The director of Collective explains how working with like-minded architects and teaching others have helped her spread her wings

Chi Yan Chan is a director of Collective, a concept-driven architectural design team originally established by her friend Betty Ng. She joined in 2019 after previously working on projects such as the landmark cultural revitalisation of Tai Kwun and the even more iconic cultural edifice M+, and for leading architecture studios, including ten years at Swiss giants Herzog & de Meuron, first in Basel and subsequently in Hong Kong. She spent the majority of that time as the project manager overseeing the design and construction of Tai Kwun, after which she was the resident site architect for M+.

Originally from the US, she is also an adjunct assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Here, she explains why creativity should always come first in her own words.

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I definitely credit Tai Kwun with my growth as an architect. I had no career before: I was a junior architect, fresh out of school. I was lucky enough to be in an office that had a strong sense of design and a strong reputation. I started that project at an early stage of concept design. As a young architect, that’s wonderful: to see where the ideas come from. The challenge for me then was that it took so long. Everyone wanted to get everything right. I needed to have the patience to know that I was growing and learning, but I had to do it at the pace of this project. In retrospect, I had so much time to develop. I could really work on the details.

When I decided to leave Herzog & de Meuron, I thought I’d learnt what I needed to learn and paid my dues, and I wanted to join a smaller office where I could be part of the decision-making process and learn more about how to run a business; you don’t need to do that in a big firm. I also wanted to be in an office where people working on designs really care about them. Typically, large offices are very corporate, and the work they churn out is not really at the forefront. The directors of Collective all came from OMA [the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the firm founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas], and are committed to the same level of design thinking that I’m used to.

I’m working on a long-term project with New World, [on King Lam Street] in the Cheung Sha Wan area. It’s a very typical Hong Kong project in a way: an office tower with a retail podium. But the design is quite exciting: there’s a really insane pixellated parametric stair that sits at the centre. It’s astonishing that a developer in Hong Kong is letting a small firm do this. We’re a little bit tickled that it’s happening.

In architecture, once you leave school, you can very quickly leave the world of imaginative thinking. You’re just churning out whatever your office tells you to. Teaching puts you in the position of thinking about the design as the most important thing without being bogged down by cost and practicality. It’s a lot of fun for someone like me, who worked for so many years in construction.

See more honourees from the Architecture & Design category of the Gen.T List 2021.