Intro: Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #3, Part 1, Vince interviews Omar Gandhi, founder of the accomplished Canadian Design Firm, Omar Gandhi Architect. Now, here’s your host, Vince.
Vince: Welcome. Thanks for tuning in to Design Makes Everything Better podcast. I’m your host, Vince. This is the first part of two conversations that I’ve had with Omar Gandhi. If you are checking in on this, you probably have heard his name before. This is a really good way to get to know a lot more about his process, the office, the influences that they have, where the profession is going, and the relationship that they have with their clients before and after projects are long finished.
It’s really interesting to hear about an architect as young as he is to have arrived to the credibility and success that he’s seen and remained altogether, very much humble. He’s a tremendous guy, and I think you’ll really enjoy the conversations that we’ve had with him. Thanks for checking in.
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Hi, this is Brenden, producer of the show. Quick note: a couple of times during the interview, Vince and Omar mention Brian. They’re referring to Brian MacKay-Lyons, a well-known Canadian architect who is founding partner at MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects and a professor at the Dalhousie School of Architecture. Okay. Enjoy the show and see you next week for Part 2.
Vince: Omar Gandhi, thank you for joining us. Just as a little bit of an introduction on you for anybody else that might not be familiar with you, your education started at U of T, and then you went and did your Master’s at Dalhousie University. You worked at KPMB Architects in Toronto, and then you spent a significant amount of time with Brian at MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.
Then, shortly after that, you moved out on your own, and you had and have a storybook of success that’s been remarkable, everything from countless Lieutenant Governor’s Awards, which is the provincial architecture awards, Governor General Award in Architecture, which is the Canadian-level awards. Prix de Rome, and more recently, then, you’ve partnered with KPMB and have been awarded the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. If I were to script a story with a Midas touch, I don’t know if I could do it as well as what you’ve done. How do you feel about all of this? What does it mean to you?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. It is hard to believe, honestly. I think that’s one of the nice things about being at this point ten years later is being able to say I’m a little surprised by some of the things that have happened. But, also, it’s nice to just stop and reflect on some of it because it really all happened very quickly, and I had my head down, and it was a pretty stressful, although quick, period of time.
You’re thinking about the business; you’re thinking about – I didn’t have any support or anything in that regard, so it was just worrying about all the things that you worry about with a small business. And there were a lot of great things that happened along the way, but yeah, it’s been super fun. That’s it.
Vince: What got you into architecture in the first place? What brought you into U of T?
Omar Gandhi: First, before that, I’m from Brampton. I’d say that the big early shift was I decided to go to a regional art school. I had an interest in the visual arts. My father was always pretty talented and encouraged me in that world a little bit.
Vince: Was he an artist?
Omar Gandhi: No. He’s actually a microbiologist. It was almost like he wished that he went down that road a little bit. He had an interest when he was younger. So, he enjoyed teaching me and us doing that sort of thing together.
Vince: Oh, cool.
Omar Gandhi: So I decided to apply to go to a regional art school, Mayfield in Caledon, which you had to apply for. Essentially, it meant that every day for the curriculum for the five years of high school, because it was OAC back then, as well. Art was part of that day-to-day. I would say that a lot of the interest came from there – art and art history and even architectural history. Then, going to U of T wasn’t my first pick, to be honest.
Vince: Oh, it wasn’t? What was your first?
Omar Gandhi: Waterloo was where I wanted to go. I was pretty bummed out when I got cold-rejected on that one. U of T was both close, and I commuted from home, from Brampton, which was painful.
Vince: It’s arguable whether or not it is still today, but, at the time, it was considered the best architectural school in the country.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. The architecture program, but I was actually there as part of the undergrad BA program, which was like a new thing, so it was sort of a guineapig year of not a professional degree. I enjoyed the people I went to school with, and it was cool living in the big city and all that sort of thing.
I would say that my move out here, not knowing much about the East Coast or Halifax, was one of those classic tales of just wanting to get away from home.
Vince: Oh, is that right?
Omar Gandhi: Oh, yeah.
