James Mullinger interviews Ontario-born, Quebec-trained and New York-career architect Sanaz Shirshekar on moving to New Brunswick and doing her most personal work to date.
Photographs by Denis Duquette
The Petitcodiac Baptist congregation has been a vital and vibrant part of this southern New Brunswick, Westmorland County community for 182 years. Built in 1879, its church building was a majestic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Originally built on Renfrew Street, it was relocated to the corner of Old Post Road and Renfrew Street in 1910, where it served as the very heart of congregational life for the people of this tight-knit community. Pastor David Woodworth, at the helm since July 2011, welcomed over 200 people to the Sunday-morning worship services. Even more people used the space for workshops, family gatherings, parties, classes and other vital activities.
Three years ago, disaster struck. “In the summer of 2016, the church suffered a major oil spill that forced us to demolish a significant portion of our facility,” Woodworth tells [EDIT]. “The situation was dire: we had reduced space in which to carry out our ministries, and we were staring at a large debt to cover the cost of remediation. Thankfully, God provided for us by laying it on the heart of Mrs. Jean Irving to help financially with both the remediation expense and the rebuild. It was through our relationship with Mrs. Irving that we were connected to award-winning architect Sanaz Shirshekar. She took the ministry ideas that we wanted to see in the new facility and brought them to life with far more beauty than any of us could have hoped for."
Shirshekar was born in Ontario in 1983 to Canadian-Iranian parents. She studied in Montreal before working in Toronto and New York. She moved to New Brunswick in 2018 and launched her own firm, Studio Shirshekar. Based in Rothesay, the firm uses an integrated approach to interior and exterior spaces to focus on functionality, programming and refined materiality. Design combined with passion and perseverance is their solution to optimal living, working and community, and it is this three-pronged approach that made the young firm the primary choice for the Petitcodiac Baptist Church, this community-led project that meant so much to so many.
“From the outset we held the position that the Gothic Revival architecture that was there before was so beautiful and a landmark and focal point for the community that we wanted to remember it but not replicate it,” says Shirshekar. “We have a responsibility as architects not to take away from the historical integrity of buildings. It is really important to look at what’s there, understand it and try to build something that is a building of its time but still remember what was there. For instance, a lot of the design for the fellowship hall — in terms of its geometry — is based on the proportions of the former church. As well, the number of windows, the height of the steeple, the connection to the river, which is symbolically really important because it is the site where they used to perform baptisms, were important in shaping the space. I wanted to recall and respect all of that.”
Having worked on high-level projects such as the Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto, Shirshekar understands space. As a newcomer to New Brunswick, she also embraces the way in which community is everything in Atlantic Canada. “The first thing I did was walk around and try to understand the village and the context,” she states. “In villages like Petitcodiac, churches are important places for the community. Every building we work on is contextually sensitive. We are not trying to force an architectural language that doesn’t belong. We are trying to understand the other buildings in the neighbourhood, the materials, the heights, the proportions. How do we create a landmark building that is of its time? This was an addition to an existing building so we had to deal with what was there before and merge the old and new. The steeple was a great opportunity to do this, so we reinterpreted what the traditional function of the steeple is. Normally the steeple will hold the bell, so we refurbished the original bell to bring it back. We took the cross, which is the most important symbolical piece, and mounted it really high so it could be seen throughout the village. The shape and the geometry of the steeple allows the cross to really stand out, and at night it is illuminated so you can see it throughout the village. As for the memorial hall, we wanted everyone, including the younger generations, to have access to what was there before so we took stained-glass windows that were on the existing building, refurbished them and hung them in here. When people enter the church, they can recall the past. Tying in to that as you enter are photos of ministers of the church from the past 100 years because they too are all vital parts of the fabric of this church and what it means to people.”
The project has come together relatively quickly, and lovers of architecture are travelling from across the region to marvel at it. The design phase for the new extension and renovation was completed in November 2017, and construction began in May of 2018. Renowned philanthropist Jean Irving brought Shirshekar to the project. “Mrs. Irving was a member of this church when she was growing up, and her grandfather was also a pastor here,” says Shirshekar. “She’s from here, her house where she grew up is just down the street, and she’s always had a really strong connection with the church. She made a major donation for this project in memory of her late grandfather, and of course there were other donors and supporters. I donated my time to make sure that her vision was carried out and to ensure that the church community was getting what it deserved, which was a new facility tasked with the challenge of replacing something that was so elegant. I was very fortunate to work on a project of this calibre that means so much to so many.”
Shirshekar was the design architect on the project, and Miramichi firm Des-Tek Inc. was the architect of record. Hatch Ltd. in Halifax and Saint John were consultants, andRiceContracting was the contractor. After working at big firms in Toronto and New York, Shirshekar is embracing the joys of being able to thrive creatively and professionally in a smaller place. “What I love is having such a close relationship with the client and the end-user. When you work for a bigger firm you are part of a bigger team, so you don’t always get that one-on-one relationship with a client that you do when it’s your own firm and a smaller project like this.”
