An exclusive interview with renowned architect Omar Gandhi
by James Mullinger
Brampton-born, Halifax-based architect Omar Gandhi was described as “Canada’s next top architect” by The Globe and Mail in 2016. Not two years later it’s time to drop the “next.” His unique vision and far-reaching insight and creativity have led to some of the most blisteringly stunning developments in North America, both commercial and private.
Gandhi, the recipient of the 2014 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome, was one of Wallpaper* magazine’s 2014 top 20 young architects in the world. He was also named as one of the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices of 2016 and one of Monocle magazine’s 20 most influential Canadians. He met with The Maritime Edit’s Editor-in-Chief James Mullinger to talk about his life and work.
FLOAT, Purcells Cove Backlands, NS
The Maritime Edit: What brought you to the East Coast and how did you make the decision to launch your business in Halifax?
Omar Gandhi: I studied at Dalhousie because its Faculty of Architecture and Planning has a great reputation. I didn’t know much about Halifax or about that part of Canada. I was in the middle of an arts degree at the University of Toronto, and when I decided to go to Dal I literally felt as if I was running away from Toronto. There was a wonderful opportunity for me to go to a school that had an amazing program so the decision was pretty easy for me. I was in Halifax for three and a half years, and after I graduated my then-partner and I moved back to Toronto for more training. I returned to Halifax in 2008 because she was offered a position at the children’s hospital. It was a family decision to move back to Atlantic Canada. We moved with the intention that I would work with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Halifax and I worked there for about a year and a half. Unfortunately, my contract ran short and I found myself in a position in which I needed to find new work. I completed a small project — Cedar in Three Textures in Liverpool, Nova Scotia — which was an addition to the back of a home. I really focused on turning the space into something special — or I willed it into being something special. It was a success and it led to the launch of my studio. I worked out of my home for a short time and then I moved closer to Pier 21 in Halifax. I now split my time between our Halifax and Toronto offices.
FYREN, Purcells Cove, NS
The Maritime Edit: It’s clear that your success is due to your production of world-class work. Sometimes there is the potential in smaller cities to produce what is “good enough.” In the early stages of your career, were people telling you that your work wouldn’t fit in here and that you needed to be in a larger city like Toronto, Vancouver or New York?
Omar Gandhi: Being from Ontario, I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. In the early stages I sort of kept to myself and so the only people I tended to interact with were people I was doing these smaller projects for. There was never a time when I was actively looking for work. A lot of jobs were the result of previous work and the relationships that I built along the way. I was quick to be accepted, probably because my work was featured in the national press soon after each project was completed.
The Maritime Edit: So essentially you were working with other visionaries from the start. You didn’t have to justify yourself. You were just busy creating and doing what you do.
Omar Gandhi: Exactly. It was the only way that I really knew how to work. At the beginning of my career as an architect I always made it my intention to work for the best people in the industry. I always tell people — when they are leaving school and looking for their first job — that it can be really hard to develop the work ethic and the rigour on your own. By working with critically renowned firms like KPMB Architects in Toronto and MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Halifax, I was able to take on the traits reflected in their work culture. And these traits have helped me succeed.
The Maritime Edit: Do you see a benefit to being great at your work while being based in Atlantic Canada, in that positive word of mouth goes a long way here?
Omar Gandhi: Only a handful of people are really interested in the aesthetic and the design ideas that we provide and these people tend to find you. But a lot of time is spent building relationships with people — for example, on the craft side or with contractors, subconsultants and so on. These relationships are so fundamental in a small town. At the same time I think that in a smaller city like Halifax, people in my industry don’t really appreciate climbers and I am cognizant of that. In the end I just enjoy being with my little team in my studio, where we are really excited about the projects that we work on.
CABOT LINKS VILLAS, Inverness, NS
The Maritime Edit: Obviously the East Coast trait of modesty is a wonderful thing. But sometimes people can be too modest, in that they are almost afraid of being good at what they do or of wanting to do better things. As you say, the best solution to that is “head down, do the work and the right people will love it and admire it.”
