Architecture is a vessel for cultural expression. From Douglas Cardinal’s Canadian Museum of History and Raymond Moriyama’s Science North to John and Patricia Patkau’s Audain Art Gallery, the country’s public galleries and museums claim a leading place in the national design discourse, providing a civic lens through which we understand culture, art, history, and nature. Yet, across Canada, the lens is seldom inverted; our galleries and museum programs rarely focus on architecture. Fortunately, there are notable exceptions. Last fall, I visited the elegant KPMB-designed Harrison McCain Pavilion at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. And for once, I wasn’t there for the building.

In October, the Beaverbrook unveiled “Omar Gandhi Architects,” a months-long exhibit — which ran until early 2024 — chronicling the work of the eponymous Halifax- and Toronto-based firm. Curated by art and architecture historian John Leroux, the assembly of photos and architectural models created an eclectic procession through forms and geography across the country. Crouching down, I immediately recognize the vaulted ceiling of Toronto’s Prime Seafood Palace in exquisite miniature, nestled alongside houses like Rabbit Snare Gorge, Sluice Point, and many more, as well as recent public projects like the accessible viewing platform at Peggy’s Cove, and — at the heart of the room — the striking, albeit politically stalled, vision for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Curated by John Leroux, "Omar Gandhi Architects" was exhibited at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery until early 2014.

Curated by John Leroux, “Omar Gandhi Architects” was exhibited at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery until early 2024. PHOTO: Julia Parkinson

The next morning, I met Omar Gandhi over coffee and cinnamon buns. A Governor General’s Medal in Architecture winner — not to mention a multiple AZ Awards laureate, among numerous other accolades — Gandhi leads one of Canada’s most celebrated design firms, with an ouevre that ranges across architectural typologies and also includes standout industrial design, furniture, and — most recently — lighting. In a country where opportunities for young architects are scarce, Gandhi has successfully leveraged a boutique residential portfolio into high-profile public commissions. How’d he do it? And how does his coherent design sensibility translate from furniture and lighting to restaurant interiors, houses, and civic spaces? Also, what’s Matty Matheson like? But for starters, how does it feel to be the focus of a public exhibition?

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

At the centre of the room, a model for the ambitious transformation of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. PHOTO: Julia Parkinson

Yet, Gandhi was gracefully reticent to dominate the focus — or speak with singular authority. While Omar Gandhi Architects began as a one-person practice, today, “it’s fundamentally a team project,” he stressed. So how does he do it? “Not alone.” Understanding the studio’s work and approach means taking a wider view. “Our design work isn’t something that just comes from me. It emerges out of collaboration, starting with our leadership team: Stephanie Hosein, Jordan Rice, and Jeff Shaw,” he said. “To get what we’re all about, you’ve got to talk to them, too.” So that’s what I did. Over the next few months, I also spoke to each of the firm’s senior associates, with all four conversations distilled into the insights below.

Design Origins
Stephanie Hosein

I was majoring in math and minoring in fine arts, not really sure what I wanted to do and kind of thought architecture might be a good combination. It happened to work out in my favour. I was at UBC and then transferred to Dalhousie where I did my undergrad and masters — and that’s where I met Omar. We’d just passed each other in school, I started in 2006 and I think he graduated a year earlier, but Halifax is a small place, so we knew each other through the community. Then, after I graduated in 2010, I worked in New York for a while and then with KPMB in Toronto, which was a great experience. Then, in 2016, Omar was looking to expand his practice and open a Toronto studio. I reached out and jumped on board. And it was a really exciting, steep learning curve.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

Stephanie Hosein attended Dalhousie University and received the AIA Henry Adams certificate and RAIC High Honour Roll upon graduation with her M.Arch. Her wide range of project experience in both new construction and adaptive re-use includes commercial, hospitality, residential, offices and higher education. She is a founding member of Building Equality in Architecture Toronto (BEAT), an independent organization dedicated to the promotion of diversity and equality in the profession of architecture.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

Jeff Shaw first encountered architecture growing up in Herring Cove, Nova Scotia while working on construction projects in the summer with his grandfather. He went on to complete his Master of Architecture at Dalhousie University. It was there that he developed his interests in how people interact with the built environment at all scales – from the small, tactile elements to the formal and massing qualities. Jeff started at Omar Gandhi Architects as part of his M.Arch. internship, and joined the practice shortly after graduation in 2012.

