Twenty + Change: Studio Shirshekar, Rothesay, New Brunswick

Her vision is “to bring affordable, accessible contemporary design to a historic Canadian region that is steeped in traditional design.”

The competition-winning Facet-It Bike Hook was designed with Danielle Whitley, and produced as a prototype for the 2015 IIDEX Woodshop exhibition. Photo by Sanaz Shirshekar

Sanaz Shirshekar’s story sounds almost like a movie premise: promising young architect builds her career at two bigtime firms (KPMB in Toronto and the New York office of interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg). Then love and marriage take her to little Rothesay, New Brunswick, just east of Saint John. Her vision for Studio Shirshekar, the solo practice she establishes there, is “to bring affordable, accessible contemporary design to a historic Canadian region that is steeped in traditional design—and slow to embrace change.”

Completed with architect of record Des-Tec, the Petitcodiac Baptist Church pays homage to a demolished 1879 Gothic Revival building on the site. Photo by Julian Parkinson

Around the time of her 2017 move to Atlantic Canada, family ties led to an extraordinary project. Her husband’s grandmother, philanthropist Jean Irving, grew up in rural Petitcodiac, N.B., where her grandfather was the pastor of the Baptist church. A 2016 heating oil leak had compromised the foundation of the oldest part of that church, a well-loved 1879 Gothic Revival building, necessitating its demolition. “Mrs. Irving paid for the entire remediation of the church and most of the reconstruction,” says Shirshekar, who designed the addition and renovation.

Completed with architect of record Des-Tec, the Petitcodiac Baptist Church pays homage to a demolished 1879 Gothic Revival building on the site. Photo by Julian Parkinson

She was able to convince Mrs. Irving (who died in 2019) and the town that it was possible to commemorate the lost landmark without replicating it. Primarily a community hall, the new construction connects to a 1980s addition that served as the sanctuary even before the old building’s demolition. The massing, window distribution and wood siding of the new Fellowship Centre all recall the old church, but the new building is clearly of its own time. Its elemental, open-ended steeple frames the main entry, the old church’s bell, and a new illuminated cross that is visible throughout much of the town. Petitcodiac’s response to this sensitive addition and renovation has been overwhelmingly positive.

The university’s Whitebone Pizzeria is centered on an open kitchen and artisanal pizza oven. Photo by Mark Hemmings
A renovation to a University of New Brunswick Saint John computer lab uses colour to elevate the space on a modest budget. Photo by Mark Hemmings

Studio Shirshekar remains a solo practice with some freelance support—its founder and her husband now have two young children and seek to balance their work and home lives. The studio has received several interior renovation commissions from University of New Brunswick Saint John. Although she’s now focusing on projects with much smaller budgets, lessons Sanaz Shirshekar learned earlier in her career are still applicable. For example, on the UNBSJ Whitebone Pizzeria project, millwork was the major expense, and it is no accident that the bar seating, banquettes and communal table are all set at dining height. “Glenn [Pushelberg] always said having all seating at dining height—including the bar—creates a harmonious dining experience,” says Shirshekar, laughing. “He said something to the effect of, ‘No one wants to look at someone else’s bum while they’re dining’, and that really stuck with me.”

This profile is part of our August 2021 feature story, Twenty + Change: Emerging Talent

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