A Dichotomy of Tranquility and Drama – White Rock by Omar Gandhi
White Rock is a Corten steel-clad cubic structure perched on a hillside in the Gaspereau Valley, an agricultural community in Nova Scotia, Canada. Designed by architect Omar Gandhi as a retreat for himself, a close friend and their respective families and wider circle of friends and colleagues, it is a deeply personal project that adds a dynamic layer to his studio’s well-honed portfolio.
Interestingly, the concept for the residence bounced around the studio for several years, undergoing various iterations before finding a fit with this brief and site. “For whatever reason, some projects don’t go ahead, and so over the past decade and a half, we’ve collected them,” Omar says. “This one – which is kind of like a creature on stilts – lent itself to lots of different topographies, so I kept it in my back pocket. It’s a way of ensuring our best ideas don’t die.” Following a rigorous process of site-specific interrogation, Omar and the project’s co-owner – a close childhood friend – proceeded with their long-held dream to build something together.
It is possible to visualise this elemental structure in similarly remote settings, yet the project’s nuances – in materiality, orientation and scale – bring a specificity that belongs only to this place. This begins at the driveway, which Omar describes as “long and sweeping in a lateral way, with a big hairpin turn”. Drawing visitors deep into the property and up the hill towards the home, this is the first step in the project’s arrival sequence, and it speaks to the studio’s ongoing interest in “procession and narrative” in architecture.
From a distance, the structure is but a small disruption amid the reddish dirt and ever-changing colours of the surrounding forest, yet close-up, its presence is monumental. The form, which rises above a modest entry volume and appears to protrude from the rocky outcrop, is a confident expression of simple geometries. “At its core, it’s an almost cubic volume with several minimal protrusions,” Omar says. Various landscaped elements – including a custom Corten steel firepit and a granite well, which receives water from a drain positioned high above, amplifying the sound of the rain – soften the project’s relationship to the landscape and hint at the familiar, domestic intentions at play.
The façade is a patchwork of weathered steel – both flat and corrugated Corten panels – and glass. On the first floor, generous picture windows face east and west, and on the second floor, a larger window punctuates the southern elevation, spanning its width and wrapping around to the east. The boxy frame that surrounds it creates visual interest and, importantly, acts as a deep eave, providing the home with a welcome reprieve from the sun in the brief but warm summer.
Entering via a discreet front door located in the shadow of the volume, the entry vestibule is low, compressed and dimly lit, and a staircase leads visitors upwards through the dwelling to the bedrooms on the second level. These spaces are intentionally minimal. Lined entirely in smoked oak with raw steel shelving and wall-mounted industrial light fixtures, there is a cabin-like feel, albeit elevated, distinguished by the large picture windows providing “selective views toward the forest”. In the bathroom, another picture window faces the steeply sloping hillside, framing a view that is “both peaceful and dramatic,” Omar says.
“It was important that the appliances fell back and receded into the background. Fisher & Paykel knew that this was the desired outcome and had plenty of options that helped us to achieve that effect.”
The materiality and furnishings, which are defined by unusual, divergent combinations, reflect Omar’s personal tastes and interests. As the architect and client, he saw this project as an opportunity to experiment within the framework of his practice. This is most clearly expressed in the primary living space on the third floor, where various custom features he created in collaboration with local fabricators – such as a Gothic-inspired chandelier by Concord Lighting and Shaker-style dining chairs by a New Brunswick furniture maker with leatherwork by a Nova Scotian artisan – bring a level of patina and character to the otherwise rudimentary form.
These warm, brawny pieces are the ideal counterpoint to the monastic stainless-steel kitchen – within which a suite of Fisher & Paykel appliances is discreetly integrated and concealed. As Omar says, the intentions for this sleek kitchen were clearly defined from the outset, and the team at Fisher & Paykel rose to the design challenge with ease. “It was important that the appliances receded into the background,” he says. “Fisher & Paykel knew that this was the desired outcome and had plenty of options that helped us to achieve that effect. Their appliances are designed to be very much adapted to the architecture so there’s a lot of latitude.”
Not only have Fisher & Paykel’s exceptional integration capabilities come heavily into play – the Integrated Double DishDrawer, for example, “vanishes into the composition,” Omar says – but its design flexibility and product range allowed Omar to conceive a layout specific to his brief and preferences. The “hyper minimalist” kitchen is a study in scale: the back bench – which can be seen from the open-plan living and dining area – contains only low elements which are either integrated or “finely detailed in terms of craft”, while the taller elements – such as the refrigerator, freezer and wine cabinet – are housed in the pantry adjacent to the primary work zone. This dichotomy “allows for a certain level of flow and ease of use and, most importantly to me, it’s all really fun to use”.
For many architects, the opportunity to build upon ideas inherent to their practice without certain parameters is invaluable, and White Rock encapsulates this for Omar. “It’s not similar to anything we’ve done but it’s certainly where my interests lie – not only in how much this project takes on but in it being a control or mastery of those elements as opposed to defaulting to a minimalistic approach”. Though the architecture expresses many of the principles central to his studio’s work, it delves into unexplored terrain, no doubt a result of this project’s strong personal undercurrent.
There’s little doubt that White Rock would have found its way into existence one way or another: the broad concept was simply too compelling to fade into the ether of unexplored ideas. Yet it has found its rightful place in the Gaspereau Valley, and in that lies the power of this project – not only is it a curious paradigm but, here on the hillside, it is captivating in its utter singularity.