Fancy Shanty

PROJECT Shantih, Hunts Point, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECT Omar Gandhi Architect Inc.
TEXT Ingrid Hansen
PHOTOS Greg Richardson Photography

Hunts Point is a small community located on the south shore of Nova Scotia about two hours down the main highway from Halifax. Once central to the province’s hearty fishing industry, the region now survives almost exclusively on seasonal tourism. Wedged between two popular vacation hubs, the weathered village maintains an old and still active fishing wharf and an authenticity that is becoming increasingly rare. It is here, among a handful of unpretentious homes that line a sheltered cove, where you will find Shantih. But you’ll have to look for it.

Architect Omar Gandhi designed Shantih with considered sensitivity towards its surrounding cultural landscape. As a result, the almost 3,000-square-foot beach house is barely visible from the road. Its long, low exterior façade appears at the bottom of a gently sloping driveway. High-set strip windows run the considerable length of the east-facing elevation. A secondary wall with a recessed porch pivots back on a slight southwest angle. The front door–tucked in a passage where the two sections overlap–is easy to miss. Clad in precise rows of lightly bleached cedar shakes, the street façade blends into the horizon and exudes a curious intimacy with a remarkably human scale. It serves as a friendly exchange between the house and historic community that’s not so much modest as it is a thoughtful gesture, like removing your hat when you take your seat in a theatre.

Shantih’s ocean façade presents a striking contrast. A dynamic central section with a shed roof and glazed wall soars to a height of 17 feet above a natural sloping hollow. A white brise-soleil hangs over the top half, softening this vertical volume. Two asymmetric wings, containing the guest rooms on one end and the main bedroom on the other, flank each side and stretch towards the sea. Shantih echoes the curve of the sheltered bay and embodies a similar protective quality within its composition. The shape of the building is reminiscent of someone holding up their arms about to give you a hug. Perhaps it’s this gesture, combined with the playhouse, trampoline and swings in the yard, that makes the site feel entirely private and protected from the world, like a magical playground.

Gandhi acknowledges the challenge of designing something at the scale of Shantih and placing it next to smaller existing homes without dominating the site. His process involved extensive research and reading of the landscape, but also following his instincts as a young practitioner. After interning with firms including Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects and MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, Gandhi began his Halifax-based practice in 2010. A forward-thinking critical regionalist approach is alive in his work, not overly ideological but honest and pragmatic. It evokes a sense of living in the present while contributing to a living history.

Shantih’s central room, supported by two-foot-deep engineered beams, contains the open kitchen, living and dining areas, including a six-foot-long gas fireplace set into a wall of custom-made cabinets. Natural light sweeps through the glazed façade and animates the space. A large adjacent sunroom features a suspended wood fireplace and folding glass doors that provide a seamless transition between inside and out. The direct association between the heart of the house and the shore is easy and inviting. It integrates a simultaneous liberty to play or simply to watch. Gandhi’s clients, a retired couple who live primarily in Halifax, devote much of their energy to an organization they founded to support youth living with mental illness. They asked Gandhi to build a refuge that would be full of light, easy to maintain, and able to accommodate their growing extended family. “It’s a very simple idea,” Gandhi says. “It’s really just about family and looking into the centre and feeling calm.”

While the central room promotes activity, the wings are more subdued. The guest-wing corridor functions as a gallery. Its long, windowless wall is strung with a line of the clients’ travel photos–they’ve circumnavigated the planet by sailboat twice. A series of uniform doors leads to three small bedrooms with high sloping ceilings and two strangely generous, sparse bathrooms. A glazed door at the far end of the hall lures the visitor back outside.

The opposite wing includes a shorter corridor leading into a relatively small main bedroom. Large windows provide an expansive 180- degree view from the front yard with its in-ground swimming pool to the active wharf at the foot of the bay. The wide span of ever-changing scenery is absorbing. As a platform for passive observation, the room feels much like the dome car on a train paused on its tracks.

Shantih exaggerates drama. The geometry of the beach house captures transient Maritime light in its varying moods–bright, soft, hard or dim–as it moves through rooms or bleeds around corners. Each window is situated to frame a distinct view of the diverse surroundings. Locally sourced materials, such as yellow poplar and Eastern white cedar, add texture and warmth. But perhaps the most dramatic gestures occur in the thresholds leading between Shantih’s central room and the entry and bedroom wings. In these compression zones, ceilings lined with acoustic buffers shift from almost claustrophobically low to the unusually high volume of the central room. There is a kind of hush created in the in-between. Gandhi likens the experience to that of Muhammad Ali walking down a quiet corridor and then setting foot into an arena with a crowd yelling and whistling and going crazy. The result–although not at the scale of a big boxing match–is effective, yet somewhat disconcerting at first.

Many architects wouldn’t want their client to name a new building. Gandhi didn’t mind. The referent is Sanskrit, roughly translated by T.S. Eliot as “the Peace which passeth understanding,” which is repeated at the end of his 1922 poem The Waste Land. “Sometimes we call it a shanty,” the clients say, revealing a sense of humour that “irritates the rest of the family.” They also say that moving through the compression zones is “like coming through a birth canal.” To the clients’ and architect’s credit, Shantih’s expression is thoroughly modern, devoid of fashion, romantic nostalgia or folksy quaintness.

Shantih’s sense of honesty and meaning derives in large part from the architect’s openness to making the house about the people who live in it. Gandhi takes pleasure in pointing out the pencil markings on a bedroom wall that record the heights of his clients’ grandchildren, or the jumble of packages on the open shelves in the kitchen pantry. “It’s pretty satisfying when this stuff happens,” he says. For Gandhi, it’s not just about the designed building–it’s the playhouse in the middle of the yard, the clothesline strung between the house and a nearby tree, and the pencil marks on the wall that attest to Shantih’s success.

Standing in the central room with its lofty ceiling and long wall of glass, I look out towards the white sand cove and sunlight gleaming on the surface of the sea. I feel nothing. Not a desolate or sentimental sort of nothing, but the kind of nothingness you might feel in those rare moments when you inexplicably trust everything is going to be okay. The nothingness that leaves no choice but to turn and embrace the future. Which is, I think, exactly the state Eliot was alluding to in his poem, and exactly executed in the design of Shantih. CA

Ingrid Hansen is a freelance writer based in Montreal and Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

Clients Rosemary and Keith Hamilton
Architect Team Omar Gandhi
Structural Andrea Doncaster
Mechanical Brian Conrad
Electrical Lee Whynot
Landscape T&R Landscaping
Interiors Omar Gandhi Architect Inc.
Kitchen Bulthaup
Contractor Deborah Herman-Spartinelli (Trunnells & Tenons Construction)
Millwork Len Michalik
Physical Model Chad Jamieson
Area 3,000 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion Summer 2012