Dream builder: Interview with architect Teoh Hai Pin

Dream builder: Interview with architect Teoh Hai Pin
Teoh Hai Pin, director of DP Architects.


Architect Teoh Hai Pin says there were many hiccups for the Singapore Sports Hub project, but he and his team prevailed.

Until he was 16, Teoh Hai Pin had never heard of the word architect, let alone dreamt about building skyscrapers and masterplanning residential projects.

Yet he has become one of the top architects in Singapore.

Today, at 55, he heads teams at home-grown firm DP Architects, with a long list of achievements to boot.

Over the years, he has been leading teams in projects such as the Pontiac Marina mixed development in 1991 and worked with celebrated Japanese architect Toyo Ito to design VivoCity shopping mall.

But the feather in his cap is the newly completed Singapore Sports Hub, which opened in June.

He headed the team from DP Architects that helmed the project, which included architecture work and masterplanning the site, with international engineering firm Arup.

The hub was landscaped by global firm Aecom.

The $1.3-billion Sports Hub earned rave reviews as early as the first reveal of its design.

It snagged the Future Projects (Leisure-led Development) award at last year's World Architecture Festival, considered the Oscars of the architecture world.

The idea of becoming an architect was sparked by a math tuition teacher in Penang, where Mr Teoh was born, who suggested it to his students as a job to consider if they wanted to get hired fast.

Mr Teoh, then a secondary school student who was attending the A-level math class with his older sister, says: "He joked that if we wanted an easy career, we should consider being architects. There were few qualified architects in Penang then. And it was the first time I had ever heard of the word."

"It got me interested because it married the arts, which the education system at that time wasn't very geared towards, with science and math."

Mr Teoh learnt Chinese calligraphy as a child and had represented his school in competitions.

He was expected to take over his father's traditional Chinese medicine wholesale business.

It involved importing raw medicine such as ginseng and herbs from Hong Kong and China to sell in Malaysia.

His mother helped out with the business, although she stayed at home to look after the children.

As a teenager, Mr Teoh, the sixth of 11 children, would tag along with his father on visits to customers during the school holidays.

He says: "My father was hoping to groom me to take over the business. I didn't mind but it's tough doing business... you have to be discplined."

To take over the business, he would have had to leave school after O-levels at Chung Ling High School, one of the top schools in the state. One of his seniors there was Singapore's Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan.

Mr Teoh's two older brothers did not have the aptitude for business and his sisters were not shown the ropes as back then, women were not involved in managing businesses.

He was more keen in becoming an architect.

But his father needed a little convincing from his siblings and his grandfather eventually made the decision to let him pursue a career in architecture.

Mr Teoh, whose siblings were studying in the United Kingdom then, says: "My siblings were against it because they wanted me to focus on my studies. It was expensive to call home from London but they did many times to convince my father to let me join them there."

His two older brothers were sent to London to become lawyers, while his sister studied economics.

"They were determined to put us through school because they weren't academically inclined themselves," says Mr Teoh, of his Fujian-born father, who came to Malaysia when he was 14.

Together with his Malaysian-born wife, they lived in Kuala Kurau, a small fisherman's town in Perak, before moving to Penang in the late 1950s.

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