Telegraph Journal (Salon Focus) – John Leroux: Form and Function Seen Through Fresh New Eyes
“Witnessing the first stages of a meaningful artist’s career is a rare event. All too often we chase the coattails of longstanding renown to help us define the cultural barometer of our time, when in fact it is frequently the raw talent of the young who blaze a path to the future; accomplishing the transcendent with an equal mix of enthusiasm, energy and insight.
There is little doubt that a wave of young Maritime architects who have just started their careers are putting bold marks on the Canadian architecture map, and one of them, 32-year-old Omar Gandhi, is creating delicate magic in a cluster of small communities along the shores of Nova Scotia.
Sheathed in fresh New Brunswick cedar and designed with a reverence for minimalism and clarity, three of Gandhi’s houses completed within the last year-and-a-half would be the pride of most architects’ careers who work in our region, yet they mark only the beginning of Gandhi’s professional output.
“Shantih” in Hunts Point, the Moore Studio in Hubbards, and Liverpool’s “Cedar in Three Textures” are exceptional works of contemporary architecture. They proudly employ elements of our traditional regional aesthetic, while reworking them to something altogether unprecedented for their rural or small-town setting. Tied to the very essence of our region’s typical financial means, as Gandhi justly claims “they do a lot for a little”. Using traditional carpentry, simple craftsmanship and local materials, they are far from ostentatious; embracing simple vernacular forms but with a 21st century appreciation for shared open spaces, large glazed walls, angled planes and flashes of excitement.
The Ontario born and raised architect is a graduate of the Dalhousie School of Architecture, having moved to Halifax after a stint at the University of Toronto. A first-generation Canadian, Gandhi thrived once moving east to Dalhousie’s experiential approach, asserting that “[at Dal] you learn how to draw with a pencil and model with care. You learn how to build things with a hammer, nail and lumber. It’s old school and we all knew it was of a dying breed and felt lucky to be there. The school also offered a co-op program where students gained practical experience in the field. I was fortunate enough to have worked for some of the largest and most recognized firms in the country.”
After having worked for some of the nation’s most respected architectural firms, including Toronto’s KPMB Architects, and Nova Scotia’s MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, he set out on his own in 2010, establishing the firm Omar Gandhi Architect in Halifax.
His architectural rigour is well grounded in both the modernist dictum of “form follows function” and an approach known as Critical Regionalism, a strategy that strives to counter placelessness and lack of identity in contemporary architecture by using the building’s geographical context and the tactile qualities of local materials. Through careful attention to his client’s needs, budgets and his own creativity, Gandhi aims to overcome the banal and make something special.
Focusing on the distinct area of Nova Scotia, Gandhi’s work embodies a cursory paradox of being both completely of its place, yet not constrained by it. This is akin to the assessment of painter Alex Colville who, settling in Sackville after World War II, deemed that “universality comes from the particular… and by immersing oneself in the particular, it is possible to be universal.”
Gandhi’s most recently completed project, called “Shantih”, is a small beach cottage for a Halifax-based couple and their extended family. In Shantih’s case, it was blessed with a gorgeous landscape of curved beachfront and a natural grassy bowl of a yard. The building’s plan is based on a spreading of wings that conform to both land features, nestling comfortably into a sheltered, private area that has great meaning for the owners.
Its street-facing façade is long and low, tied by a long strip window, while the ocean-facing façade is tall and open to western daylight and a majestic seaside view. As Gandhi himself poetically affirms: “Shantih is a refuge. She is composed of multiple contrasting and duelling identities. She is modest and elaborate, finely crafted and at times repetitive. She is big, loud and bright while also somber, eerily mysterious and pensive. Her two arms wrap around and hold onto the land sloping away from her towards the infinite sea.”
The economical treatment of the exterior includes a shed roof inspired by the form of local fishing sheds and shanties spread along the rugged Nova Scotia coastline. The buildings’ cladding uses the aforementioned New Brunswick Eastern White Cedar, in the form of both shingles and horizontal slats. A time-honoured material, it was chosen for its aesthetic beauty, local suitability, and low maintenance.
Shantih’s angled corridors guide the user through what Gandhi calls a processional narrative: “With long dark corridors, compressed spaces and acoustic variation, Shantih is composed of purposeful contrasts in an attempt to build crescendos in the main living spaces. It provides an intended drama – the joy of seeing the unfathomable view again for the first time repeatedly. The houses varying contrasts of light, space and sound with darkness, confinement and solitude builds that narrative.”