Watching Shirshekar engage with those in the village is joyous to see. They love her, and she clearly loves them too. It is the type of connection you could not imagine happening in a big city. “It really hit me at our groundbreaking, when so many people from the community turned up so they could express their excitement about getting this space back that they had lost. There was a real sense of loss when it went so it was so nice to hear everyone’s individual experience and history with the building. It was very rewarding and very emotional.”
After growing up in Toronto, Shirshekar earned her undergrad and master’s degrees at McGill University in Montreal. “I was really drawn to McGill because it’s an excellent program, and it’s one of the older architecture schools in Canada,” she says. “But it was also about being able to live in Montreal. As an architect I find it is really important to have experiences elsewhere. I felt like I already knew Toronto. I was born and raised there so I wanted to live somewhere else and learn about another culture. It was such an excellent experience. Quebec is a totally different culture. That is reflective in the school and McGill tends to attract lots of international students: we had people in our class from Peru, Egypt and Lebanon. My thesis advisor was Robert Claiborne, who had worked with Daniel Libeskind for about 10 years. He had worked on the Jewish Museum in Berlin. When I graduated after six years, I received two research scholarships, which allowed me to go to Iran and China. My advisor and my research shaped me a lot in my process as an architect. I always try to incorporate travel.”
Shirshekar also studied in Italy. “I did a semester abroad at the Università Iuav di Venezia, an old institute for the study of architecture. It was an incredible experience to live in Venice for six months and study there. There is so much history and so much beautiful architecture. I travelled throughout Italy, and I set my final design thesis in Venice at the Punta della Dogana. The building has since been transformed from a former customs warehouse into a modern museum that is really beautiful.”
Shirshekar’s photographs of her time in Iran became part of a critically acclaimed photography exhibition at the Queen Gallery in Toronto. They clearly illustrate her love of people and places and getting to the inner core of spaces and what they stand for. “Initially, I wanted to pursue an art-history or fine-arts path, but my parents, being Iranian and being traditional, wanted me to pursue a profession, so architecture felt like a nice balance between them. It’s a profession that allows you to be artistic and creative. You are constantly thinking of ideas and design and concepts. My parents left Iran after the revolution and moved to Toronto, and I had never been back. It was really special to go there because in a way I felt robbed that I hadn’t been able to go sooner. It made me realize what a culturally friendly place and environment it is. As you know, there are a lot of European tourists there. The history is so dynamic from ancient to Islamic to present-day.”
In 2010, she returned to Toronto to work with world-renowned KPMB Architects. “I worked on a lot of cultural projects, including the Fort York Library, which is a beautiful 16,000-square-foot stand-alone building. It’s another example of a great community building that fits in its landscape. An urban living room used and embraced by everyone in the condominiums around it. It’s really rewarding to work on a public building and see how it can impact the community. That’s the biggest reward of the work that I do. I also worked on the construction documents of an orchestra hall in Minneapolis and the UBC alumni centre.
Exterior and interior of the Fort York Library, Toronto, ON
“Right before I left, I was working on the new Globe and Mail office interiors and corporate event space. A team effort, with six or so people working on it. A lot obviously comes from the client — what kind of improvements they mandate and how we translate the way they work and operate as a business entity and accommodate that in the architecture. We put all the private offices and meeting rooms around the elevator core to maintain beautiful panoramic views of the city and used dark tinted glass partitions to express a sense of privacy. All the workstations were located in the open office space and received loads of natural daylight. I’m a big fan of The Globe and Mail newspaper so it was such a great opportunity to work with them.”
After seven years, Shirshekar left KPMB to work for international interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg in New York. “After working on the Globe and Mail Centre, which was an interior project, I wanted to enrich my interior-architecture experience. I’ve always admired YP so it was a great opportunity. During my time there, I focused mainly on high-end residential and hospitality projects. We had a private client in Beijing who had a residential tower — we did their rooftop amenity space. It was such an amazing experience to be able to go to Beijing, meet these clients, and better understand their culture. Different from the church in so many ways but so similar in terms of embracing the people and the culture and their needs.”
She moved to New Brunswick in 2018 to start her own firm and improve her quality of life and is loving every second. She sees the opportunity of being world-class in a smaller place. She is currently working on a waterfront art gallery with [EDIT] cover photographer Jennifer Irving in Saint John, New Brunswick, which will see a record number of cruise-ship passengers in the summer of 2019. “I am lucky to have clients who are open to suggestions and interested in design. I am always trying to be contextually sensitive to what I am proposing. Not anything radical, but something that is thoughtful and also original. We are not trying to replicate something. We want to fit in, but we want to fit in in an original way. I can’t think of any experiences here where there has been resistance.
“There has been no compromise in living here — quite the opposite. I have more time here, more creativity. And I just want to keep growing as a company. Keep busy. Do good work. Try to make an impact in the community in a positive way. Feel good about what we are putting out there. But most importantly, I am excited about what is to come.”
shirshekar.com | Instagram: @studio_shirshekar
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.