With her fashionable asymmetrical bob, crimson Fendi glasses, fitted pantsuits and platform heels, Rita Soh cuts a striking figure in the architecture scene. Not least because men dominate in this field, but the director of RDC Architects, a 40-man firm, and former Nominated Member of Parliament, has never let her gender get in the way of constantly improving her practice.
Warm and spirited, Soh launches into a lively discussion of architecture, politics and her personal life (she’s married with two 20-something children). She tells of mutual recognition agreements between the Board of Architects in Singapore and its counterparts in Asean and Apec, and how the built environment in Singapore has evolved. At the tip of her fingers is an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s building and construction industry, including government regulations and building codes.
Not surprising, given that she has been with RDC since 1988 and served three one-year terms as president of the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) between 2004 and 2007. She is currently president of the Board of Architects.
She did not reach the summit of her career unchallenged, however. “When I ran for president of the SIA, I was told not to waste my time because it was a male-dominated industry.” But her systematic plan for the organisation ultimately won her the position. This revolved around the four main thrusts of design, practice, education and institution, which crystallised the SIA’s focus and galvanised its members into action. The policies remain in effect today.
Her forward thinking has served her well in other respects. In the late 1990s, even as she considered herself a tech dinosaur, she convinced her peers to embrace the digital revolution. “I remember meeting a vendor who asked if I did Windows. I replied by asking if he meant timber or aluminium windows!” Soh says, laughing at the memory. The incident prompted her to get up to speed – and fast – with an eye to streamline the electronic submission process introduced by the Government for architects’ drawings. One hurdle she had to overcome: each firm used different terms for naming things. Eventually, she and her team came up with a code of practice, the CP83, that revolutionised the industry by standardising nomenclature.
Soh then spearheaded the creation of a company within the SIA – SIACAD – to conduct full-time research and testing of IT solutions for her fellow professionals. She was also the driving force behind Apex (Administration, Projects and events, EXcellence), a software for architects to manage their e-mail, timesheets and project data. Apex has since evolved into a Web-based programme and is now being marketed to professionals such as engineers and contractors.
“I’m happy to be the one pushing for change. I’m a hands-on person. If there’s a problem, I want to solve it,” says Soh. This desire to improve – be it in terms of professional processes, her community work or regional post-disaster management since the 2004 Asian tsunami – culminated in 2015 in the Integrated Building, a 280-bed health-care facility jointly run by Changi General Hospital and St Andrew’s Community Hospital. Due to her lobbying for the use of natural ventilation in the building’s design, the Building and Construction Authority created a template that provided for health-care facilities.
“(She has the) ability to laugh when the going gets tough, and her ability to keep her head above water and steer her team through various challenges makes her an effective leader who can gather her troops for battle any day.”
Loh Ju-Hon, Director, RDC Architects
Says Soh: “I’m blessed with the ability to zoom out and have a helicopter view of things. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. I am eldest in a family of five. When my dad passed away from lung cancer when I was nine, I had to take charge of a lot of things.”
A self-confessed tomboy who grew up in a Geylang Serai kampung “climbing trees” and “roughhousing”, Soh says she never felt the need to modify her behaviour to fit into a male-dominated environment. “Sometimes, it can be a bit intimidating, but you tell yourself to stand firm in your beliefs.”