For a budding starchitect, Omar Gandhi seems refreshingly devoid of ego. Or maybe he's just pragmatic.
If the Ontario-born, Halifax-based designer flops, "I can always go back to Brampton and work in trucking like I did when I was a kid," he jokes from Nova Scotia, where he has been living on and off since receiving his master's degree at Dalhousie University in 2005.
Considering that, in 2014 alone, Gandhi nabbed both the Canada Council's $50,000 Prix de Rome and a spot on Wallpaper magazine's list of the world's top 20 young architects, his Plan B likely won't be necessary. In fact, Gandhi will be returning to Ontario this week – as a featured speaker, along with B.C.'s Omer Arbel, at the Interior Design Show in Toronto. Not long after, he'll be back to open a satellite office in the city. Not bad for a 36-year-old whose projects to date have largely been private homes.
Omar Gandhi and Jeff Shaw
But what homes they are. One – a mass of stark, white interconnected rooms on a hilltop in Purcell's Cove on the west side of Halifax harbour – rises from the landscape like a great stone formation, intentionally echoing the bedrock field around it. Another – a sharp-angled seaside cabin in rural Cape Breton – offers a minimalist take on traditional gables, jutting skyward like an arrow to provide unencumbered ocean views from its upper reaches.
Gandhi has also done commercial work, including a chic yet unvarnished assemblage of contemporary-rustic villas and retail spaces for Cabot Links, a top-rated golf resort in Inverness, on the northwest coast of Cape Breton.
"I'm proud that each of our projects varies significantly," says the architect, who worked for leading practices in Toronto (KPMB, Young + Wright) and Halifax (MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple) before establishing his own firm, Omar Gandhi Architect, in 2010. "It feels like proof that we are listening to the client and reading the landscape. As crazy as it sounds, the most fulfilling projects are the ones where we were forced to leave materials raw and unfinished – often as a result of budget. It's that soul that I aspire to achieve more than anything because it feels like a more honest reflection of the materials and the place. It's that banal gloss that I am least interested in."
In this regard, Gandhi joins the steadily growing ranks of elite Atlantic Canadian architects who are boldly contemporizing East Coast building forms, redefining the region's design aesthetics in the process. "My work certainly isn't unique, nor does it aspire to be," Gandhi says with some of that inherited Maritime modesty, citing others, such as Halifax master Brian MacKay-Lyons, Newfoundland-born Todd Saunders and New Brunswick's Acre Architects as those who have produced "incredible regionally inspired work" before and alongside him. There is, however, one significant difference between Gandhi and many of his East Coast colleagues: Having been born in Toronto and raised in Brampton, he is essentially an outsider who learned and subsequently mastered the regional vernacular, then reinterpreted it. Such sensitivity to setting isn't commonplace. And it will serve Gandhi well as he expands his practice to other parts of Canada and beyond.
"Even from their interiors, his creations often highlight their surroundings, using the environment outside as a backdrop to enjoy," says Karen Kang, the Interior Design Show's director, who has been following Gandhi's career since he worked on an installation for the show several years ago. "We felt it was important to expose our audience to his work."
For the architect himself, whether the backdrop to his designs is Truro, Toronto or Timbuktu is less of a concern than the reference points that they or any geographical locale provide. "We allow the specific building program and the properties of the site to dictate the moves that we make," he says of his firm's MO. "We are very honest with these things; we don't hide it. White cedar, for example, is left to look like white cedar. We don't stain it. It is rough to the touch. For us, craft is of utmost importance. We spend a lot of time on site and we build close relationships with the builders."
Perhaps it's unfair, then, to call Gandhi a budding "starchitect," despite his growing renown. Starchitects, after all, typically impose their work on a landscape, regardless of whether it fits in holistically. Gandhi's outlook and output are the antitheses of that.
"I can't wait to produce regionally inspired work in Toronto," he says.
Omar Gandhi appears in conversation with Globe Style columnist Nathalie Atkinson and designer Omer Arbel at the Interior Design Show in Toronto on Jan. 23 at 12 p.m. For tickets and information, visit interiordesignshow.com.