Omer Arbel’s Geometric Masterpiece


             photo credit: Nic Lehoux

Omer Arbel is a lot of things. A wunderkind—although, at 34, that one’s wearing thin. A leader—employing dozens of people on two floors of a renovated West First Avenue warehouse. A design-world kingpin—his trademark Bocci lights are ubiquitous in design magazines and upper-echelon homes. And, starting this year, an architect. Scratch that. Arbel can’t really call himself an “architect” because he’s not registered. True, he went to architecture school (University of Waterloo, in Ontario) and he worked at a couple of top firms here (Patkau Architects and Peter Busby). But ordinary career paths don’t mean much in Arbel’s world. There’s a singular philosophy in everything he does, one that allows him to create anything from a chair to a city. Instead of having a preconceived idea of form—of what, say, a paperclip should look like—Arbel focuses on developing a process. What he actually designs, then, is more an approach than the thing itself.

Take this house, on an acreage in horse country east of White Rock. Arbel was asked to incorporate 100-year-old Douglas fir beams salvaged from a warehouse in Vancouver. You don’t often find beams like these—they’re a full metre deep. Arbel refused to cut them into uniform lengths, as a standard architect might have: “It seemed sacrilegious to mill them down.” The uneven lengths of the exposed ceiling beams led Arbel to work with triangles instead of rectangles. The result: a profoundly unique building design with an origami-style roof. From 184th Street, the place looks geometric in a vaguely futuristic, slightly wonky way. The home was shortlisted for the 2010 World Architecture Festival Award and has appeared, to rave reviews, in magazines like Wallpaper, Dwell, and Western Living, which just named Arbel one of its designers of the year. That this is his first house stunned many people, though it shouldn’t have. It should merely leave us wondering what he’s going to do next.