“I think that was sort of the secret recipe for this project was to put together a team of the best in their fields that looked unlike any other architectural team that’s really in Canada, that’s been put together.”
Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #3, Part 2, Vince interviews Omar Gandhi, founder of Omar Gandhi Architect. Now, here’s your host, Vince.
Hello, everybody interested in the world of design. This is the podcast Design Makes Everything Better. I am your host, Vince. Today we had a great conversation, a Part 2 of our conversations with Omar Gandhi. We went over his success, the challenges the office faces, the influence the office often draws on, community and social responsibility that they’re taking on, and, of course, the art gallery of Nova Scotia.
However, my favourite part of the podcast was a great conversation around the balance of work and life, often a struggle for anyone, and it is something that I would say designers and architects are often struggling with. It’s great to get his insight, and the conversation was a lot of fun. Enjoy.
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Vince: Thanks again for coming in. I really did enjoy our last conversation, and I think there’s just so much more that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in the time that we had, so this is a really good opportunity for us to extend that conversation, and there’s a lot I want to talk to you about in terms of where things are going for you in the future and the moves that you’ve been making, and we’d like to hear a lot about that. Right off the top, I’m curious as to what you would think of the reason for your fame. What have been some of the reasons, at the core, for your success if you can articulate it in such a way?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: In all honesty, if you look at the success that you have, the exposure that you’ve had, how you’ve been cited and described in publications – again, this isn’t an awards thing, but how you are considered. One could define that, quite easily, I think, as having fame. Does that make you uncomfortable? I think it does.
Omar Gandhi: Well, I think what I was saying last time is taking that kind of reinforcement or feedback too seriously is going to impact you in the same sort of way when it inevitably turns. I think it is wonderful that we’ve had such a great kind of run of projects and the response we’ve got from it. But that’s not always going to be there, and that can’t mean that you’re not doing good work. I think that those are very different things. You have to kind of just stay in the middle there.
Vince: You know, I don’t know what it is like to have that exposure that you have, but from the outsider looking in and hearing how you describe it really sounds like a very wise place to be to understand that it is maybe fleeting in a way.
Omar Gandhi: It is fleeting, but it is really nice always to get positive feedback about the work.
Vince: What is it that you think is – I certainly have my own opinion on it, but what is it that you feel draws people into your work?
Omar Gandhi: I think that people do feel our own excitement about the work. I think it shines through and the way we talk about it does, so I think that’s part of maybe the allure about it. Much like, you can’t separate the work from us, you can’t separate the work from the landscape. I think that we have the added benefit of working in a beautiful place, and our work is an extension of that beautiful place.
As an isolated thing, maybe people like it or don’t, but it’s never a bad thing when we’re working in the kind of context that we have that, I think, maybe reminds people of a time in their own memory of a place they visited or whatever. There’s just a rawness to the landscape that’s unlike anywhere else on earth.
And maybe there’s a darkness to our work, as well, that I think comes from whether it’s kind of some fantasy sort of level or the idea of narratives that are both dark and bright at the same time. I think one of the defining characteristics about our landscape is that it’s parsed. We have beautiful summers. We have really harsh winters, and it can be windy. I would say that most of our work is built like something that’s bracing itself somehow.
Vince: That’s interesting.
Omar Gandhi: And it looks like that.
Vince: Yeah. It’s funny, actually. If you drive through parts of the Nova Scotia landscape, even if you’re up in Newfoundland, you see these old villages, and almost all of these older homes have turned their back to the ocean. They don’t have what we see today in modern architecture with these big, beautiful, open glazed walls that have this expansive view over the horizon and the ocean. You can see that they saw the ocean as a terrible thing in many ways.
It was part of their livelihood. A lot of them are fishing villages. That was the sustenance that they needed to survive, but it was not always, but often a barrier. It was a wall. It wasn’t a horizon that we would look at now with this degree of opportunity. So, there was a darkness then.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, exactly.
Vince: The way you’re describing it now is that there’s that darkness today. I never saw that in your work. Is there an example you can think of in one of your projects that can really illustrate that a bit?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. Our project Treow Brycg in Kingsburg, which has a hard shell and almost completely bracing itself. It’s completely steel on the one side, and there are very few openings. Then it opens up on the waterside. I’d say there are a few examples of that where there’s that kind of austerity, like Black Gables, for example. That also has just a very little slit from the roadside and opens up gently toward the water.
So, I think some of that is about being private. Some of it is about protection and security, and so I think people’s own personalities and characteristics shine through on that. Even with my own place in the North End, that definitely would shine through – privacy, and I wouldn’t say security, but also, yeah, there’s something okay with being a little bit mysterious.
