University of Melbourne Magazine

Homecomings: The Architect

  • THE ARCHITECT: PEI ING TAN (BArch(Hons) 1984, International House)

    Pei Ing Tan, who would grow up to be one of Malaysia’s most prominent architects, was raised in a two-room house behind a bicycle shop in Kajang, a town about 26 kilometres outside Kuala Lumpur.

    Pei Ing Tan

    Her family was poor, and they lived without electricity or indoor plumbing, a far cry from the luxury hotels and stylish shopping malls she would one day design.

    Tan was born in 1960, just three years after Malaysia’s independence from the British Empire. Her childhood was marked by a time of great political and economic transition.

    “There was a lot of excitement,” she says. “We were building a new nation.”

    On journeys to Kuala Lumpur with her parents, the young Tan marvelled at the fastpaced growth of her capital city.

    “We could see the skyline transforming,” she says. “I got really excited and I told myself I wanted to be part of the process. I wanted to be part of that nation-building.”

    Tan, a diligent student, was eventually accepted into the University of Melbourne’s Bachelor of Architecture. She left for Australia in 1980, despite the reservations of her parents, who had advised her against working in a male-dominated industry.

    “They thought that it wouldn’t be very suitable for a lady,” Tan says. “But I was very passionate about it, and they eventually gave in.”

    Her persistence served her well in the University’s challenging architecture program, which she found so difficult she “hardly got any sleep”.

    When Tan returned to Malaysia five years later, the country was in the midst of a deep recession. The building boom had collapsed, and developers, reluctant to hire any graduate architects at all, were especially sceptical about hiring a woman.

    “It was so demoralising,” says Tan, who questioned whether she had made the right decision to return to Malaysia, until her mother introduced her to a business partner who owned a small development company.

    Pei Ing Tan

    Tan worked during the day and used her night-time hours to start her own architectural firm, PI Architect, in 1989. In the decades since, Tan has led the firm in designing some of Malaysia’s most recognisable buildings, including the IOI Mall in Puchong, the Marriot Hotel and IOI City Mall in Putrajaya and Le Meridien Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. In Melbourne, she consulted with architects APB during the construction of the University’s award-winning School of Design.

    But Tan says she would not have found success without her trademark perseverance, which proved the naysayers wrong.

    “I had major problems with contractors recognising my authority,” she says. “I learned that you have to work hard, you have to know more than them. It’s how you convince people that you’re actually capable.”

    Tan’s fierce commitment to excellence and outspoken resistance to gender discrimination earned her the nickname the “Iron Lady of Architecture”. In 2016, she received the more formal title of “Datuk”, given to Malaysians of significant standing in the community.

    A former president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects and former president of the Architects Regional Council Asia, Tan has also made socially responsible architecture one of her key professional priorities.

    She founded Malaysia’s chapter of Architects for Humanity and established a forum for people in need to access design and housing services.

    Tan says she once thought of being a doctor or a lawyer, but now sees architecture as the best way for her to have a long-lasting impact on her country. “What you do has a lot of influence on the environment and people who use it,” she says. “You’re able to see something you created last into the future.”

    By Kate Stanton.

    Read all of our Homecomings stories here.