Across the province’s cliffside fishing towns, Omar Gandhi’s residential architecture is as austere and intense as the environment for which it’s built.
EVERY FEW DAYS, the Canadian architect Omar Gandhi migrates between Toronto, his hometown, and Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, where he opened his eponymous firm in 2010. A year and a half ago, Gandhi added New Haven to his weekly peregrinations — he was teaching a seminar at the Yale School of Architecture called Where the Wild Things Are, after Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book. For the final project of the semester, the professor took his class to the wind-swept island of Cape Breton (a glove-shaped appendage separated from Nova Scotia’s main peninsula by the narrow Strait of Canso) to visit his 2013 project Rabbit Snare Gorge, a slender cabin that stretches 43 feet tall, like a 16th-century Mannerist portrait. Touring the surrounding plot, a 47-acre wooded slope bisected by the creek that gives the house its name, Gandhi, 40, asked his students to conceive a “campus of creatures” — a set of structures that, as he described it when we met at his Halifax studio last summer, “have an attitude and respond and look like they move.”
Where Sendak’s wild things were fierce, lumbering beasts, Gandhi’s house, dressed in long, pale panels of local white cedar, is spry and lithe, imbued with the same anarchic, leaping energy as Max, the book’s boy king. Built for a New Jersey lawyer who has vacationed in Nova Scotia for years, the house looks toward a 120-foot bluff fronting the Gulf of St. Lawrence, three miles outside the village of Inverness. A broad 20-by-8-foot bank of windows faces west over a narrow chute of black spruce and birch toward a slim triangle of water, etched on blustery days with white caps, like a sinister sea in an Edward Gorey illustration. The structure gracefully withstands Nova Scotia’s often brutal weather, its 1,200 square feet split over three spartan floors; each level has a 14-inch ring beam to help protect against the island’s gale-force winds. “We’ve always thought of our buildings as these sort of creatures,” Gandhi says, and this one’s job “is to get up as high as possible to see these long views.” Architects often discuss the tasks their buildings accomplish, but Gandhi talks about his as if they have their own inchoate desires: His houses don’t just serve a purpose, they have lives of their own. In fact, the house at Rabbit Snare Gorge is part of a family, Gandhi’s own campus of creatures, originally planned for the site. The second structure, a boat shed made from the same faded planks of local white cedar, is shaped like a crystal of Maldon salt, stretched low over the ground, its form distended by forward motion, as though ensnared in its sprint through the forest. (The third, a lookout tower at the water’s edge, was never born.)
With this project, Gandhi encapsulated his vision for a new Nova Scotian architecture. Across the province — from the highlands of Cape Breton, which draw hordes of tourists each fall to witness the dense forest’s flamboyant transition into winter, to the marshlands of the south across the Bay of Fundy from Maine — shingled houses painted in shades of aubergine, sage and slate line up along country roads that overlook skiffs and lobster boats bobbing on the mercurial, cobalt sea. Front yards are decorated not with flower beds or lawn ornaments but with tangled mounds of fishing rope and buoys the color of wild strawberries. The names of the villages that line the peninsula’s rocky perimeter — Antigonish and Isle Madame, Argyle and Lunenburg — speak to the region’s long polyglot history, beginning with the Mi’kmaq indigenous peoples, whose land was taken starting in the 17th century by Scottish, English, French and German colonizers. Even today, many here still speak Gaelic or Acadian, the French dialect introduced by the first European settlers in 1604. Fishing remains an important industry. Nova Scotia, Gandhi says, “is a place that doesn’t change very quickly.” But his Rabbit Snare Gorge house injects the island’s static saltbox vernacular with sudden kinetic energy, an argument for Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory that evolution happens not gradually but in dramatic bursts. Rather than modernizing the traditional cottages that punctuate the province’s tundra-like landscape with new technologies or imported materials, Gandhi has brought them to jarring life, not so much creating finished structures as releasing them into the wild.