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The Life Interview with Angelene Chan

Angelene Chan, new CEO of DP Architects, is the only woman CEO out of the top 5 architecture firms here

Angelene Chan knew she wanted to become an architect at the age of 12 and has won numerous awards pursuing her passion

Ever since her parents let her dictate the renovation plans for their house when she was 12,Ms Angelene Chan had set her heart on becoming an architect.

The precocious pre-teen "handled the renovations" which involved extensions to the kitchen, dining room and a bedroom in the single- storey house in Johor Baru. She liaised with contractors on the layout of the house and materials used.

She had already latched onto how spaces were designed early on. As a child, she would watch her draftsman uncle wield his tools to draw architectural plans.

Ms Chan, 51, says: "I fell in love with the process and idea of designing. From the beginning, architectural language has never changed. I could send my drawing anywhere around the world and everyone would understand it - a single line means a window, while a swing means a door. That was the power of a line."

I wasn't vying for the CEO position. For me, it's always about the architecture and doing a good job and not so much about doing administrative work and running a place. But I felt that in my capacity as CEO, it was an opportunity to push DP Architects' consistency in design.''

MS ANGELENE CHAN, the new CEO of the Singapore architecture firm

From renovating her family home, she has since gone on to design megastructures and properties around the world as part of DP Architects, Singapore's largest architecture firm. At the start of the new year, the high-flier was named chief executive officer (CEO) of the 49-year-old home-grown firm.

  • ANGELENE CHAN'S BIO BOX

  • 1964: Born in Johor Baru, Malaysia

    1987: Became an architect at the Canberra office of Woods Bagot, a global architecture firm

    1990: Joined DP Architects and jointly headed the retail team working on Suntec City

    2000:Became a director

    2003: Pitched and won the bid to design The Dubai Mall

    2009: Became council member of Dover Park Hospice and is currently its honorary secretary

    2010: Named one of 20 leading Singapore architects under the age of 45 in 2010 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)

    2013: Became deputy CEO 2014: Became a Singapore citizen

    2015: Part of the team that won Design of the Year at the President's Design Award for Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters

    2016: Became CEO of DP Architects

    Others

    • Editor-in-chief for four DP Architects publications and served as chair of the Singapore Institute of Architects' Publications Committee from 2012 to 2014

    • Featured in documentaries such as National Geographic's MegaStructures in 2010 and the URA-commissioned Cityscape in 2014 on The Dubai Mall

DP Architects is also the 12th largest architecture firm in the world, according to The WA100 2016 rankings - British architecture online publication Building Design's annual ranking of the world's largest architecture firms. It is the only Singapore firm on the list.

Since it was founded here by architecture luminary Koh Seow Chuan, DP Architects has grown into a global outfit with 15 offices around the world, employing more than 1,200 people.

Ms Chan, who was previously deputy CEO, headed the teams that designed The Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall covering 34ha - equivalent to about 48 football fields - and the $6.5-billion integrated resort Resorts World Sentosa, which her firm designed with the office of the late American architect Michael Grave.

Last month, she and her team snagged the prestigious Design of the Year award at the President's Design Award ceremony for Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters in Sungei Kadut. In 2009, they also won the same award, together with Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, for their work on Republic Polytechnic.

With Sunray, she convinced the owners that an industrial building did not have to look like a drab shed or hangar. Today, the cheery, yellow building stands out among the grey industrial buildings in the neighbourhood. The company is one of the largest builders in Singapore for interior fit-out works.

Ms Connie Wu, 53, CEO of Sunray Woodcraft Construction, says: "Our brief to Angelene was to achieve the functionality of the business, while designing a building that would be a landmark in the area. It's a contradictory concept because what is practical isn't usually aesthetically pleasing, but she gave us the confidence throughout the journey."

Learning a lifelong journey

Ms Chan has always been an achiever. At school, she was always ranked in the top 10 and she represented Johor Baru in netball when she was in secondary school.

She later got into the architecture faculty at the University of Adelaide, which counts the late president Ong Teng Cheong as its alumnus.

She puts her success down to a determination to succeed: "I did well not because I'm extra smart. I'm just a hard and diligent worker."

In her second year at university, her father was retrenched from his manager job at the Fiat car-assembly plant as it closed down. Her mother was a primary school teacher who taught English and Mathematics.

Ms Chan took on part-time jobs such as waitressing in a Thai restaurant and working the night shift as a librarian - to save her parents money.

Even with the after-school duties, Ms Chan, the eldest of four children, did not let her studies suffer. She completed the six-year university course a year ahead of schedule and graduated in 1987 at the top of her class.

She also won awards such as the James Hardie Prize in Architecture and the Royal Australian Institute of Architecture (South Australian Chapter) Prize.

Right out of university, she was hired at Woods Bagot, a global architecture firm that has offices around Australia. She asked to work at its Canberra office so that she could be with her university sweetheart, whom she married when she was 22. Her husband, who is two years older, moved to Canberra from Adelaide to complete his PhD at Australian National University.

Despite being a fresh graduate, she hit the ground running as the office was staffed by just five people. She dealt mostly with her boss, who let her helm projects.

