“I see myself as an outsider,” Omar Gandhi says. We’re chatting at his Toronto headquarters, a low-slung brick building on the edge of Parkdale, while his small crew quietly works away on residential and hospitality projects in Halifax and Toronto. Despite – or perhaps because of – his unique perspective, Gandhi successfully straddles the two cities’ architecture scenes by hopping on a plane every few days, embracing a routine that might rattle some but only underlines his idiosyncratic trajectory and steady ambition.
Still in his 30s, Gandhi started his bi-urban toggling early on. The Brampton native and student of architecture at the University of Toronto would choose Dalhousie University for his Master’s, returning to Toronto to work for KPMB before East-Coasting it again to join MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. It was there, in 2010, that he set up Omar Gandhi Architect and began creating the vernacular-with-a-twist homes that first awed us on Instagram. Among them is a recent Governor General’s Medal in Architecture winner: Rabbit Snare Gorge, a gabled residence stretched dramatically to maximize views across its Maritimes setting.
Every OG project begins with a recognizable typology. “Then we bend it, twist it and fold it – but each move is a necessity based on the individual user program, context or climate. Anything outside that step-by-step process – a formal move that would look ‘cool’ – we eliminate.” This delicate balance has garnered the firm acclaim here and abroad: in 2014, Gandhi won the Canada Council Prix de Rome, and in 2016 New York’s prestigious Architectural League named him an Emerging Voice. Gandhi seized the spotlight and launched his Toronto office.
“There is a clarity in the delineation of the super forms of his buildings,” says architect Bruce Kuwabara, a longtime mentor of Gandhi’s. “He’s transforming his understanding of the vernacular, and it feels fresh.”
Today, the pace and output of his work reflects the slow–fast dichotomy of the two cities. Along-side a bevy of private houses in Ontario, his most significant GTA projects will undoubtedly be his collaborations on community-transforming condo towers. But there is one constant: “Vernacular is still the central idea of our work – trying to find an architecture that’s uniquely Toronto, and of a time and period where things mattered,” says Gandhi. “Presented in a contemporary way, of course.”
With Kohn Partnership Architects and SvN, he’s designing the Buckingham Condos, a three-towers-on-a-base structure that avoids the typical glass-box cliché with a jacket of textured terracotta; and, again with SvN (as well as Janet Rosenberg Studio), he’s at work on The Manderley in Scarborough, a 10-storey mixed-use development where the brick facade – a Toronto vernacular if ever there was one – is carefully matched to the neighbourhood’s landmark church.
Perhaps most exciting for Torontonians: two hot new downtown restaurants. Opening soon, Lady Marmalade’s new location will take the shape of a long, light-filled plywood box with a glass-balustraded mezzanine. And soon after, Gandhi will unveil his design for a hush-hush enterprise by Viceland celebrity chef Matty Matheson. Gandhi is eager for his entrée into the city’s exploding dining scene, but shrugs off the pressure. “We have our way of working and we stay true to it. In terms of ego, the awards and attention are a short high. What you really need to do is take the opportunities that come with them.” Spoken like a consummate outsider.