Vince: Uh-huh. Would you say that your clients are aware of that, or is that something that you describe to them? Or do you ask them how they want to live off the water in the cases where they want to be—
Omar Gandhi: I would say we never get into specifics like that, but I think that they see some of those things in other projects of ours. So it’s a weird conversation that we have now versus six or seven years ago where we didn’t have work to point to, but now there’s enough variety that people can gravitate toward things. That’s usually a question that I like asking upfront is, which ones stand out.
Our lookout at Broad Cove Marsh also has a low-hanging brow facing the water. That’s really just barely peeking out because the wind is blasting up against it and pops up one portion of the roof. Yeah. I’d say that is a theme that I’d never really considered before, but I think it all comes down to respect of what can sometimes be a very angry climate.
Vince: I think you probably have come to that point a lot in your career where you are scared s***less.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: Tell me a little bit about the gallery because this is big. This is not a small project. This isn’t a B-level project where you have a B-level response. This is as big as it gets, and you have to do it as well as you possibly can. There must be some sort of fear or challenges. How do you feel about it?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, a little bit of fear. Not fear in questioning whether or not we can do it. It’s really just, “We’ve got to nail it.” What’s great is we’re with KPMB, who are [associates 9:13], and that we’re going to be learning a lot from them. I think we bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Obviously, you can tell by the design that there were so many talented people involved that it morphed into something that’s unlike anyone’s work.
On that one, it was something that came up on the radar, and, of course, everybody knew about it when it came out. People were reaching out to international architects and trying to jockey themselves into position. I gave Bruce a call and said, “This is coming onboard. He always told me he’d love to do something out there in the final phase of his career. We’ve been in touch for the last several years anyway. He came down here with Shirley, and we basically had a little jam session just talking about the project and what we could do. This was well before the RFP came out.
Vince: Oh, is that right?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. I would say that maybe the best thing I have done in my career to date was put together the team because I think that was sort of the secret recipe for this project was to put together a team of the best in their fields that looked unlike any other architectural team that’s really in Canada, that’s been put together.”
So I think that orchestration and careful consideration of how we could do things properly – it was never about a pastiche [chore 10:50], like just checking boxes. It was about making the core team as genuine as possible. That’s a relay kind of an idea.
Then, it really was an extremely intense period of time during the lead, up to the competition, and then over the summer for the competition itself. It pushed us. It was a beautiful, beautiful collaboration, but it was really hard because you have creative people used to doing things their way. In this case, nobody backed down. It was a beautiful conflict; it was a beautiful, cohesive process, and, at the same time, it was just like we went through it all together, and it was really hard. In the end, the product was something more wonderful than any of us could have imagined.
Vince: Could you talk a little bit more about the process and how, in a bit of a nuts-and-bolts kind of a way, what was it that KPMB decided to take on and what you decided to take on, and how you looped in the cultural layers that are there and understanding a program? It’s a complex project.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: So, there must have been some division of labour that made sense to you guys. How did you do that?
Omar Gandhi: It’s funny. That was sort of not how it happened. It wasn’t really about division of labour at all. It was kind of about everyone being in every meeting. Jordan Bennett sketching, Bruce sketching, and Shirley sketching, and Jordan Rice and I sketching. It was about coming together and discussing ideas. Of course, that’s not always an easy thing. Everyone is going to be pulling for their own things, and it could get contentious at times, but then everyone wanted the best thing, so I think it also meant that pride was put aside at times.
Vince: The best idea wins.
Omar Gandhi: Best ideas and ideas that kept becoming better. But I would say that was it. It was never about Elder Lorraine Whitman or Jordan coming in at some point and providing some insight. Jordan did a spiral sketch right at the beginning that was one of the motivations behind the scheme. So, that was it. Jordan and Lorraine were there, Meeting 1, Sketch 1. It was right there. So, yeah. I would say that was what made it beautiful and messy and difficult at times, but then, amazing.
The layering in of the Mi’kmaq community, how did you integrate something so substantial before the job was even won? It must have been difficult, and how did you do that?
Omar Gandhi: I think what makes it more difficult is that it’s a competition and everything is really secret. We did the best we could. We had a group of elders who advised, and they came in and met with us a few times, and, of course, Jordan Bennett’s body of knowledge and Elder Lorraine Whitman, who has her hands in a lot of things.
