Sanaz Shirshekar Envisions Saint John As ‘Playground For Architects To Experiment’

Sanaz Shirshekar (Image: submitted)

SAINT JOHN – Like many young people looking to study art, Sanaz Shirshekar’s parents were concerned about her career prospects.

“I was always really passionate about design and art. I originally wanted to take an art history path or just a fine arts path,” says Shirshekar. “But my parents are Middle-Eastern and they’re traditional, so they wanted more of a professional degree.”

Looking for a way to leverage her love of art that would also provide a stable career, Shirshekar looked into studying architecture.

“Architecture and art are so intertwined. Often, architects look at art for inspiration. The way an artist will approach a painting or an idea. I think you can still be very creative and you have to be very creative,” she says.

“If you’re a good architect, you have the responsibility to be a good designer and be innovative. It allowed me to do both.”

It also allowed her to work at two renowned firms in Canada and the United States and has now brought the Toronto-born architect to New Brunswick to start a business of her own.

After graduating from architecture school at McGill in 2006, Shirshekar started working for Toronto-based KPMB as a project architect. There, she got to work on projects such as the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, the UBC Alumni Centre, The Globe & Mail’s new interior offices and the Fort York Branch Library.

“We were aiming for it to be the 100th public library in Toronto, and it turned out to be the 101st,” says Shirshekar, “which is still cool.”

Fort York Branch Library (Image: torontopubliclibrary.ca)

From there she went to work in New York with Yabu Pushelberg as a senior designer. She was in the heart of Soho, working on projects that were more private and high-end, including a resort for Hyatt in Los Cabos, Mexico, and a project for a residential client in Bejing. For Shirshekar, it helped make her architecture experience more versatile.

“I took that opportunity on because at KPMB I was getting a lot of those community, public space building projects. But I also wanted to be a little bit more seasoned as an architect and get some architectural interior experience,” she says. “Yabu Pushelberg is really the expert for that. They are world renowned. They’re really good at what they do and they’re internationally known for their interior design excellence, so I really wanted to bring the architecture and the interior design together.”

Shirshekar recently moved to New Brunswick to be with her husband, Jamie Irving, the vice-president of Brunswick News. At that point, she was ready to start her own practice, Studio Shirshekar.

“I feel all architects at some point, you feel like you’ve gotten enough experience and you want to give yourself an opportunity to try it out,” she says. “Maybe it’s not for everyone, but for me, I think it was something that I always felt. I think the experience I got at KPMB and Yabu Pushelberg I felt I had enough to go on my own.”

Though the province of New Brunswick is much smaller than cities like Toronto and New York, it didn’t take her long to find projects that interested her. The first being a new addition to the Petitcodiac Baptist Church, a volunteer project where she was the design architect.

“It was an interesting project because it’s a religious [space] but it’s also a community space. In 2016, they had an oil leak so they deemed the foundation to be unstable. They had to tear down the beautiful old historic part of the church. What was left was this extension they had done in the 1980s,” says Shirshekar.

“Thanks to a major donor (Jean Irving), we were able to rebuild that [structure]. That space is what they call their Fellowship Centre. It’s a place where people come for weddings, events, potlucks, funerals, but also where children have a host of activities. They play dodgeball and floor hockey, so we had to make the space very durable for all these programs.”

Another project she’s working on is for a Toronto-based jewelry company called Tiary, which makes customized jewelry with ethically sourced stones.

“They’re really an online platform, and they engaged me to help them design their future showroom which would be their actual physical identity as a store. I finished the concepts for them and now they’re just raising money for their company and by 2020, they’ll [open] their first showroom.”

Another recently announced project is designing Jennifer Irving’s new gallery on Water Street in uptown Saint John. She’s also working with a private client in New Brunswick in Drury Cove.

“They’re a cool, dynamic client. They hired me to design a play area for their son and also a series of tree houses with a zip line connecting them. Then we are going to build a shack along the river,” says Shirshekar. “It’s exciting, because I’m working on a variety of projects, so it keeps us really busy and engaged.”

With lots of projects on the go, Shirshekar recently hired her first employee, a recent graduate from Dalhousie University’s architecture program. They are currently working out of her home office in Rothesay, but the long-term goal is to establish her own firm somewhere uptown.

“As we get more work, there will be demand for more hands on deck,” she says. “I’m finding there are a lot of architects in Nova Scotia and Halifax because of Dalhousie University, but there are not as many in Saint John. It would be great to be able to lure them [here] because we’re still in the Maritimes.”

Shirshekar cites the work of other architecture firms like Saint John-based The Acre that is pushing the envelope. As her own practice grows, she wants to be a part in that too.

In terms of where architecture is going in New Brunswick, I think more companies like mine and The Acre come here and open up shop here and try to do good things. It can only go in a positive direction,” she says.

“There are a lot of beautiful historic buildings here and those are important buildings that should be cherished, but I think we have to add another level and another layer to the city that explains the buildings of our times. What is architecture today and how do we express architecture today? All we can hope for is continued good work amongst these firms that are trying to make an impact.”

Though she built her career in the huge architectural epicentres of Toronto and New York, Shirshekar believes her new home has a lot of opportunities when it comes to development.

“Up until 20 years ago, I would say Toronto had a lot of opportunities. I think Toronto still does, but there are a lot of influential world-renowned architects now who have stepped into the Toronto scene … It’s becoming almost like a New York where it’s a playground for architects to experiment,” she says. “I would love to see that happen for Saint John one day.”