Vince: So, this was the furthest that you can get within Canada, sort of a thing?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, kind of. It was a program that was respected, and it offered a Master’s Degree and work terms, so it was like a checklist of pretty cool things that it offered, and it was nowhere near home. I just wanted to get away from Toronto. Not necessarily home, like family, but get away from the huge environment of U of T and go somewhere else.
I think the entire experience was exactly what I had hoped. It felt like I was in paradise. Not necessarily the city, but going to the school and going through the program was just a really fun experience because I don’t think I really enjoyed my time at U of T in that same way.
Vince: Oh, is that right?
Omar Gandhi: It was very different in terms of the experience. This was a place where you built things, and you learned from your peers, and it was a small enough group. It was intimate in that way.
Vince: After having graduated now and have had a successful career so far, has your understanding of what architecture is changed or what is architecture to you now? What does it mean?
Omar Gandhi: I think it is many things. One of the things I enjoy most, I’d say, about the day-to-day now at this stage is collaborating with friends and seeing that everyone is bringing a different perspective to it. One of the great things about collaborating with people you really respect is, it always takes you in a different direction, somewhere that you hadn’t considered before, and it brings out amazing things.
The Art Gallery was one of those, and I’m sure we’ll get back to that later. I think that’s real design when you aren’t getting in the groove of duplicating a process or whatnot. I think it’s about putting minds together to come up with solutions to a problem through design.
Vince: Solution-based. Yeah. That’s interesting. So, you said you try not to duplicate the process. Is it duplicating a process or the outcome? So houses look the same, or buildings look the same, which is something that you see all the time in a lot of architects’ work. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Exactly. I would say that that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of is that our work is constantly shape-shifting with few common elements. So, I would say, in that case, the process is the same. We have a process that we go through, but that process always means that we get a different result because we’re actually observing and actually using data or information that is going to take us in a different direction.
Like really examining the properties of a landscape; really listening to people, the client. I think with that process, it also allows us to work in different places and come up with totally different things but still have a way of going about it.
Vince: It’s without a doubt you have attached a brand of work to your office. When clients come to you, are they looking for that process, or are they looking for the outcome of the work?
Omar Gandhi: Another one of the things that I’d say makes me happiest is that we’re at a point where we can be selective about the work we take on. It’s like it isn’t necessarily money; it’s like creative control and flexibility.
Vince: That’s a remarkable place to be.
Omar Gandhi: It is the greatest thing for a creative person to be able to say no to things. What this means is that because we have a small team because we can pick the projects we work on, it means that people who want something, in particular, aren’t necessarily the right fit, people who come with very fixed ideas aren’t necessarily the right fit.
I’d say the kind of client that we’re constantly in search of are the ones that are open to going on that journey with us. We don’t know where we’re going. They don’t know where we’re going, but we’re all really excited about it. It isn’t about motifs or any of those repeatable formal moves or anything. I would say that what ties the products together is an inherent interest in something that could only exist where it is and in this period of time.
We often use the word adaptation as the defining term for that process where we take a local precedent – something local specifically to that area that is almost like a weird feature or something that makes it stand out. So if it’s in Toronto, it could be in Cabbagetown. There are things in that neighbourhood that make it different, and searching out to try and find what some of those elements are, and then exploiting it. I always like to say that with, at least, our urban work, I always imagine our project being like the weird kid in the family.
Vince: That everybody loves.
Omar Gandhi: That everyone—
Omar Gandhi: Well, maybe, but I would say that it’s telling a story about the family. It’s related to everything around it, but it’s peculiar in its own way, and through that, we’re telling a story. I would say in our rural projects, it’s very much like – we refer to them as creatures some of the time, where they’re like these living breathing things that have a fun life of their own that are almost like that regional precedent has come to life in some weird way.
Omar Gandhi: So, we have a lot of fun. The studio started with just me, obviously, for a period of time. Then, it was Jeff Shaw and I, and for a long time, just the two of us. Now, it’s obviously bigger, but man! We laugh, and we like to be juvenile at times. A lot of our formal moves come from weird car conferences.
