The Oscars of architecture
Despite having won over 125 awards, Oscar & Ponni Architects remains a design firm grounded in research, hungry for innovation and driven by humanism
It was in the late 80s that two young Indian architects, armed with graduate degrees in architecture, left for the US. While Oscar Concessao went on a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma to pursue his Master’s degree in Architecture in Urban Design in 1987, Ponni Concessao secured a Tata scholarship and went on to complete her Master’s in Design from Cornell University in 1989. This was followed by a fruitful stint with leading design firms in New York, before each decided it was time to return to their roots. And that is where this story really begins.
Post studying abroad and gaining international architectural experience, both Oscar and Ponni felt an inclination to head back to India and contribute to nation building. Their wish was soon granted. It was while they were in Manhattan, New York, that they were introduced to their first-ever individual client, an NRI businessman, who was at the time shortlisting designers for his 200-acre engineering college campus project in Tamil Nadu. Seizing an opportunity to submit master plans including designs for the administration, department buildings, library, hostels and other campus-related structures, the duo was able to impress the client enough to bag the project, and with it the chance to move base to India and set up their own firm there.
“We both used to work at other companies for several years. Those days, we were focused on our individual projects and would be in the office all day long, working with other architects, designers and engineers, spending very little time with clients, on a job site or together. When we started our own firm – Oscar & Ponni Architects – things changed drastically,” states Oscar about the genesis of the practice that the pair founded in Chennai back in 1996.
In fact, the husband-wife duo’s design thinking reflects their holistic approach to design. By their own admission, it is imbued with logic, beauty and humanism, with a spirit of idealism and innovation. Theirs is a practice that is research-oriented and forward thinking, drawing upon a depth of experience to solve contemporary building challenges in imaginative and unexpected ways. Personal involvement is imperative to both Oscar and Ponni, and, as a result, the practice operates on the model of a design studio environment – albeit with the resources, design intelligence, and efficient organisation that are needed to deliver some of the largest and most complex commissions.
Like any successful architect, Oscar and Ponni wear many hats; they have to be the organiser of a project, the conductor of the orchestra of consultants, the advocate for their clients, the mediator between the client and general contractor, the designer of the project, manager of the progress, counsellor, cheerleader, building permit expert,
building code expert, and construction process advisor.
“A work of art is created in the mind of the architect. Architecture is a passion, a vocation, a calling — as well as a science and a business. Ours is a practice of relationships – clients, staff, consultants, product manufacturers and contractors,” explains Ponni, highlighting the importance of having a good architect in order to deliver a good project.
Together by Design
Borrowing a phrase they often use to describe themselves, Oscar and Ponni are indeed ‘together by design’. At a young age, when Ponni accompanied her structural engineer father – who built bridges, tunnels, buildings, etc. – to his sites pan India, it gave her a phenomenal exposure to building, spurring dreams of building beautiful buildings and becoming a leader in architecture. On the other hand, Oscar’s quest began in his hometown of Mangalore (now Mangaluru), a coastal western town, where he was stirred by the local Portuguese and Mangalorean tile architecture. This was coupled with an interest in building miniature models, exploring carpentry at school workshops, and a fascination for the sciences – hence, architecture became the natural choice of profession for him.
What started as a passion in their youth continues to propel them even today, when both look to contextual architecture, historical buildings, as well as local culture and climate, to form the basic vocabulary for their designs, apart from drawing inspiration and knowledge from nature itself. Speaking of inspiration, both architects are stimulated by similar architects and structures. While Ponni admires celebrated Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, calling her an absolute innovator, who persevered relentlessly in the face of criticism and fearlessly conquered gender bias; Oscar considers Hadid’s project – The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan – to be an iconic structure, hailing it for its distinctive, flowing lines and lack of sharp angles.
On the other hand, Ponni feels that Sir Norman Foster’s pursuit of the art and science of architecture has resulted in one building triumph after another, each one unique. “He has re-invented the tall building, producing Europe’s tallest and arguably first skyscraper with an ecological conscience, the Commerzbank in Frankfurt. He cares passionately for the environment, designing accordingly. From his very first projects, it was evident that he would embrace the most advanced technology appropriate to the task, producing results sensitive to their sites, always with imaginative solutions to design problems. His design objectives are guided not only toward the overall beauty and function of a project, but for the well-being of those people who will be the end users. This social dimension to his work translates as making every effort to transform and improve the quality of life. Sir Foster has produced a collection of buildings and products noted for their clarity, invention, and sheer artistic virtuosity,” confesses Ponni in awe.
