Photo: John Sinal

Photo: John Sinal

On a 1980s writing trip after graduating from architecture school, I was led on a tour of suburban Mexico City projects by influential architect Ricardo Legorreta. Our last stop was a housing development called “Las Palomas”—make that potential development, as the hillside tracts planned there had been stopped in their tracks by the recession, with not a single house constructed. What Legorreta had been able to build was a series of monuments in coloured concrete inspired by his mentor Luis Barragan: a tall, azure cylinder; a train of low ochre terraces; an oversized, mustard coloured wall with dozens of perches and cavities, a high-rise condo for pigeons. Legorreta caught my sense of amazement at these powerful shapes strewn over an almost empty landscape and said with a smile: “We Mexicans build monuments but never get around to the infrastructure. You Canadians build infrastructure but never get around to the monuments!”

I thought of Legoretta’s words upon arriving in Zacatitos, more a scattered collection of houses than a town, 45 minutes up a dirt road from Cabo San Jose at the southern tip of Baja California. Zacatitos has neither monuments nor infrastructure. There is no water supply other than weekly purchases off a truck, no streets other than shifting tracks through the cactus and dunes, no power lines, no sewer, no bus, not even a store—I have never before visited a Mexican pueblito without a single tienda. There is no piazza other than the beach where desert meets the Sea of Cortez surf and nothing civic other than a forlorn gazebo, almost never used. Zacatitos is a gathering of second homes for a population that is one-third Mexican, one-third American and one-third Canadian, and they call it “Z-town.” It is also a wonderful place for fresh thinking about the nature of houses.

The most interesting Z-town constructions are all designed by Vancouverites Javier Campos and Michael Leckie. Over a decade, they have built four innovative and powerful seasonal residences there, all of them off-grid, and have now commenced work on a small resort nearby for a progressive Vancouver developer. We Canadians dote on infrastructure, investing fortunes in supplying full services to our new suburbs and heavily taxing new downtown development to create the social systems of parks, galleries and daycare. Canada’s planning is conservative, our tract developers controlling of facades and finishes, and our architectural culture rewarding of conformity. Off the grid, off the street and almost off the map, the Campos Leckie works in Zacatitos are refreshingly original, taking notions of inhabitation and environmental control back to their creative fundamentals.

Z-4: House for a Novelist

The most recent Z-town house by Campos Leckie is both the smallest and most assured. The client is an author of romance novels in her 50s who pointedly asked her designers to shape a house to get away from writing, not pursue it. Accordingly, there is no writing or work room, just a master bedroom with a distant ocean vista, linked upstairs with a long corridor to a guest room with its own views into a cactus grove; this hallway is flanked by a south-facing masonry wall to collect heat away from inhabited rooms but perforated to provide breezes and patterned light. This long box on the sleeping level, with the bedroom windows at each end, is set on a supporting L-shaped wall backed into a small hill, with a second, largely cantilevered wall defining the entrance sequence beside it.

Photo: John Sinal

Photo: John Sinal

Photo: John Sinal

Photo: John Sinal

Upon arrival, one passes between the two walls, turns a corner at the elbow punctuated by potted cactus to enter into Z-4’s most important room, a courtyard-cum-lap-pool deck living space. Here the house’s subtle passive environmental control strategies come into focus. The space is shaded from the desert sun most of the day but admits buffered late sun, the orange-fire glow that ends every Baja day. These two entrance walls also catch and amplify even the tiniest of winds, drawing air across the pool to naturally air-condition the living decks and adjacent kitchen-dining room, with sliding glass walls that are pulled back in most times and seasons. A galley-style kitchen groups most services along the downslope wall, its line continuing to an outside main-floor bathroom and exterior shower/sink. This is matched at the far end of the house, on the same plan alignment, by a services unit for pumps, batteries and controllers for solar energy and water systems. With its electrical and hot water solar panels discretely deployed on the roof, and with its confident contemporary form-making, Z-4 is both infrastructure and monument.

Photo: John Sinal

Photo: John Sinal

The play of shadow and light around Z-4’s poolside courtyard is a constant marvel, with primary and secondary shadows and reflections (some of them shimmering with poolborn waves) changing their angles and intensities by the minute, all through the day. The conceptual innovation of this modest house of little over 100 square-metres of enclosed rooms is that it pulls apart small-house functions into separated blocks and fills their gaps with light and wind, passively tempered by the presence of walls and choices of material. This is done by lifting the house’s main mass above the ground and supporting it with the two entrance walls at one end and the kitchen-dining pavilion at the other—a centrifugal strategy that creates livability at the heart of the plan. Studying Z-4’s sections and energy diagrams confirms that the roofless courtyard is not a buffer or in-between zone but, rather, the most artfully composed room in the house. Campos Leckie have written that their Zacatitos houses are “devices to mediate and focus inhabitants’ experience of the site.” That this philosophy is combined with a simply eloquent repertoire of detail is doubly impressive, and in so modest a house.