Vince: You know, just having that playful approach leads to positive outcomes in the creative environment. If you come in serious and upset about things, and if that carries on too long, it does show up in the work that you do. Listening to you talk about the different projects that you have, it does sound like there’s a similarity in a geographical realm, rural or urban, that has a thread that would connect them. But it does sound like they are independent to a degree from one another. To come back to Brian, I use Brian as an example here. We both worked at his office, and he had a big influence on the way—
Omar Gandhi: How long were you there?
Vince: A little over a year, or about two.
Omar Gandhi: I was there about a year-and-a-half, I’d say.
Vince: Okay. Yeah. I ended up picking Dal specifically because, as in most architectural schools, there’s usually some thought leadership that describes the philosophy of one architectural school versus the other. What really pulled me into Dal – and I was living in Austria at the time, and I got accepted to a few schools out in Europe, but I really wanted to work with Brian.
Omar Gandhi: Oh, yeah.
Vince: And I just loved his philosophy, and I learned a lot about his work before I even came to school. I left because I felt I had taken in what I could, and I wanted to do my own work. We had a great conversation. We had a conversation once, and he described his work as always moving toward a more defined center. It was a circle of work that was one project, and you can see that because it was a philosophy that he’s testing, and that’s the similarity that you see from building to building. I appreciated that.
I really fundamentally appreciate what he’s done for architecture in the city and Canada, but that philosophy didn’t sit with me. I feel that it is more valuable where the world is really interesting, and I don’t want to test the same idea in different environments to see how I can tune it to make it more refined, so it’s not the shrinking circle, but it’s a growing one. The way that you’re talking about your work actually sits with me in a similar way, and I find that really interesting.
Omar Gandhi: I think a lot of it also has to do with the fear of being creative because being creative means, and being a designer means putting yourself out there. And, especially, I think for that artist or whoever, when you find a recipe, and maybe you’ve received positive feedback, I think it’s easy to stick in that world. Corbusier did in La Chaux or Frank Lloyd Wright in the Guggenheim. Those are those examples of people taking really big leaps of faith that could have gone wrong. But, that’s design.
Vince: Yeah. You’re a very confident guy. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Well, I’m confident with some things, and I would say that thing about putting your work out there was always something. But I think the thing is, a lot of people try and tell us that there’s one right answer. I think by acknowledging that there’s no right answer, and there are many right answers, I think that takes away some of the pressure.
The other thing is, I think, where’s that pressure coming from? For me, that pressure exists in my own studio. I don’t worry too much about the periphery. It depends on who it is, I guess, but I’ve made active moves over the years, and I think maybe the best thing I did was when we reached our 10-year anniversary, about a year and a half ago, we made a universal decision in the studio to no longer ever apply for awards.
Vince: I think that is the best thing that you could do. We don’t apply either.
Omar Gandhi: I honestly think that. It’s easy for me to do because, in that first 10 years, I did apply and had success. I think that it’s different if you didn’t have that, and then you decide awards are ridiculous, but having been on both sides of that coin and making that decision, you look ahead at people who are at the end of their career and how much they rely on that kind of feedback. It doesn’t ever end.
There’s no finish line when it comes to that. Also, having been a part of dozens of these things, these are not objective. There’s always politics. There’s always favouritism. People pay for them, for one. No one ever talks about that. The people who win a ton of awards, they’ve also spent an enormous amount of money and time and, quite frankly, none of it really matters.
Vince: Yeah. I could see that before social media was so available for any office, awards were a great medium to get your work out there. But now, you can post literally anything you want, and if it is appealing to anybody out there, then you will attract attention. You don’t need awards for what I saw originally as the fundamental vehicle.
The thing that I also felt was important to some architects, specifically with awards, is that it kind of closed the relationship with the project. An award is like a nice climax. It’s finished; there’s a big celebration, and then you walk away, which makes me think that you might have a different relationship with your projects after they’re done. Can you describe what that relationship might be for your other houses and public buildings? How do they live on with you?
Omar Gandhi: I’m fortunate enough to have really wonderful relationships with most of them. I’ve become friends with clients. It’s always a weird thing where you’ve poured everything into a project that isn’t yours, obviously. Maybe it’s a bit of both. It is really nice to go over, and it is really nice to see it and see that people are happy and they’re enjoying things that you envisioned.
