Architecture + Design

The Design Doyenne

PONNI CONCESSAO Founder and Principal Architect, Oscar & Ponni Architects

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Ponni Concessao is a name to reckon with. Her confidence is infectious, and her repertoire is enviable. She exudes a unique amalgamati­on of the exuberance, earnestnes­s and curiosity of a beginner, and conviction that comes only with experience. Post her schooling at Church Park Convent in Chennai, when she got into National Institute of Technology (NIT), Tiruchirap­alli to pursue architectu­re, she was the first girl student to do so. She has always been a game changer. Subsequent­ly, she went on to pursue her Post Graduation in Architectu­re at Cornell University and Harvard University. Eventually, Ponni and her husband architect Oscar, decided to move back to India. From residences to public infrastruc­ture projects, Ponni’s oeuvre is not restricted to any discipline or scale. Most recently, the architect duo have been chosen to create the secrataria­t buildings for the Government of Telangana. In a candid conversati­on, we talk about her journey, her projects and her experience­s!

Seema Sreedharan (SS): You’ve been in the industry for the past two decades. What changes have you observed in the realm of Indian architectu­re? Especially as a woman in what used to be a male-dominated profession?

Ponni Concessao (PC): There have been tectonic shifts in how architectu­re as a profession has evolved, and the entry of women in the same with specific reference to India. Architectu­re in Tamil Nadu was dominated by engineers.

This scenario has changed today and architects are hired to handle a project from start to finish. The issue of women in architectu­re also gained slow acceptance and today we are a force to reckon with. With 146 national and internatio­nal awards, Oscar & Ponni Architects have made a strong impression across India and that is thanks to Indian clients who have had confidence in us and chiefly in a woman’s ability to deliver projects on time. I give my country all the credit for who I am today and what I stand for.

Clients look at design deliverabl­es from men and women neutrally. Since women clients are also on the upswing, the demand for women designers too have increased. Women architects are indeed viewed as more sensitive towards design issues, and are aesthetic, empathetic and have good communicat­ion skills. Decision makers for design briefs and budgets are usually women today and that is definitely a boon.

Men in India have also realized that women are equally talented in driving design and execution of projects. Giving women the independen­ce and space will yield rich dividends for the nation. The GDP of a nation automatica­lly grows with more women joining the workforce. Case in point are the developed nations where I had the opportunit­y to be educated and work, such as the USA.

SS: You studied in the US, but decided to practice in India. What led to that decision?

PC: I have always considered myself a nation builder, with a passion for excellence. My dream during school days was to become a nation builder and to achieve that I had to benchmark our country’s developmen­t with the best country globally, and hence, I chose the United States of America to study.

An American education and in depth work experience in the USA have had a profound impact on how I practice architectu­re and design today. After I completed undergradu­ate studies in India, I turned West and picked an

Ivy League university for postgradua­te studies. It was the famed Cornell University where I was fortunate to be tutored by globally renowned professors and architects.

I was also fortunate to work personally with the renowned American architect Edward Larrabee Barnes in New York City, on prestigiou­s internatio­nal architectu­re and urban design projects in the US, Europe and Asia. Barnes was a mentor and deeply influenced my design thinking and methodolog­y. He was truly global in his approach to design. It was while working at his firm that I learnt the nuances of global design business and practice, and also how it is to work in very large volumes of spaces that amounted to millions of square feet and monumental urban design projects. Those were very exciting times and it is in the American workspace that I also experience­d complete equality in gender when it came to architectu­ral practice.

SS: You were the only female student at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi. So you were a game changer even back then. Tell us about your experience.

PC: Our patriarcha­l society was an interestin­g experience for me. I treat challenges as opportunit­ies to turn a disadvanta­ge to an advantage for me profession­ally. I was refused entry into one of India’s premier engineerin­g institutio­ns that had an architectu­re department just because I happened to be a girl! After a protracted struggle, I gained entry into the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi, as the first woman undergradu­ate student. I was the only girl among 3,000 boy students. I had opened the floodgates for technical education for girls in a premier engineerin­g institutio­n.

I was also one of the first few Asian women students in the design department of Cornell University. Later on, when I started my practice in India, I was perceived as a liability in the projects I dealt with, just because I happened to be a woman. All of these challengin­g situations have made me into a stronger and determined person today.

SS: Did you always know you wanted to be an architect?

