When asked for her best business advice – the tips and tricks that have shaped her own leadership journey – Rita Soh answers quickly, and with ease. “It’s important to enjoy what you do, have a passion for it and not be afraid to push boundaries,” the managing director of RDC Architects states.

Rita is well placed to be giving advice. The businesswoman has had an illustrious career spanning more than three decades in the architecture and design space. She joined the Singapore-based architecture firm RDC in 1989 after attaining her professional registration and has worked her way up the ranks over the years to become a member of the advisory board in the managing director capacity. “The original plan was to leave and start my own firm, but RDC gave me many opportunities,” Rita says. “There’s been no looking back. I liked the fact that they gave me room to grow.”

RDC Architects exceeds expectations

According to Rita, RDC always strives to go above and beyond what its customers expect. “RDC’s philosophy is based on the creation of a total environment satisfying the various aspects of social, economic and aesthetic considerations.

Adopting an ‘integrated’ approach in design, RDC believes that any eventual built-form must be an appropriate response to the context. As architecture is a living art and the search for knowledge is a continuing process, great emphasis is placed on research and development. We don’t have a lot of land in Singapore so we have to be innovative.”

Rita Soh Managing Director of RDC Architects
Rita Soh Managing Director of RDC Architects

Singapore has a good environment to encourage innovation and Rita encourages her people to go beyond what’s expected; to do their research and push for new ideas.

RDC is currently going through a period of exciting change with a rebranding exercise set to be completed before year’s end. “We are changing our website, public brochures, all of the marketing collateral,” she says.

We want to prepare ourselves to go international. We want to be able to ride the next wave.

“We want to prepare ourselves to go international. We are a small company but we have been around for quite a long time. RDC was started in 1974, all the original partners retired after the Asian crisis and in 2000 the current board took over. We want to be able to ride the next wave.”

Instigating change in Singapore’s architecture scene

During Rita’s three consecutive terms as the president of SIA from 2004 she played a key role in establishing a blueprint for the profession. Prior to her appointment, she’d been involved in various capacities for around a decade – starting out as a member in the Institute – so she knew exactly what changes needed to be made for the future betterment of the industry when she took office.

“My urgent request for members was to come together to review the state of our profession, consolidate our concerns and strategise to chart the course for the profession’s development for the next decade,” she says.

She introduced the idea of SEEDS – which stands for Shared ownership, Empowerment, External relations, Design and Succession – which were finally distilled into four strategic thrusts (Design, Practice, Education and Institution) and initiated a call for a roadmap charting the next five to 10 years.

The vision agreed upon was to position Singapore as an architecture capital for Asia. “I was delighted that the four presidents after me (including the present one) have continued to uphold and expand on this vision and mission; keeping abreast with the changing time and needs.

"My intent of sowing SEEDs has begun to reap results, as evident in the many strong initiatives and influences that SIA continues to exert and influence. Now looking back in 2017, it’s my happy moment when I can see that things were growing and changing for the better. It is indeed very satisfying.”

Rita Soh is always on the look out for new projects

Being involved with RDC isn’t the only feather in Rita’s hat. She has served three, consecutive one-year terms as the President of Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) between 2004 and 2007, has served as president of the Board of Architects Singapore for six years (2010–15), and was a nominated Member of Parliament from 2014–15.

She is currently the director-in-charge of the Integrated Building, the proposed medical centre at Changi General Hospital, as well as various other projects such as the mixed development of Singapore General Hospital’s Outram Campus; the three remaining MRT stations on the LTA Circle Line; and the conservation of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul on Queen Street in Singapore.

Furthermore, Rita is a board member of the Sentosa Development Corporation, as well as the BCA Productivity Gateway Advisory Panel and the Mandai Development Committee. It all sounds terribly busy but that’s exactly the way Rita likes it.

“My nature is that I constantly look for new things to do; I get bored very easily. So I volunteer myself to work on projects outside of my own. I think in this industry you can always find ways to do things better and processes that are faster and smarter, so I commit time and effort to pursue that.”

New ways of thinking

“As a person who is interested in the process flow of any activity, I often have a keen interest in finding new ways of doing things, especially if they can advance efficiency and enhance the ability to work and play smartly,” Rita says. Some areas she has helped to instigate change in, thanks to her out-of-the-box thinking, are:

Quality Assurance (QA)

“As an architect interested in efficient workflow within the office, I volunteered to pilot-test with the CIDB to see how the ISO 9001 QA standards can be used. RDC Architects became the first architectural practice to be awarded ISO 9001 certification in 1992.”

Specifications and standards

“The SIA played a pivotal role in driving the creation of NPQS (national productivity and quality specifications). The idea of having an industry common standards platform for all building specifications was the intended goal. I’m still involved in helping to move for a review on the NPQS, especially to incorporate the green initiatives of sustainability and to facilitate the use of BIM (building information modelling) technology.”

Following her passion for art & design

Rita realised her love of art and design early on in life. She says she used drawing as an escape after her father passed away when she was nine years old. “That was a difficult and challenging period of my life,” she says. “But that’s when I decided that I wished to pursue Art and it is something that’s never left me; it’s a large part of my life today.”

This interest shaped Rita’s professional journey. She went on to study Art in addition to the subjects she had to take as she was admitted into the Science stream. Recognising that the job prospects were limited for Arts then, “I decided that I’d do computer science,” she recalls. “I didn’t really enjoy it though and after a year I realised it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Having said that, the experience allowed me to recognise what it was that I was most passionate about and that was architecture because it allows me to bring together my learning in Arts and Science.”

Singapore’s Aalto Condominium
Singapore’s Aalto Condominium was completed by RDC Architects in 2010 and won in the Residential (High Rise) category at the Singapore Property Awards 2013.

In 1987, Rita graduated with honours from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Architecture after attaining a Bachelor of Arts (Architectural Studies Arts). “I had very good teachers and they allowed me to develop something of substance,” she comments. “Architecture is a long course. I worked extremely hard, took and passed my professional registration examinations within a year after graduation and was able to pursue a professional career quickly but I still have a fair bit of learning to do.”

Even today, Rita says that learning is very important and that one must always try to better oneself. In late 2009 she enrolled in the University of Nottingham (UK) to do her Master of Science (Sustainable Building Design). This course, which she graduated in 2011, reiterated her interest in the concept of sustainability and working towards a more environmentally friendly way of designing and building for the future. “I believe that education is always intertwined with one’s career,” Rita says. “You should always embrace life-long learning.”

A career to be proud of

For Rita, architecture is a very rewarding career path to have taken. “The work we do can be extremely meaningful,” she says. “When I’m designing, I’m not doing it for me but rather for the people using the building and its environment. A good environment benefits everyone and that’s what we’ve been trying to do with the projects we work on. A lot of time and effort has been put in, but the end result is the immense satisfaction you get knowing that someone will enjoy the environment you have created. As architects, we really are able to impact society in a positive way, hence it’s not just a job for us.”

Looking back over her career so far, Rita shares that she’s most proud of the influence her work has had on other people. “I am very honoured to have all the titles I have but what I really enjoy is seeing people grow,” she says.

“I think I’ve benefited from a lot of advice that people have given me throughout my journey and I want to give that back in some ways, to pay it forward to the next person. All of the work that I do in a professional setting, and even in my personal life, is to try to help others, to extend people a helping hand because I’ve had a lot of hand-holding on my journey.

“If I look back there have been so many people in my life and at different points in time they’ve given me pertinent pieces of advice, as well as providing me with the confidence to move ahead. I’m very proud that I’m able to develop on that and then pass it forward. That to me is something that I really enjoy. That’s the greatest achievement.”