So, I think it was about being as respectful as possible, including the right people at the right time, but not really going anywhere without getting a blessing from the people we could talk to. What we’re doing now, which is really a fundamental part of the process, and it’s going to take up a good chunk of time, is there’s a lot of public consultation that’s about to start happening and communicating further with all the people we couldn’t talk to.
Vince: Yeah. I’m imagining the challenge of being open to the edits that are required.
Omar Gandhi: Of course. Yeah.
Vince: And a real evolution. When you were looking for feedback from the elders, was that literally like a [penultimate 14:52], like you would put up sketches on the wall?
Omar Gandhi: It was.
Vince: Or would you ask them? What did that look like?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. Of course, this was during early-days COVID, as well, so we all had to be quite careful in the studio. Bruce and Shirley and our other consultant team, public work, and Transsolar were all connected by Zoom on a big screen in our office. Then it was about showing early ideas.
But then, the main thing, it was about showing ideas that came from earlier discussions, but I would then say that the screen was off. Then it was just about listening. People would go on meandering kind of story-telling sessions where they would add to it without necessarily talking about the architecture anymore. We didn’t really frame that discussion too tightly. We just allowed for it to become a time when people could talk. What would make people proud? What would be a place that they would imagine their friends and family members feeling comfortable?
Vince: Those kinds of conversations are so valuable in terms of having regularly. We talked earlier about having our influences – some offices have Louis Kahn, others have Scarpa and Mies, and the list goes on and on. But if you don’t have the room for the other conversations, which are not led by what another designer has done before, but it’s just the input of what makes one feel comfortable, and that’s especially important from people that you’re designing for that don’t have that architectural background and knowledge.
They might come to you – like you were talking earlier about an interest in cars and the jokes that you have in the office of other things that might play into and feed into work. I don’t feel that happens enough in schools, for example. It’s not brought into a regular dialogue, but it’s what certainly motivates us. It’s not another restaurant that’s been done or another retail space or another building. It’s something else completely different that ends up being the thing that you hold onto that is really valuable.
When you’re talking about listening to whomever it was that was talking, they might have the most important piece of insight that isn’t about another building, that isn’t about another thing specifically, but it’s just an emotive piece, that emotive response to something which is so valuable.
Omar Gandhi: That’s right, and I think in that discussion, what was most valuable was understanding that even though we may not understand this, there are spaces, there are places where people inherently feel unwelcome, and that is something that we tried to focus on. It isn’t going after the mass. It’s about taking the time to understand how a place could become slightly skewed or different to welcome the people who feel the most excluded. That was really a driving force behind the art gallery scheme.
Vince: I want to change course just a little bit. There’s something that I’ve wanted to ask you. Relationships are so important with your clients. You described that earlier about being able to select clients that seem like a good fit. We do the same thing all the time, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes, you make a bad call, and you think it’s going to be great, but for whatever it is, not that anybody is doing something that they didn’t promise to do, it’s just the fit isn’t there, and we have to walk away from clients. And we do everything we can to set them up, and we find another office for them to work with and partner with. It hasn’t happened much at all, but it does happen.
Omar Gandhi: Of course.
Vince: It’s heavy sometimes when it does. How do you do that, and how do you deal with that if it does happen?
Omar Gandhi: I think there are easy jobs and there are tough jobs, and I think at the end of the day, even if it’s a situation where it’s less than ideal for whatever reason – no one’s fault. I think it’s about just being professional and focusing on the work. So, in those situations where we’ve had to – I’m trying to think of an example, but I know that there was. I think I’ve just blacked it out.
Vince: Psychology requirements as a designer, right?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, exactly.
Vince: Those challenging times, you have to put them behind you because if they’re in the forefront of your mind all the time, you’re paralyzed. Right?
Omar Gandhi: And there’s enough of these things. Not necessarily that, but it’s scary running a business. It’s tough.
Omar Gandhi: All that sort of stuff can be a lot. You’ve got to keep tracking forward.
Vince: Have you ever just wanted to hang your hat and say, “I’m done.” You’ve got a lot on the go.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: Have you wanted to just hang it up at times?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. I’d say I’ve never wanted to hang it up, but I do, at times, miss when it was just Jeff and me. I remember then, I was just like, “I wish we were really big.”
Vince: The grass is always greener.
Omar Gandhi: Of course. But there was something really like fun and hilarious about just a couple of people trying to figure it out. There wasn’t a whole lot of pressure because we hadn’t achieved anything.
Vince: You had nothing to lose. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. We were just going for it and going for it for ourselves. Not like I feel pressure. I think we talked about this last time. That’s one thing, for some reason, I don’t feel is the pressure. Again, that’s just because I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on around.