In her three years there, she designed and oversaw the construction of four buildings, including the Spanish embassy which was opened by the former king, Juan Carlos.

As a spunky Asian woman working on construction sites, she got her first lesson on how to glean the best ideas and solve problems.

"Those burly builders would wolf-whistle at me until they realised that I'm the architect," she says with a laugh.

"People often ask me how I dealt with these men and not get bullied. It was easy - if I wasn't sure of how to do something and asked them for help, they gave me a host of suggestions.

"It wasn't about saying 'I'm the boss and you have to do things my way'. It's better to get ideas from everyone and form good relationships. It just makes everyone contribute positively to a problem."

An unexpected call from a stranger boosted her confidence. A man working across the street from one of the buildings she designed had called the office, looking for her. She thought she was in trouble.

"Instead, he thanked me for making the building look better. It took so little of him to call, but no one ever calls you like that."

When her husband completed his studies, she moved back with him in 1990 to Singapore - with a job at DP Architects in hand.

A week into her new job, she jointly headed the retail team working on Suntec City. The massive mixed-used development was a collaboration between New York-based firm Tsao & McKown Architects and DP Architects.

She says: "It wasn't a difficult transition. I was ready to work in a large office. It was an experience I welcomed and I wanted to work on projects that were more complex so I could learn a lot more."

From there, she rose quickly through the ranks. In 1994, she was made an associate and, a year later, a senior associate. In 2000, she became a director and took on the deputy CEO role in 2013.

She was also named one of 20 leading Singapore architects under the age of 45 in 2010 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

When she is interviewed about her achievements, she is often asked about her position as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Coolly brushing off gender differences in the workplace, Ms Chan, who received the RBS Coutts and Financial Times Women in Asia Award in 2010 for her professional achievements, says: "I never look at anyone as a man or woman. I don't process things that way.

"I always look at the task at hand. I never think of myself as a woman in a room full of men, even though it's often the case."

Case in point: She was set to present her team's design for The Dubai Mall to a group of about 50 men. It was an international design competition that saw other firms put in bids. Mindful of the patriarchal traditions of the Middle Eastern society, she was concerned about fronting the project.

Her fears of gender bias were unfounded. By the end of the day, the client picked DP Architects' design.

"Sometimes, as women, we're harder on ourselves and we question ourselves more than is necessary. You might just be perceiving that there's an issue when there's none," says Ms Chan, who is the only female CEO out of Singapore's top five architecture firms.

"As long as you know your work and you are confident of your design, maybe that's all that matters."

Mr Francis Lee, 65, chairman of DP Architects, saw that tenacious spark in her early on. They worked on Suntec City together and he remembers the young, idealistic architect then as someone who was "enthusiastic and bursting with passion".

In the time she has been at DP Architects, she had two children: a son, who is 18, and a 16-year-old daughter. Mr Lee says: "Her time- management skills in ensuring she excels in the different responsibilities she has are second to none."

To juggle motherhood and work, Ms Chan says she schedules everything in her day - right down to buying toilet paper - so that she does not forget anything. "I am a list-maker and I schedule my time tightly, such as putting meetings back-to-back. I'm eating in front of people all the time," says Ms Chan, who is also a board member of Singapore's Board of Architects .

And even though her job is demanding - she can travel two to three times a month, with trips lasting between two and four days each time - family never takes a backseat.

When she is at home, family dinners are a must. She wakes up at 5am every day to exercise, before driving her children to school ("I enjoy driving my kids to school and back, as I treasure every moment I can with them.").

She gets to work by 7.30am and often has a packed day. Still, she makes times for weekly dates with her husband, a chief risk officer at an investment company. She catches up on work after dinner and when her children are studying, and is in bed by about midnight.

She puts her success at balancing both work and motherhood well down to a good support system - both at home and in the office.

Her husband "contributes more than his fair share of work and responsibility as a parent", while her mother helped look after the children when they were younger and she was at work. She took over from her mother after work.

Her maid, Tatik, has been with the family prior to the birth of her first child.

Ms Chan, who mentors working mothers in the office, says: "I'm not a superwoman. I need a good balance of all the roles that I play - maximum commitment at home and full focus at work."

She is not about to take it slow and has no plans to give up designing buildings.

Her current projects include Yotel Singapore, a hotel in Orchard Road slated to be completed next year; and two residential buildings in The Mariner's Quarter in London, which are part of the 15ha Royal Wharf masterplan that aims to revitalise the Royal Docks. DP Architects beat three other firms from Britain to clinch its first London project.

She also plans to launch DP Academy, a curriculum programme that includes workshops and courses for architects within the company, both in the Singapore and overseas offices, to update their skills.

She says: "I think of architecture - and the learning and exploration that accompanies it - as a lifelong journey. One can never get enough of it. And one can never be good enough at it.

"Considering my position as a CEO, it's just an additional role I have to play to drive design globally for the office. The backbone of my career is still to deliver good architecture and that will take my lifetime."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Driven by design'. Print Edition | Subscribe