Also, it’s difficult, like many creative people, to not see all the things that you wish you did differently. Not that there are large things, but things that there is no perfect project. It’s very difficult, for me at least, to look past that sometimes.
Vince: Yeah. I think that’s the harder part about a house because when it’s done, it’s done. It has an organic quality about it afterward when people start to live in it. I think it’s important that it can be livable and adaptable to a degree, but you have to be able to live with a mistake.
Omar Gandhi: And I think that’s another example of where the validation that comes from awards is not in line with what makes something successful. Traditionally, I would say that one of the things that awards did was, it was a way to bully validation. You know what I mean?
Vince: Oh, yeah.
Omar Gandhi: It’s sort of like, “Well, it won an award.” Yeah, I know, but the whole roof is leaking. “But it won an award.” Or, it’s a way to classify one’s self within a community, and that was part of the decision for me. I want to cheer on my peers. I don’t want to be competing against them.
Vince: I think that’s a really refreshing way to think of your work and awards. You’ve been doing some work in hospitality, and I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the restaurants and stuff that you’ve been doing because I see them as so much different than a home. With a restaurant, the way that we approach it is that it’s a design that is going to be a business decision.
This is not an esthetic exercise by any means. It’s a brand that is supposed to motivate their customers to come, so it’s not even, in many cases, about the owner. This is what your customers will need and want for the brand that it is. It’s this completely different relationship in the process that you have with residential work, as I think most people are familiar with that. Do you approach work in restaurants differently, and does the design work that you do have a different meaning to you and to your clients?
Omar Gandhi: First, before I say that, there is no firm that has existed around here or in Canada that’s done what Breakhouse has done in terms of hospitality. Uncommon ground changed everything in this city. Jane’s, Edna’s, just to name a few, but those are the archetypal projects that we’re responsible for changing and making a place.
Vince: Thank you. That means a lot to hear from you, but thank you. I really appreciate that.
Omar Gandhi: And I think that they are different. We haven’t done anything here in that world, but in Toronto, we did Lady Marmalade on the east end. I’d say that the biggest difference between that and our houses is it’s intensely urban. We’re dealing with a building that was over 100 years old. You’re dealing with angry neighbours, and accessibility bylaws, and things like that.
There are a lot of factors that start to shave down on what you can actually do. It’s almost like those parameters start to limit, at least in the case of that restaurant, which was pretty narrow, the parameters itself kind of boxed it in. And then, it was about doing everything we could do to make a place memorable. In that case, it was about taking a three-story brick building that was really long and narrow and allowing for as much light as possible that came from above and cutting floor plates so that you could see up three stories in certain parts.
So, I think it’s different because it’s about making memories for people. That’s the thing. Like I’m talking about the work Breakhouse did on those restaurants. When I think of Halifax, I think of places like that. So, I’d say that the ambition as opposed to a recently retired couple with their kids that are no longer living in the house, this is about a community now, the community of people like yourself and people completely different from you. For me, the approach is about a unique experience, but it’s still architecture, so I would say it’s also telling a story about a place within all of that.
Vince: Do you spend a fair bit of time with the owner of the restaurant or with the chef to figure out what kind of food is going to be purchased there? What’s the experience going to be? Or is that something that you drive fundamentally?
Omar Gandhi: For Lady Marmalade, it was such a well-known place, to begin with. In that scenario, it was about coming up with a space that was very different but didn’t take away or compete with what they were known for – so, enhancing the warmth of that experience. We’re working on another restaurant now, which is in construction. It’s a horrible time to open a restaurant, but Matty Matheson Restaurant in Toronto on Queen West.
Vince: What’s the restaurant called?
Omar Gandhi: I can’t say.
Vince: You can’t say. Top secret.
Omar Gandhi: I can’t say anything about any of it, but I can say that in that case, it was a very close relationship with him.
Vince: He’s a buddy of yours. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. He’s a buddy of mine, but through this, he approached me out of the blue. I didn’t know who he was at all, but everyone in my office did.
