Halifax-Based Architect Omar Gandhi Has a Flair for the Dramatic
When Omar Gandhi sits down with a potential client, there’s one question he always asks: Are you up for a journey? “I love projects where we go down a winding road,” says the Halifax-based founder and principal of Omar Gandhi Architect Inc. “We end up somewhere we didn’t imagine.”
Often, those winding roads are quite literal: Gandhi has made a name for himself by building dramatic structures in some of Canada’s farthest corners, like a weathered-steel family home perched on top of a mountain in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley or the new viewing deck—a 1,300-square-metre sculptural platform that seems to defy gravity as it dangles over the rocks and waves below—at Peggy’s Cove. “I often think of our projects as peculiar creatures in the wild,” he says. “They don’t rely on a formula.” If there is a design signature to the firm’s work, it’s a penchant for natural materials, like locally sourced wood and brick, and a talent for creating spaces that feel airy yet intimate.
Gandhi launched his firm in 2010, and he has since made the decision to keep his practice relatively small. It now has 10 employees in its head office in Halifax, six in the Toronto outpost (which he opened to create opportunities to be closer to his family in Brampton, Ont., where he grew up) plus a handful in St. John’s and Vancouver. “The idea for me has never been about rapid growth,” he says. “It’s always been about being able to choose who we work with and what we work on and just having as much fun as possible.”
The nimble operation allows him the flexibility to teach—he has lectured on architecture, entrepreneurship and leadership at the University of Toronto and Dalhousie, and he spent time as a visiting professor at Yale. It also lets him stay hands-on with everything the firm has on the go, which most recently includes collaborating with KPMB Architects to design the new $130-million Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, set to open in 2025. “We’re working on our dream project in our own city,” says Gandhi of the commission, which they won through an international design competition in the fall of 2020.
Gandhi is also currently putting the finishing touches on his own home, which he shares with his partner, Jolène, his son, Adrian, and their cat, Dalì (as in Salvador). In 2019, when he found an empty lot—tucked between a house and a former barber shop in Halifax’s historic North End—to build on, it was the literal gap Gandhi had been looking for. “I saw it as this amazing opportunity to build something for myself after 10 years of building for other people,” he says. “It just popped up for sale, and I started dreaming.” The resulting building is all tall, narrow timber and buff brick on the outside and light-filled expanses panelled in white oak on the inside. It is in many ways the ultimate Omar Gandhi build, right down to its sensitivity to its surroundings.
“I want to do what I can to contribute to the community in a meaningful way”
“I’ve always hated those projects that aggressively insert themselves into neighbourhoods, all glossy with tons of aluminum and glass, like mini-condos,” says Gandhi, noting that he wanted to ensure that the building has an overall positive impact on the wider gentrification that’s happening in the predominantly African-Nova Scotian neighbourhood. “I want to do what I can to contribute to the community in a meaningful way,” he says. This includes converting the ground level, originally meant to be the firm’s office before it moved to a space downtown, into a hub where neighbours can gather to consult on some of the pro bono work the firm does for the community. One such project is the recent renovation of a century-old home for housing-insecure African-Nova Scotian men in partnership with the North End Community Health Centre.
Gandhi and his team also want to welcome their neighbours to just come in and get creative at their eight-metre-long table or read magazines and play guitar in the plant-filled lounge area. “It’s a space that’s meant to have pencils and crayons scattered everywhere, a place to have conversations and listen to music,” says Gandhi. “In the summer, I imagine leaving the door open so people can pop their heads in. That really epitomizes the goal of my practice: to bring people joy.”
Five things he loves
The architect’s essential sources of inspiration
Taste by Stanley Tucci
Gandhi read the actor’s food-centric memoir recently. “It made me think of my own family and our love for food,” he says.
His new kitchen includes a gas range by this German luxury manufacturer, which he credits with heightening the experience of cooking.
Being lost in a new city
“I don’t make lists,” says Gandhi of his travel MO. “I go to new cities and start walking.” Recent favourites have included Berlin and Mexico City.
The classic cocktail is Gandhi’s libation of choice. “Admittedly, it was inspired by Mad Men,” he says. “But making and drinking one is pure joy.”
Gandhi grew up in the GTA, and the Toronto Blue Jays are his self-professed first love. “I live for the smell of freshly cut grass and the sounds of the game,” he says.