Jeff Shaw

I’m actually from Nova Scotia, and I grew up just 20 minutes outside of downtown Halifax. I became interested in buildings and design from a very early age. As a kid, I started working with my grandfather, he was in carpentry and construction. So he had his own business, and I would work summers with him. And we started working on a house which was just down the hill from a local architect’s house. So he took us on a tour and showed us what he was working on. It was my first time looking at drawings, trying to figure out how they worked. I must’ve been something like 13 years old — but I was hooked.

At the same time, the hands-on mentality from working with my grandfather really stuck with me. When I went to Dalhousie, I really liked that there was a tactile quality to the learning. I remember we were at a children’s summer camp in PEI, for example, and we had to build a fire pit. And it’s a feeling — and a sense of texture and tactility — that we try to maintain in the work we do today.

Jordan Rice

I grew up in New Brunswick — not too far from us here in Halifax  — in Moncton. And my dad was a contractor, so that’s really where this journey started for me. As a kid, I’d tag along to inspect job sites and do the walk around with him. So I was always interested in how things go together, not necessarily in an architectural sense, but just understanding the mechanics of how things work. As I started to get older, I eventually became a carpenter, working in the summers between semesters of school.

On the other side, my mom has always been a very creative person, with knitting and sewing and all sorts of crafts. And I used to sit down and sew with her. So that’s, I think, where the design side came in and merged with the construction side that my dad brought. Architecture was a really good fit for all of that. After graduating from Dalhousie, I worked all over the place. I was in Paris working for Lina Ghotmeh for a while, then back here in Halifax working for Brian Mackay-Lyons, and then I spent a few years in Calgary. Once I got registered as an architect here, Omar was my mentor.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

Omar Gandhi is a Canadian architect, born in Toronto and raised in Brampton and currently practicing and residing in both Halifax, Nova Scotia and Toronto, Ontario. After studying in the Regional Arts program at Mayfield Secondary School (Caledon) and then the inaugural Architectural Studies Program at the University of Toronto, Omar moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he received his Master’s degree in 2005 at Dalhousie University.

Jordan Rica has built success through combining a calm and steadfast approach with extensive knowledge of construction, experienced project delivery, and a collaborative design sensibility. He has held pivotal roles in designing a range of institutional, commercial, residential, and civic projects. Jordan joined Omar Gandhi Architects in 2018, after accumulating over 10 years of experience with award-winning firms in Canada and France.

Jordan Rice has built success through combining a calm and steadfast approach with extensive knowledge of construction, experienced project delivery, and a collaborative design sensibility. He has held pivotal roles in designing a range of institutional, commercial, residential, and civic projects. Jordan joined Omar Gandhi Architects in 2018, after accumulating over 10 years of experience with award-winning firms in Canada and France.

Omar Gandhi

Yeah. But you know, Stephanie is maybe the greatest leader I’ve ever known — and a magnificent architect. Jordan is also probably one of the most talented architects I’ve ever known — and he’s the reason we’ve started working in the public realm. And then Jeff, who has been with me since the very beginning, is hands down the most naturally talented person I’ve ever met. So I’m lucky to be surrounded by brilliant people.