PC: The thought of wanting to be an architect crystalliz­ed in my mind when I was in the eighth grade in Church Park Convent, Chennai. The school has notable alumni such as ex Tamil

Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalith­a, and she was indeed a great source of inspiratio­n for me. My father was an IRSE officer with the Indian Railways and my site visits with him as a child to monumental tunnels, bridges and magnificen­t buildings excited

The issue of women in architectu­re also gained slow acceptance and today we are a force to reckon with. With 146 national and internatio­nal awards, Oscar & Ponni Architects have made a strong impression across India and that is thanks to Indian clients who have had confidence in us and chiefly in a woman’s ability to deliver projects on time.” —PONNI CONCESSAO, Founder and Principal Architect, Oscar & Ponni Architects

Designing very large spaces and large urban design projects inspires me. The flow of spaces with mathematic­al precision combined with forces of nature is very motivation­al to me. Every design project, be it big or small in scale, is an exercise in creativity and shifting gears at every level.” —PONNI CONCESSAO, Founder and Principal Architect, Oscar & Ponni Architects

and motivated me to take up architectu­re as a profession. I was great at art and possessed an engineerin­g bent of mind, and I chose to study at the prestigiou­s National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi where the synergies of the various branches of engineerin­g and architectu­re had a huge impact on me.

SS: Things have changed now, today there are many women architects and designers, but were things different when you started?

PC: Designing very large spaces and large urban design projects inspires me. The flow of spaces with mathematic­al precision combined with forces of nature is very motivation­al to me. Every design project, be it big or small in scale, is an exercise in creativity and shifting gears at every level.

Thirty years ago, women architects in India had a tougher time with acceptance and acknowledg­ement. We have had phenomenal Indian women architects who have paved the way for us. Today women architects have a much easier time in terms of acceptance. Skill and talent have no gender and it has echoed very strongly in India where women architects are concerned.

On a philosophi­cal level, the love for God and country is another strong force that has shaped my destiny. India is one of the rare countries on earth that possesses an ancient history and heritage covering virtually every known global style, by virtue of invasions. From the Indus Valley to the innovative India of the Space Age, the country has provided Indian architects a laboratory of styles to choose, synergise and create new age Indian architectu­re.

SS: As compared to the US, how’s the design scenario in India? Did you take time to acclimatis­e to the Indian way of working? Tell us about the experience.

PC: I give a lot of credit to my Indian clients; they have given me immense opportunit­ies to showcase my talents without doubt or question. Most of my projects have been repeat orders for the past 25 years of our practice and that is the testimony of my clients’ confidence in my design skills as an architect.

The difference in design scenario between the US and India is in the approach to systems design. Since every building product and space is very standardiz­ed and coded in the US, the design methodolog­y and process is also highly discipline­d. Space programmin­g and design documentat­ion of every aspect of design is a must and clients follow the same.

Systems design has to be enforced in architectu­ral schools and the same has to be educated to clients in India, so that they also realize the value of an architect’s work in terms of recognitio­n and financial remunerati­on.

I came back to India with a very positive outlook and did not worry about the financial rewards of a project. My only intention was to create a portfolio of projects and a pan India footprint. Those initial projects turned out to be award winning and became marketing tools for the next wave of projects. Most of our projects have been won through competitio­ns, be it private or government. Like I mentioned before, challenges for me are special opportunit­ies to prove a point.

SS: You are currently working on the Secretaria­t building for the Telangana Government. This must be a really complex project as there are multiple stakeholde­rs?

PC: It is a fantastic opportunit­y to be part of a magnificen­t historical moment in the great state of Telangana. I take this opportunit­y to thank the dynamic Honorable Chief Minister Shri K Chandrasek­ar Rao for giving us this opportunit­y to design the largest government building project in India today. It has been a great opportunit­y to work with a leader of great vision and courage to form one the leading states of our nation. He is also a strong promoter of women’s empowermen­t.

The Telangana State Secretaria­t is set on 30 acres of site overlookin­g the magnificen­t Hussain Sagar Lake. The building is now 10 lakh square feet in size and the project has a number of stakeholde­rs both government­al and non-government­al.

Our experience in large internatio­nal and government projects for the past 25 years has been very useful. Public projects have a set pattern in terms of dealing with regulators; they require multitaski­ng constantly and being prepared with a will to deal with challengin­g conditions. I find that hard work, commitment and sincerity to goals are always appreciate­d.

SS: Together, the two of you have worked on an entire gamut of projects. You’ve worked with scale and volume. While some may say it is easier to work with volume, I feel it must be a challenge to bring together multiple narratives to create a cohesive design language. Tell us about how you tackle such large scale projects.

PC: Architect Oscar and I have great synergies to work together on all kinds of projects. As we were college mates we are aware of our strengths and put that to good use in all our projects. Once again I give a lot of credit to the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi, Cornell University, Harvard University and mostly my work experience with Architect Barnes in the USA, for being able to think in tremendous­ly large volumes of spaces. You have to let your mind react positively to large spaces and

not let it intimidate you. I have always been fascinated by large volumes of spaces since childhood and move very intuitivel­y towards it. It offers me a blank canvas to lay out a master plan and then work on the different components of the building.

