The architect who shattered the glass ceiling in India

Architect Ponni Mukundan Concessao

When she was 16, Ponni Mukundan Concessao, M.S. ’89 walked into one of India’s premier technical colleges and demanded a seat in the undergraduate architecture program. The Principal said they didn’t accept girls, citing security concerns. She quoted the Indian Constitution, which guarantees gender equality and went on to pursue legal action. “For me, it was that or an arranged marriage,” she recalled.

She became the first woman undergraduate at the National Institute of Technology’s Tiruchirappalli campus, the only girl amid thousands of boys. “It was a tough experience,” she said. “The college establishment and faculty was hostile, but as the days went by and I began to win awards, the college warmed up to me.”

She has been breaking barriers ever since. In April 2023, she became the first Asian woman architect to have designed a State Capital Building. Along with her husband, Oscar Concessao, she has designed hundreds of other buildings across India and abroad, from Malaysia to Qatar.

Ponni’s work has earned more than 181 national and international awards — including a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014 from the alma mater that had hesitated to admit her, which honored the top 20 graduates in the last half-century “As usual, I was the only girl,” she said.

She also received the Women Icons Asia Award in 2019 from the Berg Business Excellence and Research Group and the Best Asian Architect of the Year for Sustainable Architecture in Dubai 2023 from the Asian Leadership Awards.

Ponni was inspired to become an architect after witnessing her father, a civil engineer, build railway bridges and tunnels. “I wanted to be remembered for my designs,” she said. “The beauty of architecture is that you can die, but your buildings will live through you.”

Her father was supportive of her career, but other family members disapproved. “In my generation, women were supposed to be homemakers,” she said. 

Ponni said studying at Cornell Human Ecology, where she earned a master’s degree in design in 1989, taught her to find her voice. “I was a timid student from a conservative family, and you are taught as a woman to be submissive, not aggressive,” she said. “At Cornell, all these fears associated with my social conditioning evaporated.”

She said that meeting supportive faculty and peers from around the world encouraged her to become an innovator back home. “Cornell taught me to be a dynamic trailblazer,” she said. “I remember telling myself that I’m going to be an exceptional nation builder.”

After completing the Advanced Professional Studies program at Harvard and several years working for New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, Ponni moved back to her hometown of Chennai in 1995. Along with Oscar, who she’d married the year after earning her graduate degree, she founded Oscar &PonniArchitects, an architecture and interior design practice.

Since then, the firm has designed more than 500 projects, including government buildings, educational institutions, museums, hospitals, and luxury residences and resorts. Their son, Rahul, joined the firm in 2019.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, the chief minister of Telangana, Chandrasekhar Rao, invited the Concessao to take part in a national competition to design its state secretariat building. When they flew up from Chennai after being shortlisted, they were the only passengers on the plane. The chief minister eventually chose their design, which blended elements from Hindu temples, Indo-Sarcenic and European architecture.

Completed in just over two years, the 1 million-square-foot edifice is the first secretariat complex in the country to receive a gold rating from the Indian Green Building Council. It features 34 domes, a 2.5 acre central courtyard, a helipad and — as a sign of the chief minister’s goals for gender equality — an equal number of restrooms for men and women and a childcare center for working mothers.

“Cornell taught me to conquer big volumes of space, to have the audacity to dream big and be a proud nation builder,” Ponni said. Now, she is designing a space center for the Indian Space Research Organization and the nation’s tallest government hospital.

Despite her successes, Ponni still faces pushback as a female architect in India. Labourers and contractors sometimes salute her son rather than her, and some government officials have reservations to work with her because of her gender. “Sometimes you feel totally helpless, but these are things you have to not get too hassled about,” she said. “You have to work around them.”

Ponni hopes to open doors for the next generation by working with non profit organizations that promote girls’ education and women’s empowerment. She also gives back to society by building affordable housing for the prime minister's Awas Yojana project, supporting a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, and supporting an NGO for leprosy eradication. She is also an artist and has held painting exhibitions to raise funds for the NGO.

She has advice for other alumni, especially women, fighting against the odds: “Never fear to break down barriers,” she said. “Just keep pushing and the world will listen, acknowledge and reward you.”