Vince: He’s an interesting character. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. We’ve become really good friends over the course of the last three or four years that we’ve worked on it, but it’s a different animal; it’s a different sort of thing altogether. That worked for sure.
Vince: I think that’s why it’s harder to do is you can’t fundamentally repeat yourself. Otherwise, any one restaurant has a business if they start to look the same. If they’re working for you, you’re not going to get many more jobs as a result, so it has to be unique to that business. It’s an interesting process.
Omar Gandhi: I’m really surprised you haven’t mentioned that I worked for Breakhouse for—
Vince: I didn’t want to necessarily—
Omar Gandhi: It was an amazing week.
Vince: Yeah. It was such a short period of time, and I know that’s the only reason why you got the Art Gallary, buddy. For sure.
Vince: Yeah. It was a very short period of time, but you certainly are – there’s a relationship that you have with our office, or I would say we have with you and the fact that you’re across the street from us, and we see you driving by our window all the time. You’re a buddy for us.
Omar Gandhi: Absolutely. Yeah, for 10 years, we’ve been side-by-side.
Vince: Yeah, it’s funny. Where do you see the profession itself going? What is architecture for architects as well as the public and in a few years from now? What’s in your crystal ball?
Omar Gandhi: I think collaboration. That really is the most exciting thing. For me, at least, is the idea that people who specialize in different things, different expertise, working together to produce something that wasn’t foreseen – those sorts of surprises.
So, really stepping back and thinking about the fundamental role or promise of design. It’s hard for me to not reference Bruce Mau, who is a real hero of mine and just the way that he talks about design and even the thing about awards. He called that right off the bat. It’s not good for you.
Vince: He’s been a guiding light for us, as well, his top 10 rules of creativity: keep a messy desk, so you cross-pollinate. Some of those things have been very much things that we talk about. You know, what I’m curious about, and one of the reasons I asked about the future of architecture, there are quite literally clients that would show up and say, “This is my Pinterest board that I’ve created for this particular house that I want to do or this restaurant. Can we just do this?” Is that part of its future? Like, anybody can pick up SketchUp now. It’s so ever-present that it’s not about the skills, necessarily that you have. So is it the insight only? Is it the collaboration?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, I think it is collaboration. I think that maybe some of it is the ability to see through all of that. One of the things about that client, whoever it is, who has that Pinterest board and who’s active on Instagram, they will inevitably spin out of control because there’s so much to look at – so much beautiful work to look at that without the kind of grounding or roots of a clear idea, the possibilities are endless and unclear, I think, in the same way. I think that maybe strong ideas and strong narratives will become more important.
The other thing with building equality in the profession, I would say that people who traditionally didn’t have a voice because they were spoken over by the loud man, let’s say, who had all those awards because that’s a tool for oppression in the profession. It’s going to take the profession in a different direction, and I think a much more interesting direction because the loud voice isn’t necessarily the one with the best idea.
Vince: Yeah, it’s not always the right one, and often, it isn’t. I can see that that’s, hopefully, a direction of architecture in the future. We have this sort of fear of opening up the gates to anybody else who could do something and should do it. I’m not afraid of the Pinterest board client that comes in, and I see it as an opportunity that, you know what? Maybe we can help them make a decision to help them move forward because they will, undoubtedly, spin out of control because it’s just endless.
Omar Gandhi: It is endless. Yeah.
Vince: Well said. Maybe we can leave it at that. That was good.
Omar Gandhi: Thank you.
Vince: Thanks a lot for your time, Omar. It was great chatting with you in this way.
Omar Gandhi: Oh, this was really fun. Thank you.
Vince: We’ll, hopefully, add another one after this, maybe and do a Part 2 or something.
Omar Gandhi: Exactly. Thanks, pal.
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Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, Canadian Strategic Design Firm. This was Part 1 of Episode 3 with Omar Gandhi of Omar Gandhi Architect. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. A full transcript and show notes for this episode can be found at breakhouse.ca/podcast/3.1. If you like the show, help us out. Subscribe, rate, and review us on your favourite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas for the show? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[End of Episode 3, Part 1 – 31:09]