Omar Gandhi finds inspiration in context. In particular, he’s drawn to the landscape and the rural vernacular architecture of Canada’s Atlantic coast, where he lives and works. “I keep coming back to the word ‘adaptation,’ ” the 36-year-old architect says, noting that he and his five-person practice in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “try to examine regional forms as well as the client’s needs and their specific landscapes.”
But while Gandhi’s approach is meticulous, the buildings he shapes are far from timid. Focused on rural and suburban houses, he and his studio deliver clear forms with both spatial and narrative force, and the work has garnered Gandhi a string of accolades: the 2014 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture from the Canada Council for the Arts, a nomination for the 2016 Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize (MCHAP), and a selection by the Architectural League of New York as one of its 2016 Emerging Voices.
Gandhi, who grew up in a Toronto suburb, earned his M.Arch. at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, where he now teaches, and launched his office in 2010 after stints in two established practices, first at KPMB Architects in Toronto and then at MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple (MLS) in Halifax. His work echoes KPMB’s quiet massing and rigorous detailing and MLS’s engagement with local craft and building tradition.
Float, which received the MCHAP nomination, is a case in point. Located outside the city of Halifax, the house responds to a tough site up against a boulder in a glacial valley with a jagged, fragmented form of four sheds with roofs that slope in alternating directions. Those masses, clad in gray wood, look like what Gandhi calls “a continuation of the bedrock, as if it had fallen off and sheared the landscape.” Inside, rooms are staggered in plan and connected by canted corridors, “so there is still a sense that you are moving through a field of rocks,” he says.
Moore Studio, a home and studio Gandhi designed for a retired couple of visual artists, has the 45-degree gabled roof and long volume typical of barns in Nova Scotia. “It is the most archetypal of forms,” he says. He specified vertical white cedar siding and a standing-seam metal roof to create a modernist character, and then pushed that shape halfway into a hillside berm, opening much of the interior into a double-height space, illuminated with a clerestory. The complexity of the section belies the modesty of the materials—the interior is largely clad with birch plywood—and of its budget.
Another project, the Rabbit Snare Gorge Cabin on the Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton, goes for a similar fusion of vernacular ease and formal innovation. Designed in collaboration with New York’s Design Base 8, the two-and-a-half-story tower has a gabled roof and syncopated windows. Its most dramatic feature, however, is its “entry hoop,” a 22-foot-tall rectangular protrusion of Cor-Ten steel that weighs 2 tons. Though the hoop may look invented, it is, in fact, borrowed from self-built dwellings in the region that have such appendages, made of plywood, to help keep strong sea winds from slamming doors.
Having already embraced the vernacular of Nova Scotia, Gandhi is now broadening his focus: He’s opening a second office in Toronto and preparing for a round of larger residential, office, and commercial interior projects in that city and beyond.
“The challenge now is to see how I translate my way of working into an urban context,” he says. “That’s going to force me into taking on some big questions,” such as “what are the critical elements that tell stories about places?”
For answers, Gandhi will seek projects that engage creatively with heritage buildings and that use his eye for narrative and context to “find deeper layers of meaning in form and material.”