Oscar too is a fan of Sir Foster, naming his project, the UK’s iconic skyscraper more commonly known as ‘The Gherkin’ as one of the first environmentally progressive buildings in London. The building in question is supported by an exoskeleton structure, and is designed so ventilation flows through the entire building. Similarly, Frank Lloyd Wright has left an impact on the couple, who are struck by how forward-thinking he was and how his five key principles of design are still relevant today.
“Not only did he design buildings to respect the natural environment, but he emphasised a sense of shelter. While he was thoughtful in his use of natural materials, he also fully embraced technology. He had an overarching belief that architecture should be a complete work of art and that all elements should contribute to the whole,” says Oscar.
Masters of their Craft
In a similar vein, Oscar and Ponni are known for giving a focussed treatment to each project they undertake. Ponni adds that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in architecture. “Each building project should respond to its very unique context: site, climate, social, budget and materials. Buildings also need to be able to age well, to adapt to changing requirements and have flexibility to accommodate various uses. They should also be built sustainable, in both the materials that they use during construction, and the energy resources that they require to function,” she professes.
The couple doesn’t just preach about these ideals, but is seen applying these principles in their vast body of work. As a natural consequence of the above, they promote sustainable architecture and design. This includes the use of local, naturally available resources, eco-friendly building materials, traditional and modern techniques of construction that make interference with nature minimal. Their firm resorts to the use of locally available materials such as bricks, granite and wood, in conjunction with nature – creating structures while keeping in mind the area’s climate, environment, available resources and craftsmen.
While it is true that sustainability has gained more and more importance lately, largely in the architecture industry, but recently also in society as a whole; things may not exactly be going to plan. In fact, there is a thin line that differentiates responsible practice and uncharacteristic implementation of self-imposed designs.
“Wasteful architecture sought to identify a more efficient architecture that utilised less materials and strove to be more honest with its expressions. While it may seem that all buildings would adopt a married stylistic approach of modernistic sustainability, this more stringent way of building would reduce the consumption of materials and fabricate structures from only what is needed,” believes Oscar.
While the architects take responsibility for the environment, society and practice at large, they are candid enough to admit that it is okay to be a tad bit selfish and design to a specific stylistic approach. After all, truly memorable architecture is usually remembered for its form, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude it from being functional and long-lasting in nature. Despite this, we find that most buildings today, regardless of their size, style, location or purpose, continue to embody the principle of ‘form follows function’, both inside and out.
“What’s changed is that, while functional necessities remain a primary determinant of architectural geometry and spatial organisation, formal influences and formal possibilities have expanded dramatically. Architects are no longer limited to straight lines and rectilinear volumes. Thanks to computer technology and new building materials and techniques, we can conceptualise, represent, fabricate and erect almost any form that obeys the laws of physics, and that someone is willing to pay for,” Oscar points out.
As a result, the pair is always pushing the envelope with their avant-garde designs. For instance, a project that is close to their hearts is the Biotech Park at Sastra University in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu, which is a high-tech, expressionist building that houses bio-safety level labs, gallery lecture halls, auditoriums, a library and an animal house, since it was an extremely challenging project with several design and functional complexities. The key ingredient was to provide appropriate structural flexibility and volume, which is organised in a modular way so that it can accommodate a wide range of mechanical and electrical environmental systems. Interestingly, the project also won several awards including the prestigious Indian Institute of Architecture award in the Public Architecture category.
Building for All
So far, the duo has won multiple competitions and has 125 design award recognitions to their credit. But the industrious architects do not believe in resting on past laurels, viewing these as mere motivation to design better quality buildings that serve society’s needs and improve the environment that people live and work in. Their dream project is to design a capital city on the lines of what Le Corbusier did with Chandigarh. They are currently working on one lakh affordable housing homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), a special initiative by the Indian Government with the core objective of ensuring that affordable housing is provided to everyone, especially to the economically weaker sections of society.
“Architecture is a service to society and has a larger calling than just to design a building that meets the programme and budget. Our architectural journey has been relentlessly optimistic and exhilarating, one which has embraced both the possibilities and challenges of international practice in the 21st century,” says Ponni.
Their firm relies heavily on research to deliver the results it does. For practicing architects, research can be a difficult concept to pin down and define, as it can mean different things to different people, but what is clear is that research can be the intellectual fuel for the engine of innovation and growth for businesses, according to Oscar.
Looking to the future, Ponni suggests that invention is key. “We have to make buildings that do more, using less and we too can create cleverly designed, ventilated buildings that use minimal energy. Nature is always fighting to use limited resources most effectively, and we are entering that era ourselves,” she cautions.
Above all else, Oscar and Ponni wish to be remembered as truly great architects, who produced remarkable and innovative works. Given their holistic approach to design, coupled with a passion for innovation and a limitless imagination that works towards making the world a better place to live, this wish is sure to become a reality.