Omar Gandhi (cont.): Nor would I have any plan of deviating from the way that we approach things. It’s like two different things. I think it’s really fun to just be a fan of architecture and design and not feel like things that are really good are in some way a threat to you.
Vince: Yeah. You’re not taking it personally.
Omar Gandhi: No.
Vince: It’s not up to you.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. One of the things I love – I travel a lot. I love hotels, and there is nothing I love more than just appreciating the amazing design that goes into cool hotel spaces.
Vince: Oh, yeah.
Omar Gandhi: It is the best. And it’s like one of those things that I find to be most inspiring is design at different scales, but that’s one of them. That really gets me going. It’s like, “Wow! This is really cool.”
Vince: When you’re in Toronto, because you have a Toronto office, as well.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: You have a place to stay. You have your own apartment?
Omar Gandhi: I had an apartment, and I got rid of that maybe six months before COVID for some lucky reason.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. I was trying to tone down the travelling there a little bit. Then, I started staying in hotels most of the time, which was also fun.
Vince: Right. That must be challenging, back and forth as often. Even if you do love travelling, work travel is different. How do you balance that out in life?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. It was for about five years I was going back and forth every week – well, maybe ten days or so, excluding other places I had to travel. Really, that was only possible because – it’s going to sound hilarious – it was only possible because my marriage fell apart, and, all the sudden, I had half of the time when I wasn’t a parent. Part of that is funny; part of that is really sad because it meant that when I didn’t have my – when I had my son, I tried to be the best dad I could. But when I didn’t, I just got out of here. I think that was maybe just trying to be as productive as possible in the time that I had some flexibility that really spawned the whole Toronto office.
Vince: That’s interesting.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. It was just sort of like the anxiety and sadness or whatever comes from something like that, and the only cure for it, at least for me, is to just put in the work and find some sort of comfort in the work.
Vince: You sound like a seasoned business person when you speak like that in the sense of if you’d listened to other business people talk about living within your means is not necessarily to extend yourself to a point of discomfort, but that you can choose to do the things that you want to do as opposed to living a life by requirement because you have to do certain things because you have to keep that money coming through.
Omar Gandhi: Exactly.
Vince: You’re running your office in that regard. Right?
Omar Gandhi: Yep.
Vince: You’re not motivated by “Just make it bigger.” A lot of people talk about the number of employees they have in their office as a signal to the success of that office when it’s not the case at all.
Omar Gandhi: No, exactly. I think part of it is fear. Part of it is worrying too much, and the other part of it is just pure selfishness. I can’t work on things that we’re not inspired by. Here’s a weird little side thing. This is hilarious. I don’t know why I’m saying this out loud. I’ve always had this feeling like you only have so many good projects in the tank, like over the course of your career. This is like anxiety talking.
Vince: No, I think that’s fantastic. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Omar Gandhi: And I feel sort of like I’m careful about where those go.
Vince: I’ve always liked you a lot, and I continue to like you more and more, and I think we could probably talk forever. What I want to do – I do want to close with a fun series of rapid-fire questions with you. But before we get there, why don’t you just describe for me where your North End office is within the context of the work that you do and what’s motivating that, and how is it going?
Omar Gandhi: It is coming along. I’m really, really happy with it. It was an empty property, and looking back at the archives it actually has been empty for the foreseeable—
Vince: A long time.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. I think there was a shadow on the property to the attached building, and it’s fairly narrow, so I don’t think anyone saw an opportunity there. But it was primarily about building a home for myself and my son. The North End is where I spend most of my time, where most of my friends live in the Hydrostone on the North End.
I think part of it was affordability, what I could afford to buy, a piece of land, which was pretty cool to be able to buy something in the middle of the city, but also, it not being something where I had to demolish something. I think in terms of the office itself, that was always kind of slated to be on the ground floor with two floors above that.
Over time, it has evolved to not knowing what part of the office was going to be there. I think, for a while, it was going to be the whole office, but it’s really just too small, and we’ve continued to grow incrementally.
Omar Gandhi (cont.): So, we’re planning on staying here in the Port Area for the future, which is great because it means we get to be close to you guys, and we just love, love, love being around here.
Vince: It’s a great area.
Omar Gandhi: You can’t find spaces like this anywhere.
Omar Gandhi: It’s very fairly priced, and it’s such a cool part of the city.
Vince: Okay. Some rapid-fire questions. This isn’t anything to be taken seriously. Here we go. What is your favourite city?
Omar Gandhi: My favourite city is Berlin.
