By Simon Liu
Since our earliest homes, Daniel Morales has been the creative mind behind Parkwood’s iconic neo-traditional style. From large commercial projects to residential homes, his goal has always been to design buildings with harmony. Daniel's long career in architecture started with the Kentlands community working under Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, where he met developer Joseph Alfandre and his executive VP, Steve Wilcox, who would go on to found Parkwood. I had the opportunity to talk to Daniel about everything from his experience working on the Kentlands community to current trends in architecture and what makes a building beautiful. I also asked Steve separately about his time working with Daniel.
Included are some sketches Daniel shared with me. To see more of his work, visit his website here.
Simon: What was it like to work with Steve and Andres Duany on Kentlands?
Daniel: It was fun! It was a great experience, because when I was coming out of school, not a lot of people were doing traditional work. I found out about the designers of Kentlands, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and that’s who I wanted to work for. So, I was trying to get the job with them in Miami, and then, through a couple accidents, I ended up at their office in Gaithersburg.
Simon: What happened?
Daniel: I sent my resume down to Miami and the week it got there, they had a hurricane, and they were out of the office for that one week. So it came back and I thought “What’d I do wrong?” And I had an office job, just killing time before I got into the profession, looked at the phonebook, and found their address in Gaithersburg. So I sent it there and got the job.
Steve: Dan was clearly a superstar from Day 1. DPZ (Duany's firm) received hundreds of resumes from new and experienced architects and many were willing to work there as non-salaried assistants just for the exposure and experience. Dan's intuition and knowledge of excellent traditional buildings and planning made him stand out from the start. He has great design sense and a wonderful hand that leaves us all wondering, "How does he do that?"
Simon: In both undergraduate and grad school, you studied architecture. Yet when you graduated, your first job was in urban planning. How’d that happen?
Daniel: Well, because the architecture that these urban planners promoted was traditional. At the time, 95 to 99 percent of the architectural firms were doing modernism. Maybe it was less, but in my limited view as a 21 year-old, that’s what it felt like. So my feeling was if I couldn't practice traditional architecture, I'd work for the people that created towns for the builders who did. So, that was my logic. I'd gotten into urban design after studying in Italy both as an undergraduate and graduate student, and because architecture is a piece of urban design. Buildings need to work in concert as well as alone.
Simon: Looking at your renderings on your website, your style seems to gravitate towards more traditional styles like Neo Classical or Colonial Revival. What draws you to those particular styles?
Daniel: I’m just naturally drawn to them. Like any artist, you would suggest to them that they have their passion as part of their work because anyone can learn technique. It started in college at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn New York which is surrounded by beautiful Victorian buildings. I had been doing architecture as a hobby since junior high school, imagining what a fabulous life I would have living in a beautiful house. In high school, I took all the drafting courses they had.
Daniel: When I got to College, I ran into the politics. I started learning from New York City's great buildings but was told in no uncertain terms that, “we don’t do that anymore.” I needed to learn how to put a building together and the spatial aspects, but anything traditional was strictly forbidden. Even the words "style" and "beauty" were frowned upon. That's when I realized this wouldn't be a simple matter of mastering my craft.
Simon: From your earliest drawings in junior high till now, how have you seen your style or preferences evolve over the course of your career?
Daniel: I’ve never thought about it consciously. Obviously, I continue to study what I'm drawn to and why others like what they like, but it's more empirical than theoretical. I’m sure my approach has gotten more complex and efficient, but I was never like, “No, this package of ideas sounds better.” A building's solution has to grow organically from the program, the context, and what makes sense. From that base, I strive for beauty.
Simon: Is it ever difficult to reconcile your tastes with your client’s?
Daniel: Never. There’s a whole debate on beauty, which I just wrote a paper on and presented in Germany, which tackles this issue of whether there are timeless aspects of design, or is it all just subjective. You like cherries and I like grapes, and never the twain shall meet. I’ve always been interested in, if you like cherries and I like grapes, well they’re both fruits, they’re both round and they’re both sweet. I’ve always been interested in that transect of where things come together as opposed to blowing it all apart.
Simon: With so many styles out there right now, there are a lot of architects attempting to merge them together, which can be difficult. How have you attempted that in your career?
Daniel: Not like forcing two things into a blender and just reducing them and mashing them. It’s more like, how do you incorporate the elements of one into another without creating disharmony or a dissonance. I tend to use music as an analogy, like if you want to bring drums into classical music, they’re not used to being there but there are ways of doing it.
Simon: I saw on your website you’d designed a lot of different types of buildings in addition to homes, including churches and memorials. How does your approach differ when you’re designing a home versus other buildings?
Daniel: My approach is always to create something beautiful, that works well, and that fits in nicely to the environment that it’s in. Vitruvius was a great Roman architect. He wrote the only treatise in architecture from Antiquity that survived to this day. A lot of the Renaissance architects based their treatises on his work. And his basic ingredients were firmness, commodity and delight. So, every building ought to be firm – well built. Commodious means it should be planned intelligently, so that the adjacencies you want, the views, the air, the health, all those things are well-planned. And that it also provides delight, which means it makes you feel good emotionally. So I think the architect’s job would be to coordinate all those three into one job.
Simon: With New Urbanism gaining traction around the country, what are your thoughts on it from an architectural standpoint? Obviously, one of its core principles is to have communities that are more pedestrian-friendly and not centered around cars.
Daniel: Traditional architecture is the architecture of the pedestrian, because it evolved before cars. The reason traditional buildings were built the way they were is when you’re walking at 4 miles per hour, you need a lot more to engage your eye than when you're driving by at 40 miles per hour. How light accents a building's forms and patterns is the essence of aesthetics.
Simon: Has this trend improved how people approach building homes, meaning making them for people?
Daniel: Definitely. They’re more what I would call “humane.” It’s consistently gotten better. The main issue is that academia, with its focus on modernism, keeps it out.
Simon: What are some major trends you see in residential architecture today?
Daniel: Well, Parkwood’s on top of a lot of it. They have their ear to the ground. Obviously, there’s the open floor plan, the big glass wall that brings the outside inside – which I think works better out west where they don’t have bugs, we don’t really get away with that on the east coast - the first floor masters, the office/guest room combo and the living room is disappearing in favor of the family/great room. Originally, people lived in their living rooms, and then they created the family room for informal living. Slowly but surely, the living room is getting abandoned and now it’s just being put in the back of the house.
Simon: From a design perspective, what’s something you would want a layperson to understand about good design? Since it is so subjective, is there some underlying principle that makes a design good?
Daniel: I think good design is something that works harmoniously. If you look at it like an orchestra, everything comes together, and everything complements everything else. Good design always wants to have a unity of thought. That doesn’t mean that everything coordinates, it just means that everything plays well with the others. It’s the same in music and it’s the same in architecture. To me, I guess the underlying principle of good architecture would be harmony.