Mod­ern Mar­vel

Javier Cam­pos de­signs stun­ning, stripped-down spa­ces with mod­ernist heart.


This year’s ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign cat­e­gory win­ner spe­cial­izes in stripped- down re­gional mod­ernism.

“Our work is re­ally dumb,” in­sists Javier Cam­pos. He is sit­ting in his small but sun­lit stu­dio in East Van­cou­ver, sur­rounded by tiny, in­tri­cate ar­chi­tec­tural mod­els, mag­a­zine cov­ers fea­tur­ing his work, and na­tional de­sign awards, so it’s a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to re­ally take him se­ri­ously on this one.

Another fac­tor hurt­ing his ar­gu­ment: his port­fo­lio of projects looks any­thing but dumb. From off-the-grid res­i­dences in Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur, Mex­ico—where sleek white forms have been crafted into mod­ernist desert shel­ters—to his asym­met­ri­cal ur­ban laneway homes in the Pa­cific North­west, Cam­pos has honed his guid­ing prin­ci­ples (sus­tain­abil­ity, con­text) to cre­ate stun­ning mod­ernist spa­ces.

But the prin­ci­pal of Van­cou­ver de­sign firm Cam­pos Stu­dio—and this year’s De­signer of the Year for Ar­chi­tec­tural De­sign—is not try­ing to be mod­est, nec­es­sar­ily. Rather, he’s em­pha­siz­ing the ul­ti­mate pur­suit: sim­plic­ity. “Light, wind, vol­ume, form, all these things: the tool pal­ette isn’t very com­pli­cated,” he says, stroking the floppy golden re­triever who also works in his of­fice. “Good ar­chi­tec­ture is sim­ple and dumb . . . it’s just hard to do.”

His hu­mil­ity didn’t fool our judges. “De­spite Cam­pos’s self-pro­claimed ‘pas­sive ap­proach,’ I find the work bold with a lot to say, both in its ap­proach to site and in its de­vel­op­ment of form,” says DOTY judge and ar­chi­tect Michael Shugar­man. “Yet I also find the work

“Some­one once said to me, ‘ You didn’t know what you were do­ing, did you? If you did, you wouldn’t have tried any of this.’”

re­solves it­self el­e­gantly in plan, sec­tion and ma­te­rial.”

This thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of space runs in the fam­ily, it seems. As a kid, Cam­pos loved spend­ing time at the home of his great un­cle, a Chilean ar­chi­tect who cut a Cor­bus­ier-like fig­ure. “I used to go over and sharpen his pen­cils and look at his stuff,” says Cam­pos. “He would ex­plain to me all about his house, how the sun came in in the win­ter and not the sum­mer, how you can con­trol the wind.” It was a piv­otal time and a piv­otal space, one that would even­tu­ally lead him to a ca­reer of his own in de­sign—al­beit with a few de­tours to study science and earn an art his­tory de­gree along the way.

He started tak­ing on work while he was still at UBC, and his early de­signs—like a crit­i­cally ac­claimed hair sa­lon on Van­cou­ver’s Rob­son Street—tended to buck con­ven­tion. “Some­one once said to me, ‘ You didn’t know what you were do­ing, did you? If you did, you wouldn’t have tried any of this,’” says Cam­pos. “Ba­si­cally, if you don’t know any­thing, you can make any­thing up.”

That just-wing-it at­ti­tude was ap­peal­ing enough to at­tract a com­mis­sion in 2000 to de­sign a prop­erty in Mex­ico—Cam­pos’s first free­stand­ing res­i­den­tial project. So he spent six weeks liv­ing in Baja Sur Cal­i­for­nia, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the land­scape and the en­vi­ron­ment first­hand be­fore start­ing the de­sign process.

It was his first foray into crit­i­cal re­gion­al­ism: mod­ernism that

bows to its sur­round­ings. But it cer­tainly wasn’t his last. Mod­ernism, in Cam­pos’s world, isn’t just straight lines and glass and some­thing in­fin­itely re­peat­able, but in­stead some­thing clean and stripped down that’s also re­spon­sive to its sur­round­ings. So a home in Mex­ico gets a wall per­fo­rated with holes to pre­vent the bed­rooms from get­ting hot in the desert sun, while a Van­cou­ver res­i­dence is stained char­coal grey to stand out in sharp con­trast in Canada’s weak win­ter light. “That’s part of look­ing at how it fits into its con­text,” says Cam­pos.

Another key com­po­nent through­out his work is a com­mit­ment to pas­sive sus­tain­able de­sign. “We want to get to a point where it be­comes in­te­gral, es­sen­tial and in­vis­i­ble,” says Cam­pos. “The goal is to make it so you don’t have a dis­tinc­tion. You don’t no­tice that those el­e­ments are there.” Pas­sive ven­ti­la­tion meth­ods and shade canopies are reg­u­larly cre­ated through struc­ture; so­lar pan­els, un­der­ground wa­ter tanks and grey-wa­ter re­cy­cling for ir­ri­ga­tion are in­cor­po­rated into many projects.

Though each piece from his port­fo­lio (whether from his own de­sign firm to­day or from his pre­vi­ous stints with De­sign Col­lec­tive, Ac­ton Ostry or Cam­pos Leckie Stu­dio) shares some mod­ernist DNA, they’re all achieved from a ground-up de­sign phi­los­o­phy that starts with func­tion. “We never work from an idea to de­vel­op­ment. We work in­side out,” says Cam­pos. “That means it’s ugly for a long time be­fore it gets to look like some­thing good.” He pauses, smil­ing. “Good and dumb.”

Down Mex­ico Way Over the years, Cam­pos has crafted four dif­fer­ent off-the- grid homes in the re­mote Mex­i­can com­mu­nity of Los Za­cati­tos, both un­der his own name and with his for­mer firm, Cam­pos Leckie Stu­dio. Each min­i­mal­ist de­sign is, at its core, a...

Here and There Javier Cam­pos, pic­tured op­po­site in his East Van stu­dio, is this year's De­signer of the Year for Ar­chi­tec­tural De­sign. Our judges loved his re­gion­ally minded modernist projects, like this moody Wal­lace House.

Jewel Box This strik­ing asym­met­ri­cal laneway home in Vancouver (this page and op­po­site) seems to glow from the in­side thanks to the con­trast of the hand­stained black shakes of the ex­te­rior. The bright and airy open- con­cept floor plan with clever...

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