Vince: I thought you would say Halifax.
Omar Gandhi: Yes. After Halifax.
Vince: Berlin. Yeah. You’ve travelled there a fair bit?
Omar Gandhi: Berlin. Yeah. Just the attitude, the fact of the dark history of the place is left for everyone to see. It isn’t erased.
Vince: And to learn from.
Omar Gandhi: And to learn from. Yeah. I think that’s incredible. Another place I love is Mexico City. I can’t wait to be able to go back there.
Vince: I’ve been to Mexico a lot, but I have never been down to Mexico City or up in Mexico standards. Yeah.
Omar Gandhi: I don’t want to say it’s Europe and North America, but it has an intensity like you would see in Asia and a historic fabric that you would see in Europe – incredible weather. But just the design, the style, and the food. It’s a lot of things.
Vince: What is an object or thing that you feel was designed exceptionally well.
Omar Gandhi: There are different kinds of aspects of my place that I’m trying to take to a fun next-level for our own office.
Vince: You’re talking about home, specifically?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. So, one of the things I’m designing is a door lever. It is really difficult. You appreciate the abilities of industrial designers and people who make these things. Arne Jacobsen levers are just so beautifully considered. Unlike architecture, I think that there’s even less room for play. I think there are things that are functional and cheap and organic, and there’s just so much, and I feel like the intricacies amongst all those things, so I’m playing. As I’m playing, I’m appreciating and falling in love with design again.
Vince: One of the reasons why I love the process of designing in hospitality in retail environments is because your clients are expecting you to design a chair, or they’re expecting you to design a booth, a piece of furniture, or the edge of the bar detail. It is an expectation for a level of detail.
Vince (cont.): A set of drawings, for example, on a restaurant compared to a set of drawings that I may have done at a previous architectural office. In comparison, it would be like a nine-story office building compared to a 1,000-square-foot restaurant is almost the same number of drawings and details, but you just go into it in such detail. It is a lot of fun. What is something that you found, that you see, which is fundamentally different than most people?
Omar Gandhi: I would say that I’m not a huge fan of Leonard Cohen.
Vince: Ohhhh! That is fundamentally different. [Laughter]
Omar Gandhi: I can’t. I feel like some of those things that I’ve really tried. Like, we’re pretty far down the line in terms of life now.
Vince: Yeah. You can say that, and you don’t worry about them judging you for it.
Omar Gandhi: I get it. No, I don’t. But that’s okay. I think that’s it. It is just appreciating that people like different things, but I tried.
Vince: If you’re entertaining guests at home, do you cook or order in?
Omar Gandhi: Definitely, cook.
Vince: Oh, yeah? Do you have a favourite dish that you do?
Omar Gandhi: I like cooking messy. I’m not—
Vince: A one-pot chef kind of thing.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah, a little bit of that. I was just at Eric’s place the other day, and he had three cast irons going at the same time. I think I really love cooking. I’m also someone who gets anxious and nervous about it. Like, there are people who are amazing hosts, and I really aspire to be like that. You know, where you’re there, and they’re making it in front of you, and they’re like, “Here. Chop this.”
Vince: Some have a knack.
Omar Gandhi: It’s so cool.
Vince: Yeah. It’s so true. I love that. I do fumble a little bit, as well. What book do you most often give as a gift?
Omar Gandhi: What’s his name, again? I think it’s Ted Barber. I think that’s his name. It’s a barbeque book, and I’ve given it to four people. Someone gave it to me, and it’s this guy who obviously loves eating, and he’s not messing around.
Vince: This is the book that you give to the guests of whose house you’d like to go to so that you don’t have to feel nervous and anxious.
Omar Gandhi: That’s right. It’s just good barbeque food.
Vince: What is a skill or talent that you have that would surprise most people?
Omar Gandhi: I was a Double-A pitcher.
Vince: Oh, yeah?
Omar Gandhi: Yeah.
Vince: I didn’t know that. I knew that you liked baseball.
Omar Gandhi: Yeah. I love baseball. I think I like baseball more than I like architecture.
Vince: When you’re in Toronto, do you see the Jays a lot?
Omar Gandhi: I do.
Vince: All right, Omar. I think the world of you, and I hope for your continued success, and that those lists of great projects will not run out, and they’ll continue and continue.
Omar Gandhi: Thank you, sir.
Vince: Thank you for your time.
Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was Part 2 of Episode 3 with Omar Gandhi of Omar Gandhi Architect. A full transcript and show notes can be found at Breakhouse.ca/podcast/3.2.
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 2 – 33:42]