Form and Function: Jagnus Design Studio on Decoding the Nuances of Modern Architecture

November 15, 2023



Jar Concengco

Humans function properly using both sides of the brain. While the left half of your brain is attributed to processing speech, the right half is busy processing context and tone. The two sides complement each other. In the world of architecture, there’s always a constant tug of war between form and function – left and right side of the brain. Design duo Sonny Sunga and Arnold Austria, founders of Jagnus Design Studio, exercise this tension to produce well-vetted structures that exhibit a signature form.

BluPrint Perspective November Cover with Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga

“We have our own likes and dislikes but 99% of the time we’re still agreeable. We’re still different in a way – we’re individuals,” says Sunga. “The productive tension is important. That helps the project. We debate here in the office so when we present it to the client, it’s already processed.” The adage “two heads are better than one” applies here as the two architects spar with ideas and challenge each other to propose the better solution for a project. Their similarities create the chemistry to work smoothly together, but it’s in their differences that really test and forge ideas.

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio

“Arnold is an avid collector while I’m a de-clutterer. Arnold is very extroverted while I’m not. I’m focused on the big picture, while he’s detail oriented. These differences of personality are integrated in how we run the office and materializes in our body of work,” shares Sunga.

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio
Sonny Sunga and Arnold Austria used to compete against each other early in college but then started joining competitions together until they started their own firm.

The two have worked together for 29 years now since college (both are proud graduates of University of Santo Tomas and fondly reminisce days with professor and architect Manuel Noche) and have since designed some of the most progressive buildings in the metro. The J.VAZ.CO. HQ along EDSA is composed of stacked container vans clad in ribbed or polished concrete is a striking example of their rebellion to the norm. No other structure along the almost 29 kilometer stretch of EDSA can compare to the curiosity it sparks in passersby. 

J.Vaz.Co HQ facade
J.Vaz.Co HQ facade
J.Vaz.Co HQ courtyard
J.Vaz.Co HQ
J.VAZ.CO HQ designed by Jagnus Design Studio stands out among the building along the EDSA.

“Since college we’ve been into the early modernist period of architecture,” Austria says.

“But because we’re interested and curious about a lot of things, our style branches out,” Sunga adds. “Our different interests merge and create something new. We also have to be conscious of the zeitgeist. We keep in touch with the trends and avoid it 100%. It’s good to know – at least you know what not to do. If we’re becoming trendy, we shift.”

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga at J.Vaz.Co HQ

A look around the Jagnus Design Studio located in the basement level of their very first project – the Ronac Art Center in San Juan – reveals an amalgamation of their personalities. The office is filled with designer furniture, objets d’art, toys, plants and books. “We draw inspiration from different things. I’m a collector and the staff appreciate my collection,” says Austria.

Jagnus Design Studio office
Jagnus Design Studio office
Jagnus Design Studio’s headquarters in Ronac Art Center is a sanctuary for creatives like Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga together with their relatively young team.

“A spark can be from anywhere,” continues Sunga. “Lately it’s from futurism, sci fi movies like Gattaca, Her, Ex Machina, and Homo Deus. Also autobiographies of fascinating people like Jobs.”

This sheds some light on why their office has a laid back feel – no real enclosures you find in a traditional office but instead something that resembles a home. A kitchen is found in the center (Arnold cooks for the staff at times when they stay in the office after hours) with a long stainless steel table with wooden legs that staff can lay out prints on and get to work. There’s a space that feels like a living room with a set of sofas and plants where staff can converse about current events. Music plays in the background and Austria believes these are all essential. “Creativity breeds creativity,” he quips. The world of architecture is made even bigger with the introduction of other worlds such as fashion (the structured denim wear they sport is by local designer brand Viktor). They even design furniture such as the Langgam chair – a minimalist chair made of bent steel.

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio

Sunga believes the architecture of the office plays an integral role in how the team works. “Our office is open and non-traditional which encourages cross pollination of ideas.”

When meeting clients, their design process is very much like how the left and right brain function. “The design process begins with a meeting with the client. We try to get to know them and their needs,” Austria says logically.

“We even process their mannerisms. Those are all important,” Sunga adds. “Hearing their thoughts and needs and then visiting the site for the first time informs our lines and our way of approaching a problem. We are collaborative and not just between the two of us but also with our team.”

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio
Jagnus Design Studio team
As the leaders of Jagnus Design Studio, Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga aim to create a relaxed and fun work environment that some may see as unorthodox.

Once they gather all the information they need, they allow this to steep. “After absorbing all of the data and visiting the site there’s this quiet moment that some might call procrastination. But it’s actually us processing the problems and contemplating on the solutions,” Sunga explains.

A close look at Jagnus’ portfolio shows a gravitation towards geometry and the use of concrete. “Concrete is versatile with stone and glass and can be balanced by wood. Materials have the ability to situate and contextualize a building. It’s like the fabric of our clothes. You don’t wear fur in the tropics,” says Sunga. 

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio
Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio

With Sunga and Austria helming Jagnus Design Studio, they are not only able to complement one another, but they also are able to use their differences as an advantage. They can question and consult each other over a project’s challenges until they find the strongest solution.

Jagnus strongly believes architecture is essential in problem solving (their office is a good model of how architecture can change one’s way of thinking). “One of the common challenges we face is that most people in a position to affect change still see architecture as something frivolous,” Sunga discloses.

Arnold Austria and Sonny Sunga of Jagnus Design Studio

The solution to many of our society’s problems may not lie solely on architecture, but it definitely has a big part. “Everything affects us whether we believe it or not: the food we ingest, the clothing we wear, the people we surround ourselves with and most specially the spaces we inhabit, our homes and our cities,” Sunga explains. “We are surrounded by the built environment. So naturally, if these are well-planned, beautiful and efficient we will have better lives.”

RELATED READ: Reinterpreting Philippine Architecture: Manny Miñana on Abstracting Filipino Design in Contemporary Setting

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