Omar Gandhi: That’s right. I don’t think we rely on that kind of positive reinforcement all the time though. We have a set system of working and a process, and more than anything we have a lot of trust in our own ideas. I am a big believer in the notion that it’s sometimes the positive feedback that can hold us back. At times the worst thing we can do is listen to people who constantly say, “You’re awesome!” We take all our accolades with a grain of salt. In part I think it’s because we are just focused on the work. The Maritime Edit: Where do you travel to find inspiration? Omar Gandhi: We actually get a lot of our inspiration on-site. We try to draw our ideas from the information given to us, whether it’s about the people or the particular qualities of the landscape. A big part of our process is allowing the information on the table to dictate our moves. It’s never meant to be a stylistic process but a malleable one that stems from information we gather. That is probably why none of our work looks that similar. It is constantly changing shape and there is something powerful about that. It is very rewarding to be achieving what we want, which is to be constantly evolving.
The Maritime Edit: How has the industry changed in the last five years?
Omar Gandhi: There are certainly a lot more practices opening up — firms like Acre Architects in Saint John, New Brunswick, for example — and they are producing really incredible work. These smaller firms create healthy competition and camaraderie which raises the bar for industry professionals. In terms of our clientele, a huge percentage isn’t from Nova Scotia. Or they are Nova Scotians who vacation here from elsewhere. We have a Swiss client. We have American clients and clients from Toronto. Atlantic Canada offers them the most beautiful landscapes that they are willing to travel to.
RABBIT SNARE GORGE, Inverness, NS
The Maritime Edit: You are bringing international clients and exceptional talent to Nova Scotia. What qualities do you look for when you are looking for architects?
Omar Gandhi: Honestly, a lot of what we look for in new talent is based on personality and the ability to fit into our culture while embodying our work ethic. It’s important to be able to draw, for sure, but it is also crucial to be able to think and to speak up and voice opinions. We really try to design everything together. Our process is always open to debate, different ideas and critical thinkers.
Architectural model for Float
The Maritime Edit: What prompted your decision to open an additional office in Toronto? How is your work different there?
Omar Gandhi: There were a few reasons. First, I was getting a lot of great attention in the form of press and awards, so I thought if I was going to open an additional office I had better get to it before the fire burned out! Also, my family lives in Toronto so it was always a longer-term idea to have a firm there. I am separated from my wife. We have a five-year-old son and I am with him half of the time. When I have him I am in Halifax, and when he is with his mom I am in Toronto. So due to life circumstances and my career, I guess you could say that I am having my cake and trying to eat it too. From day one in 2010, when I started out on my own, I put myself out there and set my fees to market to a clientele that invests in design. My market in Nova Scotia tends to be single-family homes, while in Toronto my clients are more diverse.
The Maritime Edit: What magazines do you like to read?
Omar Gandhi: I enjoy Monocle and its writing. It’s not just about glossy images and products. There is a more academic side to it. I am interested in art and fashion so I tend to pick up those types of magazines to unwind.
RABBIT SNARE GORGE, Inverness, NS
The Maritime Edit: Can you tell us about your Rabbit Snare Gorge project and how you came up with its unique design?
Omar Gandhi: I received a phone call one day from three young guys who had just graduated from architecture school in New York. They called themselves Design Base 8. They had just created a small studio and they had big dreams. They ended up getting a project rather quickly through a family friend of theirs who wanted to build a cabin on a property in Cape Breton. The problem was that they didn’t have a lot of experience out of the gate, and the client needed some assurance that it wasn’t going to be an experiment for them or a trial-and-error-type project! These guys flipped through a list of architects and came up with our name. Luckily, the client was a fan of our work so we started a design process with the firm that lasted several months. The home was put on a hillside, near a gorge that led to a really steep cliff on the Atlantic Ocean just outside of Inverness. The property was originally used for hunting and washing laundry and it wasn’t useful for anything more than that. The family of the realtor who sold the land to the client had been there for hundreds of years and he had a ton of stories about chasing and learning how to snare rabbits — hence the name Rabbit Snare Gorge.
RCHMND, Halifax, NS
The Maritime Edit: We love the RCHMND store in Halifax that you designed. Can you tell us about it?
Omar Gandhi: It was founded by Peter MacDonald, Kristi Smith and Craig Morris. Kristi is also Director of Business Development in my studio and has become my right-hand person. She’s amazing. She and her fiancé are very well-travelled, worldly people and they came to the project with a lot of their own ideas. The unit they have is really incredible. It’s a historic property and there was something very elegant in the light quality and the ceiling height. We realized very quickly that it was important for us to do as little as possible to let these features speak for themselves. Another aspect is that the clothing they sell is a work of art in its minimalism. It felt as though the display of the clothing was meant to be part of the architecture. It was an exercise of playing with natural and artificial light and inserting objects that felt soft and gentle into an already beautiful space with articles of clothing popping out. We are incredibly happy with how it turned out.