An Interview with Omar Gandhi

An Interview with Omar Gandhi

Interview by Miriam Ho

Omar Gandhi, who runs a practice out of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Toronto, Ontario has been named Canada’s next top architect.  His work is often celebrated for representing a new Maritime vernacular.  The Site Magazine editor Miriam Ho speaks to Omar Gandhi about being connected to a place, and how biomimicry might be the next step in the evolution of the vernacular.

Miriam Ho: Tell us about your attraction to the Maritime landscape?

Omar Gandhi: I moved [to Halifax] for school and work and ended up falling in love with the coastal landscape. It's so unbelievably beautiful, it's pretty hard not to fall in love with it. There’s an authenticity to everything, maybe because [people] in some of the rural places around here aren't necessarily caught up with what's going on in the modern world. There is something that is very real and honest about the community here.

This comes through in the built fabric as well—the materials you see in the built fabric have been used forever. I appreciate the depth that comes out of that kind of long-term attention to understanding materials. Maybe this is because I'm from a place that, when I was growing up, was the opposite: in the deep suburbs of Brampton, horrible building after horrible building was going up in an unconsidered way. Here, there’s a kind of architecture where people are thinking further ahead: we're going to build something, we're going to build it properly, and it's going to last forever.

MH: But architectural practice today has evolved from primitive materials and techniques to something much more complex. How can contemporary practice continue to learn from traditional ways of building?

OG: While today we have a huge variety of high-tech materials and construction systems, we still use a lot of the same basic materials. Canadians have built with wood for a long time. Even though we [my office] do modern things, it never really throws anyone for a loop because we're using sort of the same words and the same details, whether it's how a wall meets a roof or how the wall meets the grade. How we express those details might be a little different. 

That’s why I’m attracted to this kind of architecture: it's beautiful to produce the kind of architecture that's so deeply connected to where we are. Whether it's the roof pitch or the kind of materials that we use on the side of the building, the design decisions are specific to the site we are dealing with. We use wood shingles all the time—they’re a kind of material and construction method that have been used for hundreds of years in the Maritimes because they work.  When you have rain that's flying sideways and you have these crazy gusting winds, it's just something that has worked for a long time.

Image 1: Black Gables, a house in Louisdale, Nova Scotia, is made of a composition of black textures. Image by Omar Gandhi.

MH: Some of your projects allude to vernacular archetypes: black gables, for instance, or the iconographic geometries of sheds and barns. There's a project called Rabbit Snare Gorge which is really intriguing—could you talk about the abstract forms and local narratives that you might be drawing connections to in this project?

OG: We're always trying to draw from the context, and sometimes that’s in the form of someone telling a story. For example, Rabbit Snare Gorge is about this elder and his family whom we got to know. For several hundred years they had this piece of land that was not appropriate for agriculture or farming because of the topography. There was water running through it, so it ended up being the place where they were taught to catch rabbits and did laundry because there were loose rocks around—that’s how it became known as “Rabbit Snare Gorge” to this family. The site is very exposed, and like much of the Maritimes, wind is an issue. The narrative of the site and its environmental conditions make it unique—we are always looking to understand these romantic qualities of a place, and respond to them through design.The hoop on the project came from this windbreak detail we see all over Atlantic Canada—I first saw it in Newfoundland, it's usually a plywood shelter that goes over the front door, to keep the door from slamming shut in the wind. We started with the functional advantages of this informal local adaptation, and looked for ways to integrate it with the site and building. We ended up with a 25 foot tall, 2 tonne corten steel hoop that goes over the door. We take things from context and try to do something interesting with them.

By relating to the history or the past narrative of a site, a project becomes more connected to its surroundings. At the same time, from a design perspective, the challenge is to find a way to always reinterpret these references, both narrative and material or construction details, and re-imagine them in a new language that reflects both the history and contemporary situation.

