Mission accomplished

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am

Mired in a dull radiography job, Larry Chan followed his heart, did a SPACE programme and became an architect

Larry Chan Chun-ho might once have been a radiographer but architecture was in his blood. While some might have ignored the calling, or been too intimidated to do anything about it, Mr Chan took a chance to embrace his real passion.

As a child he had been an artist at heart, constantly doodling and making sketches of people and things around him. Over the years he had entertained several career choices, though architecture was always the priority.

However, his aspirations quickly crumbled when his A-level grades failed to make the cut for architecture school so he resigned himself to a career not of passion, but of logic.

'At that time, I felt I didn't really have a choice. Radiography was more the result of a process of elimination. It was a relatively easy programme to get into and I knew it would be a stable career choice with steady income so I went for it,' he said.

But the monotony of working as a radiographer at the Department of Health's chest clinic in Shek Kip Mei soon got to him. Though he enjoyed the regular hours and a stable income, he felt bored and unchallenged with taking X-rays day in, day out. He was later excited to discover that the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPACE) was launching a part-time diploma in architectural studies.

He thought if he did not pass the course, at least he could make the most of his steady job at the clinic to pursue his interest. But he soon found that the more he studied, the more enamoured he became with the subject, and slowly he began to realise that architecture need not be just a hobby. It was not too late to become an architect.

'The course got me thinking about the value of work. I came to realise that stability was not the most important thing in life, and that I should really be doing something not just for money, but for interest and with meaning. My priorities began shifting,' he said.

Despite the punishing diploma class schedule - 12 hours every week with plenty of follow-up work - Mr Chan was always enthusiastic to learn. The harder it got, the more motivated he became.

When he graduated with distinction three years later, he was one of only 18 students to graduate from an initial class of 120.

'Many students dropped out because it was so demanding. Some friends urged me to do the same. They didn't understand why I needed to put myself through all the stress,' he said.

'Some people even envied the stability of my job and the fact that I could leave work each day without worrying about outstanding projects for the next day. To them, my work environment was simply ideal, but I knew I wanted something entirely different and studying architecture brought back the sense of purpose I was looking for.'

Graduating from the diploma programme was just one of many feats on the journey to becoming an architect. The only way to join the elite club was to have a master's degree in architecture. Mr Chan did what he had to do - he gave it a shot and went straight from his diploma course to a part-time undergraduate architectural studies programme.

'It wasn't really until I began seeing some of my undergraduate classmates getting accepted into the university's master's programme that I began to have some real hope and thought a career switch was viable,' he said.

Never one to shirk from a challenge, he gave it his all. In 2004, he was accepted into the university's full-time master's in architecture programme and felt that his lifelong dream was within reach, so he quit his five-year radiography career and immersed himself in the course.

It was during the two-year programme that his talent fully emerged. He had plenty of support, especially from his thesis tutor who took Mr Chan under his wing and offered him part-time work in helping to redesign the interior of a church, a youth centre and a centre for the disabled. The tutor even recommended him for his first job as an architectural graduate at P&T Architects and Engineers.

Early this year he was hired by Wong & Ouyang as an architectural designer where he now works to design residential and business developments.

The transition to architecture has not been without its difficulties. Where he had once been accustomed to working alone with limited interaction with others, he found himself amid a large cluster of professionals who were constantly discussing projects and debating the issues at stake.

'I would say that no particular element of my radiography job has helped me with my work because the two are just too different,' he said. '[In my new career] I never know what challenges might come up each day, so time tends to pass quickly whereas it crawled by before because we were always doing the same thing.'

There has also been a slight discrepancy between his idealistic perception of architecture and reality.

'I had anticipated the field would be more artistic, and culture and community focused, but it is actually more commercial,' he said. 'In Hong Kong, a property developer's idea is usually bigger than the architect's idea and the developer rarely pushes the boundaries of creativity.'

Despite the gap in his expectations, he has adjusted. He is immensely grateful that he can now call his work his passion and allow his aptitude for design to grow.

His interest in buildings flourished when he was in secondary school and he began travelling abroad. On a trip to Italy, he was particularly inspired by the renaissance architecture.

'I began making comparisons with architecture in Hong Kong and wondered why buildings here are so mundane compared with Italian architecture,' he said. 'Architecture is what really captures the nuances of a culture. The process of designing a building is extremely rewarding because you are creating something from nothing.'

He dreams of eventually becoming involved in the construction of a museum. He believes this kind of project will allow the most creative freedom.

'Not only do museums successfully reflect the local culture, the design process allows much more freedom of expression and the flexibility to transform theory into reality.'

Mr Chan's remarkable career switch may appear radical but his metamorphosis is really one on paper alone. Deep down, he has always had the soul of an architect. He will take his architectural qualifying examinations next year. If his track record is anything to go by, it won't be too long before his buildings begin making their mark on the city's skyline.

Happy as Larry

Chose career in radiography because it was secure work with stable income

Wanted to test out his interest in architecture when University of Hong Kong's SPACE launched the first part-time diploma in architectural studies

The more he studied, the more he liked architecture

Graduated from undergraduate and master's architecture programmes

Thesis tutor recommended him for first job following graduation from master's

Will take qualifying architecture examination next year

Getting there

How to get the idea Look at developing your own interests

How to plan Prepare for a career switch by making sure you have enough savings to study

How to get it going Don't listen too much to the opinions of others. Don't be discouraged by their negativity. Listen to your own desires

How to make sure it works Persevere despite the difficulties

Good advice or encouragement Set your own goals. Live life on your own terms