Over the past decade, a remote community in Baja California has become a unique opportunity for Vancouver based designers Javier Campos and Michael Leckie to explore variations on the desert house.
With utopian desert dwellings of mid-century modernists like Schindler and Neutra as inspirational points of departure, the two have refined the aesthetic through a series of four different residences on four distinctive sites in Los Zacatitos – 19 miles from the nearest town. The off-grid homes reflect both the dramatic topography and climate of the area, as well as the simplicity and beauty of the desert environment.
When Mr. Campos first visited the site of the initial project – designed as a low-tech retreat for a Microsoft executive whose urban Seattle digs he had renovated in the late ’90s – he was struck by how green it was.
“I’d arrived in August, during the rainy hurricane season,” he explains, “and everything was bursting into bloom.”
But when he came back a few months later, he was met by stark desert landscape and dried up creek beds – or arroyos. He knew that he would have to come up with a design that was both responsive to the site and adaptable to climactic contrasts.
Key to the project, he felt, was avoiding the excesses of other villas in the region – monster homes that imposed desalination plants and tennis courts on the arid, ecologically delicate landscape.
Drawing on references ranging from the California “healthy living” aesthetic to traditional adobe structures to underground homes in the Tunisian desert, Mr. Campos conceived the retreat as three separate buildings. The main residence contains the “gathering places” of kitchen, living room and patio, and two smaller houses contain bedrooms and bathrooms – all connected by a series of courtyards.
The buildings follow the contour of a natural bowl on the four-acre site and incorporate the surrounding landscape into the overall design.
Building materials were limited to steel and concrete offset by Honduran mahogany. Solar panels located on top of the garage provide power, while passive heating and cooling systems based on traditional desert architecture found in the Middle East and Mexico keep the space livable in the extreme desert climate. The retreat has its own water filtration system and grey water from sinks and showers nourishes the courtyard gardens.
After consulting with local surfers about prevailing wind patterns, Mr. Campos developed a low impact ventilations strategy. He situated the main villa to be open to the north and south, so it could catch the Pacific winds for cooling purposes.
While Mr. Campos was working on the first Zacatitos project, his future design partner Michael Leckie (the two formed Campos Leckie Studio in 2009 but collaborated on other projects before that) happened to be getting his own dose of the Baja experience. He spent four months surfing there and living in his van. So when Mr. Campos asked him to collaborate on a second project, a few miles away from the first, he was delighted to oblige.
“I already had an intimate knowledge of the landscape,” explains Mr. Leckie, who shares a deep sense of connection to the area with Mr. Campos.
The second home, built as a retreat for a Canadian couple, took the indoor/outdoor aesthetic to the next level. “Our client has a great love of architecture,” explains Mr. Leckie – “and he really gave us free reign.”
The result was an extraordinary dwelling that simplified and purified the desert home aesthetic so that it appears to spring organically from the landscape.
The minimalist yet elegant home fuses the indoor and outdoor – and exterior and interior programming – blurring boundaries in a unique way. While the first Zacatitos project was conceived as a cluster of villas nestled around a bowl on a large site, the second one is smaller in scale.
Situated on a small plateau, with arroyos on either side, “Zacatitos 2” recalls that line from Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat: “I hear that your building your little house deep in the desert. Are you living for nothing now, hope your keeping some kind of record.”
In fact, the house – due for completion in a month’s time – exists largely unrecorded. It has yet to be photographed or published, and remains an off-grid jewel of a design. Its small footprint never imposes but rather embraces the site. A mature palo blanco tree, impossible to transplant, was even incorporated into the design, growing up from the ground through a circular hole in the roof of a courtyard.
The starting point for the house explains Mr. Leckie, was to pare down to the “basic essentials of what was needed for the site and the climate.”
“It was conceived as a singular roof to shade the site,” explains Mr. Leckie, “with integrated deep beams and clerestory windows between them to exhaust out warm air.” The rest of the program followed.
The most dramatic feature of the house is a 600-foot west-facing living area that literally fuses with the landscape, its flooring disappearing into the surrounding rocky outcrop. It is sheltered by a delicately detailed steel frame canopy – a modernist interpretation of the traditional palo darco woven canopies typical of the area (and interwoven here with the steel for a softening effect).
Private spaces like bedrooms and baths, are programmed at the cooler eastern end of the house, while a roof deck opens up to the desert sky.
A third Zacatitos house commissioned by two Canadian couples, was completed this summer and comprises 4,200 square feet of exterior and interior space. It sits on a sandy site that overlooks the ocean, so the main design imperative was one of protection from the elements. Conceived as a series of modular panels, it features one long roof that has various enclosed and open aspects. Designed perpendicular to the view axis of the west facing mountains and the east facing ocean, it features a central living area that opens up onto a pool and provides natural ventilation.
A processional south facing entrance extends some 60 feet before you arrive at the front door. Large open rectangular shafts allow in light that creates patterns that shift with the time of day and position of the sun. The central living space opens up to both the pool and the mountains, perfectly sited for stunning desert sunsets.
As befits a desert environment, the house is very much about balancing the tension between the open and exposed, and the enclosed and protected spaces.
Word of the Campos Leckie homes has spread quickly in the tight knit Los Zacatitos community. Now a fourth house is in the works – a writer’s retreat for a Canadian woman on a rugged knoll with a distant view of the ocean. So far it’s conceived as a bridge that spans the rocky site.
Mr. Campos and Mr. Leckie have developed a special relationship with this place and both feel protective of the ecologically vulnerable area – which could easily be destroyed by over-development.
The designs for their four projects are really architectural homages to the unique sites.
Says Mr. Leckie, “We wanted to respect the wildness of this place.”
Special to The Globe and Mail