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Katrina Olson-Mottahed

CREATIVE HAVENS

A studio by the sea


Toronto-raised architect Omar Gandhi draws on the drama of the coastal landscape from his Halifax office

Creative Havens is a five-part series where Canadian leaders in design, architecture, film and fashion share what fuels their creative spirit and how they unwind and recharge.

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A self-described boy from the suburbs, Toronto-born, Halifax-based architect Omar Gandhi has ironically made his name with a series of striking rural residences that dot Nova Scotia’s coastal landscape.

Creative Havens is a five-part series where Canadian leaders in design, architecture, film and fashion share what fuels their creative spirit and how they unwind and recharge.

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These private homes – the most celebrated being the Rabbit Snare Gorge cabin on Cape Breton, which won him a 2018 Governor General’s Medal in Architecture – are distinguished by the way they both complement and comment on their rugged surroundings. Adopting Gandhi’s own description, a recent New York Times article likened them to the Wild Things in Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s picture book, Where the Wild Things Are.

But if their exteriors can look sleek and severe, the interiors often shine with an inviting inner warmth. The yellow gleam from their windows promises shelter from the storm.

Gandhi says his design is very much about that contrast. The hard shell is meant to be an extension of the land, appearing to be as time-weathered as the rocks and trees. Within its walls, however, there is “that warm glow as if from a fire, almost like a yoke inside the egg.”

A commissioned portrait of Olson-Mottahed by New York graffiti artist Soraya Marquez, a.k.a Indie 184.
Katrina Olson-Mottahed in winter

Rabbit Snare Gorge, a steel and timber cabin in Cape Breton. COURTESY OF OMAR GANDHI

Halifax and Nova Scotia are wonderful places to think and be creative. There’s a real darkness to it, which is beautiful.

OMAR GANDHI

Gandhi is speaking from his headquarters in Halifax, where Omar Gandhi Architect Inc. is about to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. In that decade, his small firm has expanded to a second office in Toronto and amassed an impressive portfolio of projects that have made the 40-year-old one of Canada’s most exciting architects.

These boots, which Olson-Mottahed bought on Bond St. in London, were her first pair of Chanels.

Apart from his signature private homes, which include the aerodynamic, ocean-facing Lookout at Broad Cove Marsh and the Acadian haystack-inspired Sluice Point, he’s also created a sinuous string of villas for Cape Breton’s famed Cabot Links golf course. Nor does he work exclusively in the countryside – or Nova Scotia. Current urban projects include designing the Pier 8 landmark community on Hamilton’s waterfront.

It’s rural landscapes that he’s most drawn to, however. He traces that love back to his teenage years in Brampton, Ont., when he found himself commuting to Mayfield Secondary School, an arts high school in the nearby town of Caledon. “I’d grown up in the ’burbs with its rubber-stamped houses,” he recalls, “but the school was in the middle of the country, a half-hour drive through farmland, and looking at Southern Ontario agrarian architecture was really a turning point for me.”

Olson-Mottahed's desk, including a Seletti monkey lamp

The Sluice Point House, near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. ANDREW ROWAT

After undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, he enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax to take his architectural degree. “I knew nothing about Halifax, Nova Scotia or the Maritimes at the time,” he says. Although he started his career back in Toronto with architects KPMB and Young + Wright, he soon returned to Halifax to join MacKay Lyons Sweetapple before branching out on his own. Now he’s a devoted Maritimer.

Also in this series How Toronto's rebel architect Alexander Josephson captures creative moments in overdrive

“This city and province are a wonderful place to think and be creative,” he says, pointing to the lack of urban clutter and proximity to nature. “It’s also a little bit dramatic, in the same way as the Scottish Highlands. There’s a real darkness to it, which is beautiful. And it’s almost the starting point of Canadian history.”

>A neon sign in Olson-Mottahed's home office is surrounded by a mood board of inspirational women in film, art and fashion.

We’re all over the place, working in fabulous off-the-charts landscapes.

OMAR GANDHI

Gandhi is reminded of that every day. His office and studio are in an industrial building on the waterfront that was originally an annex to Pier 21, the landing point for many immigrants to Canada. Perhaps emblematic of his passion for his work, the space is also his sanctuary. “There’s no place I love more,” he says, whether he’s alone in it on the weekend or with his seven-member team during workdays, laughing and bouncing ideas off one another. A big open space with lots of natural light, only 40 feet from the harbour, Gandhi describes it as “very raw. Our tables are made of plywood with sawhorses; there’s just a lot of stuff all over the place.”

Crystals in bathroom

His practice is expanding across Canada and into the U.S., with projects in B.C.’s Okanagan and New York’s Catskills. “We’re all over the place, working in fabulous off-the-charts landscapes,” Gandhi says. Still, nothing makes him happier than to touch back down in Halifax and head back to the studio.

"The work is the refuge," he says. "I'm lucky to be in love with what I do for a living and to feel that it's my offering."

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CREDITS: Oversight by KATHERINE SCARROW; Photography by RILEY SMITH; Editing by ELIZABETH HOLLAND; Art direction and design by JEANINE BRITO; Development by KYLE YOUNG

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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