The Architecture of Collaboration
Jeff Shaw

It’s exciting and challenging. Our Toronto and Halifax offices are obviously geographically apart, and once in a while we have some work cross over from one studio to another. Sometimes that sort of happens organically. When a project in Nova Scotia starts construction, for example, it might switch over to the Halifax office from Toronto. But outside of that, we also have bigger brainstorming sessions and then break up ideas into smaller groups — and then come back together. So it’s a really interesting way to see ideas evolve, but also to articulate the ideas or design approaches that we have in common. And as we start to move into some public projects, it’s an interesting chapter in our history, to see how some of those ideas — and that sense of intimacy and tactility — from our residential portfolio translates into bigger work.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

The much-lauded Prime Seafood Palace saw Omar Gandhi Architects pick up an AZ Award in 2023, among many other accolades. PHOTO: Adrian Ozimek

Stephanie Hosein

We’re a boutique firm, so the way we operate is that the our team really stays fully on board with every project from start to finish. It starts from the first conversations with the client, to putting together the drawings and carrying it all the way through to the end of construction. At bigger firms, it’s work that can get shuffled between different teams or subcontractors, but we’re there the whole way through.

And we’re a really detail-oriented practice by nature, but the way in which we work also supports that. At Prime Seafood Palace, for example, that’s what it was like with Matty Matheson and his team. Matty started showing us all these photos of Japanese and Scandinavian places of worship, and we had lots of conversations about how to carry that into a culinary setting, and understanding every detail of how a restaurant works. (Which is something that I love, because it engages that problem-solving, math part of my brain.)

It also means working very closely with trades. For an unconventional space like Prime Seafood Palace, executing it properly means we have to work through issues – and collaborate — every step of the way. We’ve been lucky to work with really great builders and trades, but it also helps that we’re able to be so hands-on and focused as a small team. And Matty is like that too.

Jordan Rice

Our own team all comes from different backgrounds, which is really nice. Jeff is really mechanically inclined, for example, so he has an amazing touch for figuring out how things work and how everything fits together. And Stephanie has great empathy and leadership — and her work through BEAT [Building Equality in Architecture Toronto] helps us all better understand equity and how to connect with people. That influences us deeply. At the same time, we’re a small enough group that we all work closely together, without the sort of cliques that can develop in a larger practice.

We all collaborate closely as architects, but thinking of builders and trades as our collaborators is another big part of it. And having worked in construction, it sort of changes the way you approach things as a designer. Even a small detail like an air conditioning unit in a hotel window — when I start to detail that, I remember what it was like to actually install those. You’d be lying on your back, covered in goop, and oftentimes there’s no room for your hands to tighten the bolt, and the process sort of breaks down. So drawing on those kinds of experiences — and thinking about construction as a part of the design process — ends up shaping how you understand space. While it doesn’t necessarily push the conceptual side of things in an obvious way, it reigns you in and helps define how you translate the big ideas into built form. And ultimately, the quality of the end build is your signature as a designer.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

Designed to repel water, the sloping roof of Treow Brycg (2018) house on Nova Scotia’s stormy South Shore melds into a canted facade.
PHOTO: Ema Peter

Jeff Shaw

It’s definitely a shift in how we think, but part of that evolution also probably reflects how the logistical realities of practice have evolved. For a long time, we’ve thought of the architect as a sort of “jack of all trades,” but, for better or worse, the profession has been shifting away from that. We’re living in a world where technology has gotten so complex and so detailed that you need a specialist for each part of the process. Whether you’re a BIM manager or some kind of Grasshopper 3D wizard, there’s so much expertise needed in every step of the design process that you end up having to collaborate. I think, ultimately, this changes how we think about design.

New Horizons
Omar Gandhi

You have to be patient as a small practitioner because, in many ways, the system is designed to keep you out. It’s designed to mitigate risk and allow a small number of firms — mostly gigantic international conglomerates — to get public projects. And the criteria is always how many projects you’ve done. But they don’t ask how many of those projects have actually been successful!