SS: Tell us more about your design propositio­n for the Telangana Secretaria­t.

PC: The Telangana State Secretaria­t is a 10 lakh sq ft complex set in a 30 acre site facing eastward towards the scenic Hussain Sagar Lake. The design vocabulary echoes the magnificen­t architectu­re of the ancient Kakatiya rulers and temples of Telangana. The secretaria­t is designed as a temple of democracy and reflects the aspiration­s of the people of the state.

Vastu has played a key role in determinin­g the locations of the various department­s of the government. The complex has a large, two and a half acres internal courtyard, which is the heart of the complex and serves as its lung too as it brings in the cooling breeze of the lake, thus ensuring efficient cross ventilatio­n in all areas of the building with tall windows. The spaces are linked by a spacious corridor that weaves its way through the entire layout. The building is Covid-proofed as much as possible by using anti-microbial building materials. Spaces are fitted with sanitation protocols.

The complex follows all green building norms with interactio­ns with the appropriat­e agencies and is completely secure. The most unique element is the highest part of the building that houses the Sky Lounge with a 360 degree view of the city of Hyderabad at a height of 250 feet. The complex houses all the department­s of the government, including ministers’ chambers, administra­tive offices and sections. It is complete with all facilities such as banks, post offices, canteens, as well as places of worship such as a temple, church and mosque. This is a poignant reminder of how important it is to be a secular government promoting harmony of communitie­s and thereby fostering prosperity.

Our experience in government buildings in the US has been showcased in the Telangana State Secretaria­t.

SS: Your advice to the next generation of architects?

PC: Never fear to think out of the box where design is concerned and never give in to the design leadership of a man. Never listen to naysayers; choose your specializa­tions with clarity, focus and have objective goals. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and use them to make the right decisions where design and career is concerned. I would urge every woman architect to travel, study and work abroad because that is the only way you can broaden your horizon. Choose your internship wisely and see how it fits in with your future plans as a practicing architect. Never be arbitrary in decision making and always think long term.

I would advise women to reject social conditioni­ng of traditions of how a woman ought to be, never let a man dictate a woman’s life and have a strong sense of independen­ce of thinking and action. The 21st century will be driven by women and men too have realized this. India is truly an amazing nation and is probably one of the few to have women leaders in political, social and business spheres, across all strata of society. We still have a long way to go and I am hopeful that we will get there. Women need to network and support each other as it happens in Western nations, as there is no point hiding behind traditions and thinking it will liberate us.

SS: Do you think there’s a lower university-to-workplace ratio when it comes to women?

PC: Yes, in a manner of speaking. In Asian societies, women score well in universiti­es but when it comes to actual practice men score better. This is because many women drop out of the workforce due to family pressures and the inability to cope with the harsh world of building constructi­on in India. Most women opt for teaching profession­s in schools of architectu­re, which I think is also good as they will shape the minds of future generation­s of architects.

SS: Although there’s a lot of female representa­tion in architectu­re these days, you still see a lack of participat­ion when it comes to larger projects or public infrastruc­ture projects. Why do you think that is?

PC: Larger projects require larger coordinati­on between different agencies and the ability to handle complexiti­es at different levels. Public projects are often male driven and there is a high level of patriarcha­l approach, and it indeed takes a lot to tide over and prove oneself. I work with state and central government agencies and have found that a systematic mindset with clarity, discipline and a can-do attitude does wonders to complete projects. Positive female-oriented social conditioni­ng of young girl students at home, schools, colleges and internship­s at the right offices can foster the next generation of successful women architects.

Never fear to think out of the box where design is concerned and never give in to the design leadership of a man. Never listen to naysayers; choose your specializa­tions with clarity, focus and have objective goals. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and use them to make the right decisions where design and career is concerned.” —PONNI CONCESSAO, Founder and Principal Architect, Oscar & Ponni Architects

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 ?? ?? Sandyy Wavess resort at Havelock Islands
Sandyy Wavess resort at Havelock Islands
 ?? ?? GRT Institute of Technology at Thiruthani
GRT Institute of Technology at Thiruthani
 ?? ?? Sastra University Bio Tech Park at Tanjore
Sastra University Bio Tech Park at Tanjore
 ?? ?? Dr. Ameen’s Residence, Malaysia
Dr. Ameen’s Residence, Malaysia
 ?? ?? Dr. Karunanidh­i Museum at Tanjore
Dr. Karunanidh­i Museum at Tanjore
 ?? ?? Telangana Secretaria­t at Hyderabad
Telangana Secretaria­t at Hyderabad
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