Sin­ga­pore Dream­ing

DP Ar­chi­tects co-founder Koh Seow Chuan and CEO An­ge­lene Chan talk to Hong Xinyi about build­ing a re­silient legacy that can stand the test of time

Singapore Tatler - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAR­REN GABRIEL LEOW Art Di­rec­tion MATILDA AU Fash­ion Di­rec­tion DES­MOND LIM

DP Ar­chi­tects co-founder Koh Seow Chuan and CEO An­ge­lene Chan on 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.”


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.”


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. “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 in col­lab­o­ra­tion 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.” 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.”


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.”

“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”


DE­SIGN­ING THE DURIAN The alu­minium sun­shades that clad the twin domes of the Es­planade – The­atres on the Bay give the per­form­ing arts cen­tre a dis­tinc­tive ex­te­rior that re­minds one of the hugely pop­u­lar king of fruits

BIG & BOLD An ex­hi­bi­tion was held to mark DP Ar­chi­tects’ 50th an­niver­sary in 2017; The Dubai Mall is one of the largest shop­ping com­plexes in the world

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