity and efficiency. Singaporean firms have a reputation for being reliable, efficient and effective; this helped to open doors for us,” she says of flying the Singapore flag abroad.

While staying steadfast to these values, it is also important to cultivate agility when it comes to thriving in foreign environments. “Adaptability is very important when you work with cultural, climatic and legal differences, and also lends a higher degree of sensitivity to our localised design solutions. You have to adapt if you want to convince clients that a firm from tiny Singapore is as good as any other from Europe or the US.”

She is setting her sights next on Australia and Europe, where a London office opened a few years ago. With more staff spread out over so many geographical locations, sustaining DP’s painstakingly cultivated culture is more important than ever.

“If you compare two firms with the same size, capabilities and resources, the one that is more successful is usually the one with the stronger culture,” says Angelene.

“For DP, our culture of collaboration, our emphasis of the collective over the individual, and that sense of being one big family are things we hold dear. All our overseas directors are Singaporeans or trained for many years in our Singapore headquarters, so the values ingrained in the DP culture will be brought to our practices abroad. We want to ensure that each generation of directors embraces and perpetuates the same.”

As a newly appointed board member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Angelene will also be contributing the perspective of an architecture practitioner to the shaping of Singapore’s cityscape. She hopes to see an even greener Garden City, where sustainable urban environments and buildings make innovative use of technology.

When it comes to conservation, her stance, unsurprisingly, returns us to the bigger picture: “The buildings important to our history should be conserved, as much as possible. The old National Library and National Theatre are parts of our architectural history that are now missing. If our architectural heritage is composed mainly of conserved colonial-era buildings built by foreign architects and buildings of the last 10 or 20 years, it would leave a gap in the visual narrative of the Singapore story for future generations.”

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