I hope things are changing though. In Alberta, Edmonton employs Carol Belanger as a City Architect — and he’s really transformed procurement and how they hire architects by hosting competitions and creating opportunities for emerging firms. So because of that we’re now able to do a library in Edmonton,  which we’re designing in collaboration with Sturgess Architecture from Calgary. Hopefully, the game is changing. And we gradually started getting into public commissions because of Jordan. He pulled us into the Peggy’s Cove Viewing Platform and figured out a way for us to get involved with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi

A breakout public commission for Omar Gandhi Architects, the Peggy’s Cove Viewing Platform (2021) incorporates ramps, hand-rails and tactile indicators to transform a challenging landscape into an accessible attraction.
PHOTO: Maxime Brouillet

Jordan Rice

The reality is, just the way RFPs are structured and things like that, it’s almost impossible for a firm at our scale to compete with other firms on experience, because we don’t have enough. And we can’t really compete on price, because we won’t do a race to the bottom and work cheap. So what we’ve done is carefully strategize to find projects, and try to see openings.

With Peggy’s Cove, for example, it actually started out as a master plan. And not a lot of people wanted to touch it because it was just a master plan, and nobody knew whether the project would actually happen. So we thought, okay, this might be a good opportunity to get in there and at least create some relationships. But then it led to the next phase, and we sort of had an inside track for responding to the RFP.

With the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia — and a few other projects — it required a similarly creative approach. With that particular RFP, there was an opening within it to really talk about the story you want to tell and the partnerships you wanted to make in the community. So we were able to craft the team with KPMB, Jordan Bennett, Lorraine Whitman and a few others, focusing on celebrating Indigenous culture and and working with disadvantaged communities. It wasn’t just “here’s an RFP, let’s bid on that.” And the projects that we can go after are still quite limited, but we’re trying to find a way.

The OG Brick light was initially developed for Gandhi's own residence, and was launched in 2024.

The OG Brick light was initially developed for Gandhi’s own residence, and was launched in 2024.

Jeff Shaw

It’s been exciting to see the firm’s evolution. We built a portfolio of residential work, which has a certain sense of texture and intimacy, and a relationship to the site and the landscape. And we’re trying to maintain that attention to detail, and that sense of intimacy, as we move onto bigger projects. With the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, for example, it’s obviously a different scale. Yet, I think there’s still a certain quietness to the design — and because it’s so quiet it allows it to really embrace a formal idea.

I think a lot of the ideas we’ve been exploring over the last 10 years in residential work are being translated into public commissions – and also into furniture and lighting. [In March, Omar Gandhi Architects unveiled the Brick Light and the striking 18 ga. pendant]. There’s a careful attention to materials and a sense of quietness, but the quietness is what allows the narrative — or the central idea – of the design to express itself.

Drawing on the wave-like shape found in metal cladding, the sine-shaped curved profile of 18 ga. serves as a unique reflector, subtly elevating lighting quality while casting shadows and depth.

Drawing on the wave-like shape found in metal cladding, the sine-shaped curved profile of 18 ga. serves as a unique reflector, subtly elevating lighting quality while casting shadows and depth.

Stephanie Hosein

Each of us has also continued to evolve as the firm evolves. Advocacy, and my work with BEAT [Hosein is a founding member and part of the Advisory Committee] has been a huge part of my career — and it’s something that Omar and the team have always supported. When I was at KPMB, Shirley Blumberg and women in the office started some informal conversations about being a woman in architecture. And Brigitte Shim, Betsy Williamson, Pat Hanson and other amazing women in the industry became a part of it quickly. And it started with conversations about how we can create change. Why are we losing so many women five to 10 years out of school? What can we do to better support them?  What does female leadership look like?

So there’s the built work, but then as architects we’re also branching out into our communities and becoming more engaged. And I think that makes us better designers.

Portraits by Vanessa Heins.

The post Design in Conversation: Stephanie Hosein, Jeff Shaw, Jordan Rice, and Omar Gandhi appeared first on Azure Magazine.