Angelene Chan is the Chief Executive Officer of DP Architects, an influential firm shaping the urban landscape of Singapore with 1,300 employees and 17 offices worldwide. As CEO, she has initiated knowledge-sharing platforms and programmes to foster the exchange of ideas and design innovation, deepening DP’s collective design capability. In her 27 years with the company, Angelene has led the successful completion of numerous notable projects that put both DP and Singapore on the map including The Dubai Mall, Resorts World Sentosa and Wisma Atria.
She has won multiple design awards including the DesignSingapore Council’s own prestigious President’s Design Award (twice!) – the highest design accolade in Singapore – and the Singapore Institute of Architects Architectural Design Award. Angelene sits on Singapore’s Board of Architects, and in 2017, was crowned Woman of the Year by women’s magazine Her World for her accomplishments. Here, Angelene speaks about her early beginnings, the ‘A-hah!” moment and what the future holds for her.
How do you feel about being awarded the “Her World Woman of the Year” award recently?
Architecture is my passion. Being able to do what I love is a blessing in itself; I never expect public recognition for my work. I tell my colleagues at DP that we have been given a great privilege to sculpt the landscape and mould the environment that we live in; a privilege and responsibility that we must take seriously. So to receive this award for something that I already feel fortunate to pursue is a double blessing. I am deeply humbled to be considered among those who were honoured before me – giants like Prof Chan Heng Chee, Madam Halimah Yacob, Dr Cheong Koon Hean, last year’s recipient, Dr Sudha Nair, and many others.
To be a thriving innovation-driven economy and a loveable city, Singapore design must be innovative, user-centric and help to raise the quality of life.
You also led the DP team to win the PDA Design of the Year awards previously (for Republic Poly in 2009 and Sunray in 2015). How was that for you?
Winning the PDA Design of the Year for Republic Polytechnic – a collaboration with Fumihiko Maki – in 2009, and later for Sunray Woodcraft Headquarters in 2015 was a great honour. It is heart-warming to have the architectural fraternity recognise one’s work. More than the recognition itself, the true reward for me is working closely with creative minds to deliver good design that makes a positive difference. The creative process – research, sketching, brainstorming, even the design anxiety and finally the ‘A-hah!’ moment – is something that I enjoy tremendously. That said, the award is a validation of the team’s vision and the creative journey from concept realisation to project completion.
How did you decide that you would like to carve a career in design?
By the time I was 10, I knew I wanted to be an architect. I used to enjoy watching my uncle, a draftsman, draw with Rotring ink-pens, using t-ruler and various fascinating drawing tools. I found myself intrigued by the power of the line. How the line could represent walls, spaces – with everyone understanding what the line represents. At age 12, I was very fortunate that my parents entrusted the renovation of their house to me. They gave me the freedom to follow my creative curiosity, and that sparked my passion for architecture.
Could you share with us some of your professional experiences prior to joining DP Architects?
After graduating from Adelaide University in 1987, I joined Woods Bagot Architects’ Canberra Office. It was a small team of seven which meant that in addition to running projects, I was tasked to assist in the running of the office, such as buying wine and cheese on Friday evenings and maintaining the office materials library. I was also given the opportunity to work directly on four projects from start to finish. (These projects are The Embassy of Spain, 125 London Circuit, David Temple House and The National Surveyors Building.) As a young architect, it was a great privilege to be able to oversee these projects from every aspect of design to construction. I worked really hard – long, long days and weekends, and I seized every opportunity to learn – I gained so much experience in these three short years.
Could you share with us a few of your key projects? Why did they inspire you?
Wisma Atria is unique because I had the opportunity to re-design its façade twice in separate decades. I was able to reassess my design and address evolving human movement patterns. It was a retrospective into my design journey as it allowed me to investigate the urban relationship between architecture and end user.
For the first transformation of Wisma Atria in 2004, I designed a four-metre deep frame that extended the façade towards the promenade, with external escalators that connected the street with upper retail storeys. This facelift marked a shift from the internalised mall popular in the 1980s and 1990s to a street-integrated urban mall, and championed for street-integrated malls along the rest of Orchard Road. In 2012, I was given the opportunity to further explore the integration of public street space with private retail space with a second makeover of the mall. To increase street engagement, the new façade takes a crystalline form, built around the existing frame, which extends a further three metres from the former blue frame.
Because I find the creative process inspiring, every project that I work on stimulates me to come up with the best design solutions. I have two new hotel projects that will open later this year – Novotel Singapore and Mercure Singapore at Stevens Road (the previous Pinetree Club site), and Yotel along Orchard Road. For the former, our vision was to create an integrated and cohesive development to add both commercial and civic value to the urban fabric along Stevens Road. We designed a series of organic glass pods that provide intimate retail and dining experience, and adopted a green-wall approach with respect to the residential district the project is situated in. For the latter, we designed the building to further Yotel’s brand aesthetics, emphasising on simplicity and usability, with a gridded façade wrapped in textured glass.
When your foreign contemporaries ask you, what would you say is representative of Singaporean Design?
Singapore Design reflects our multiculturalism, pragmatic sensibilities and knowledge-based economy. Beyond aesthetics, design is about the value it brings to the users. The Design 2025 vision encapsulates Singapore’s design aspiration. To be a thriving innovation-driven economy and a loveable city, Singapore design must be innovative, user-centric and help to raise the quality of life.
In architecture, the Singapore design responds to cultural, site and climatic context; it captures the spirit of its locality and delights its users, yet appeals to a global culture. It bears the hallmarks of the Singapore brand – well-considered, innovative, reliable, efficient, and sustainable.
What do you like to do during your free time? Could you describe a typical weekend?
Weekends are very precious family time. Even if I have to travel for work, I always make sure that I am home for the weekends. We enjoy staying home to read or watch movies, and we relish our daily long walks with our dogs. Sunday mornings are spent in church and then, catching up with parents or friends over a good meal. Weekends are good for family bonding and recharging our energies for the week ahead.
On the work front, weekends are good for reviewing and rethinking design ideas – far from the madding crowds in the office – the unobtrusive weekend often yield more productive and creative solutions.