Image 2: Proposed cabins at Rabbit Snare Gorge in Inverness, Nova Scotia, where Lawrence MacIsaac’s great grandfather used to teach his sons how to snare rabbits, while his great grandmother commonly used the “laundry stone” at the bottom of a small waterfall to wash clothing. Model by Omar Gandhi Architect.

Image 3: The cabin’s steel entry hoop takes its shape from the entry windbreaks unique to the Cape Breton and Newfoundland coastal communities. Image by Doublespace.

MH: If we are constantly working with past references, and evolving typologies, does this mean we are constantly evolving what vernacular architecture is or can be? Can you talk about how the vernacular might evolve across Canada?

OG: Well, the “new vernacular” would vary quite a bit across Canada, which is beautiful, because the local conditions change so much across the country.

One of the things I studied for the Prix de Rome was the idea of adaptation: how architecture can respond more intelligently, not necessarily in a passive way but whether we can think about its form or a detail that's about embracing context and climate, trying to take everything that you need from it in order to achieve a positive effect, as opposed to just simple things like how do we keep water out. I've looked at digital modelling and taking climatic data and we’re wondering how we can affect the overall form of a building. We looked at biomimicry, where you're looking at an organism or a species that's the way it is to survive.  We're thinking about architecture without any pre-conceptions, and wondering if maybe it's not about adapting from a [vernacular] model such as wood frame construction in Canada, but what if architecture was something a lot more complex that was really trying to create a symbiotic relationship with the environment. If a building was an organism and that organism had to survive, how would that change the way that it worked?

MH: So it’s about using environmental parameters to derive the building.

OG: Exactly. If a building was an organism and that organism has to survive, how would that change the way that it works?

Image 4: The first of three cabins at Rabbit Snare Gorge. Image by Doublespace.

MH: You were talking about buildings not simply being a passive response to the environment -- but aren’t traditional “vernacular” construction methods about creating passive environmental responses?

OG: Traditional construction methods used the best technology that people had at their disposal. What we’re doing is certainly a departure from what came before, but at the same time this is the next chapter of the same thing. What’s different in our case is the technology, the way we fabricate buildings, whether it's using 3D printing or digital fabrication as well as modelling. The requirements were different 150 years ago, but in a similar way, people developed methods of building that were optimal for each of the materials used. Their architecture protected them from the harsh climate, and allowed them to do whatever they needed to do that was specific to the area they were in. We need to go back and  those first principles again. 

MH: What would an active environmental response look like to you? Would that be based on an evolutionary model?

OG: Whether it's building envelope or responding to solar and wind, I think an architecture needs to be adaptive in the way that the biological world is. I don't think anything can be stagnant anymore, I think it needs to not only adapt over long periods of time but also be able to respond to information as it's coming to it. Maybe that's formal on a larger scale, but maybe it's also at the detail level.

I also this will lead to a new regional architecture. The vernacular is often associated with nostalgia and form, but I think we're losing or forgetting what the basis of a lot of these ideas was: extremely smart building in a specific place over a period of time. It was the smartest way they could possibly do it. Now we have so many other capabilities that you have to sort of rethink what a local architecture can be.

Omar Gandhi is a Canadian architect born in Toronto, raised in Brampton, and currently practices and resides in both Halifax and Toronto.

After studying in the Regional Arts program at Mayfield Secondary School (Caledon) and then the inaugural Architectural Studies Program at the University of Toronto he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he received his Master’s degree in 2005 at Dalhousie University. After graduation Omar worked on several key projects including Manitoba Hydro, Two Hulls, the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University and the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum- Nano Centre at the University of Waterloo. Omar is currently also a sessional instructor at the School of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University.

Omar is the recipient of the 2014 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome and was listed in Wallpaper* Magazine’s 2014 Architects Directory—their list of the top 20 Young Architects in the World. Most recently, Omar was named one of the Architectural League of New York’s ‘Emerging Voices’ of 2016 and one of Monocle Magazine’s 20 most influential Canadians.