A designer’s first job out of school is a rite of passage. It’s often mundane, boring, meh. So, what to make of a young Javier Campos? Freshly minted by the UBC School of Architecture, he was given a five-acre plot of unspoiled land in Los Zacatitos, Mexico, with views to the Sea of Cortez and a brief from the client that was four words long: Make me something beautiful. Oh, and don’t worry about budget. Or zoning. Was he the luckiest architectural designer ever?

javier camposPhoto by Carlo Ricci

But, like with Campos’s work, a closer inspection of this story reveals unseen details. The project didn’t come about from good fortune but from hard work, with Campos taking odd jobs to help pay the bills in university. A small interior reno for someone, then that someone’s boyfriend joining Microsoft at an fortunate time, then, years later, said boyfriend—impressed with Campos’s vision and work ethic on even the smallest reno—calls him up with the aforementioned opportunity of a lifetime.

“Complicated looking, very simple” is something of a leitmotif for Campos. The Zacatitos 3 house pictured below—it’s the third of five that have been completed—was built for an owner who saw Zacatitos 1 and fell in love. Here, Campos revisits many of the same themes, like off-the-grid living that typifies his “don’t make a big deal” approach to sustainability. His team started with 3D structural panels (needed to protect the waterfront house from hurricanes) and crafted a design that minimized cutting and hence waste. “In some way we approach sustainability like Schindler and Neutra did with the 1930s healthy living movement,” says Campos. “It’s not something you go out of your way to celebrate, it should just be part of the architecture.”

The Zacatitos projects led the way for Azul House, also in Baja but here with the constraints of a more urban setting. The presence of electricity (and neighbours) didn’t particularly change the idea that sustainability should be always present: in this case, a feature stairwell is oriented to an outside west wall to keep the heat at bay. But, for an architectural designer lauded for his bold designs, the key element in his process is surprising: the clients. This client was adamant that she should be spared the harsh rays of the sun when sitting by the pool. So, it was done: “I don’t have any belief about whether a pool should be in the shade or the sun,” he says, sounding every bit the opposite of the “great man” theory of architecture.

baja housePhoto by John SinalZacatitos 3Photo by John Sinal

It’s not that Campos is without an ethos—just an ego. His team approaches design guided by a variation on critical regionalism, the idea that modernism should be firmly rooted in both a geographical and cultural context. For Campos Studio, there’s always a sense of place, but place might be informed by rivers, mountains, trees, even where in a city you’re building. The result is not only a rejection of cookie-cutter modernism, but also homes that speak to the marriage of the owners’ wishes and Campos’s design.

crescent beachPhoto by Ema Petercrescent beach javierPhoto by Ema Peter

Take the Brick House, for example. No one in the studio was keen on working with brick. Several attempts were made to talk the client out of using the material. But ultimately the back and forth produced what is shown below: one of the more unique homes on Vancouver’s west side. The team started by sourcing recycled brick and, falling in love with the idea of each brick having a unique history, kept them in their original state, with defects and bits of leftover paint. It’s a residence that somehow expresses the breezy casualness of West Coast living… in the most East Coast of material. And ultimately it was the designers, who, having worked so hard to make the brick contemporary, convinced the homeowner to skip the white paint and leave it raw in all its recycled, solid glory.

brick house campos studioPhoto by Ema Peterbrick house camposPhoto by Ema Petercampos studio 1Photo by Ema Peter.

With his victory this year Campos becomes the most decorated architectural designer in the history of these awards (having previously won architectural designer of the year in 2017 and been named a One to Watch in 2014 with his previous firm, Campos Leckie Studio). Our esteemed judging panel was unanimous in its praise. “Pure beauty,” said Jim Olson of Seattle’s Olson Kudig, summing up the judges’ love for Campos. But for all the accolades, Campos and his team remain rooted in the idea of partnership, of moving ideas and principles forward in conjunction with their clients. The beautiful homes on these pages flow from this mutual respect. “I feel like if I can get at what their desires really are, they’ll come along with me on the journey,” says Campos.

javier camposPhoto by Carlo Ricciyew house camposPhoto by Conrad Brownyew house conrad brownPhoto by Conrad Brownyew house 3Photo by Conrad Brownyew house 2Photo by Conrad Brown

Q&A with Javier Campos

What was your first design project?

Like most people fascinated by design, I am sure I have left a string of insignificant and likely terrible projects before I began to understand what I was doing… like a collaboration with a classmate after my first year of architecture. We designed a small commercial interior that got some notice for its ambition. As one architect quipped, “You must have not known what you were doing, because if you had you would have never attempted this.”

Metric or imperial?

Metric for the simplicity, the enlightenment and the dream of universality. Imperial for the fact that it divides by three and four.

You’re organizing a designer dinner party: which three designers, dead or alive, would you want there?

One day it may be visionaries like Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas; another it may be idiosyncratic individuals like Glenn Murcutt, Peter Zumthor and Sverre Fehn. And another I might feel like being close to home with Ron Thom, Arthur Erickson, John and Patricia Patkau and Peter Cardew.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I usually have one book of fiction along with a couple of non-fiction ones. Right now, my fiction is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, a book that is so delicious that rather than speed as one gets to the end, one slows down so as to savour every passage before it is gone. Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, to help satiate my curiosity of where we are heading in light of the AI revolution that we have unleashed upon ourselves. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog, to help me think about our relationship to the other sentient beings on our planet.

If you weren’t a designer, what job would you be doing?

Lawyer. I find the underlying logic of law compelling and its construction as a mirror of our social constructions endlessly fascinating. If I was to be unemployed, I would be happy taking care of animals on a rural plot of land.