The interior is composed of north and south sleeping wings flanking a central great room – a heroic space supported by deep wood beams that shelter a kitchen, dining room, living room and a long gas fireplace. Next to the great room lies a stunning screened porch that opens to the western beach panorama through a fully collapsible glazing wall and a floating steel fireplace that wouldn’t be out of place in the set of Goldfinger.
Infrastructure-wise, Shantih uses an innovative Fredericton-made product called SmartRooms Earth Thermal Storage System by Thermaray. Called “one of the most comfortable and economical heating systems available”, it efficiently harnesses the earth’s thermal energy from under the concrete slab foundation.
The Moore Studio was completed this year for Peg and Garth Moore, recent empty-nesters who were full-time artists before raising a family. The new 1500 square foot house and studio has given them a designated space to pursue their youthful artistic ambitions once again through open spaces, natural daylight and raw plywood finishes.
As Gandhi recalls, “The project relies heavily on idea of metamorphosis. The point of departure for the form began as a simple and elegant gable with a 12:12 roof pitch, a vernacular form commonly found in Nova Scotia. As the design process began, the undemanding form began to shift and change to allow for the space and natural lighting requirements of the clients, while still relying heavily on the simplicity of the original gable.”
The ground floor includes a double height kitchen and dining space, living room, two bedrooms and bathrooms. The upper floor houses individual studios for Peg and Garth, each looking down upon the kitchen from above.
The most engaging aspect of the Moore Studio is the standing seam metal roof – its regularity punctured by ribbons of strip windows at the peak and a jagged gable that breaks the roof volume into perfectly proportioned sections. This gesture is also reflected in the clever, yet subtle, change of cedar siding widths below the junction line of these roofs.
The third house, Gandhi calls Cedar in Three Textures “a story in part about a young couple and their commitment to a small town. The architectural project is intrinsically connected to the people who inhabit it and the context in which it is tied to.”
The owners are physicians who met in Halifax, got married, went to Ontario seeking opportunity, but who always wished to return home to their roots to raise a family together. When the opportunity came to relocate to Liverpool on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, they did so enthusiastically, buying a century-old foursquare house that eventually needed renovation and expansion. Luckily, they found the right architect.
Completed in 2011, Cedar in Three Textures carefully preserved the character and volume of the original hip-roofed house, concentrating the new 1000-square-foot cubic architectural intervention at the rear end facing the Mersey River. Again using local materials and traditional building technologies, the existing house was re-clad in NB Eastern White cedar shingles with the new addition clad in two widths of Eastern White cedar boards.
Although much of the original layout of the original house remained as is, a new larger kitchen and central social space on the main floor completely renewed the workings of the interior. These rooms, along with the new master bedroom and adjacent bedroom were designed with sizeable and deeply-recessed windows to take advantage of the sun and improved view.
Gandhi’s work stems from the belief that great work need not be expensive – and that everyone deserves to live in a place which is thoughtful. Belying the image of the architect as the central creative pillar on a construction project, Gandhi gives full credit and acclaim to his trusted contractors, who he returns to loyally on all his projects. Genuinely calling them family, his relationship with Mike Burns of MRB Contracting and Deborah Herman-Spartinelli of Trunnells and Tenons Construction Ltd. Is a remarkable relationship of trust and mutual admiration towards dedication, craftsmanship and care of a job well done.
Based on the success of these, it’s no surprise that Gandhi has a number of projects on the boards right now, including a forest retreat project for British clients on the south shore of Nova Scotia, a cottage compound for Swiss clients near Yarmouth, a house in Montreal, and a joint project with architect Kevin Reid entailing a cottage on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia as well as two small summer homes in Gros Morne, Newfoundland.
After 2 ½ years in his own practice (a very short time for many firms), he suspects he can now step back and take a sincere measure of what he has built, and where he is headed. He genuinely feels that he’s “living his wildest dream” and he hopes that this will all grow organically like his projects. So do we Omar, so do we.” – John Leroux
Design Bureau – Nalina Moses: Doing it by Hand
Canadian Architect Magazine: Halifax: Downtown Development
Canadian Architect Magazine: Perchance to Dream – Jeff Skinner et. Al
Lieutenant Governor/House of Assembly Resolution no.1751
Globe and Mail – Lisa Rochon: In Nova Scotia a Man and a Woman Walk into a House…
The Coast: Ask an Expert: Omar Gandhi
Canadian House and Home Magazine: Kitchens and Baths Issue 2011; Contemporary Kitchen Makeover