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Introducing Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Award Winners
Javier Campos designs stunning, stripped-down spaces with modernist heart.
“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 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 free-standing 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.”
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