David Thompson: Assembling all of the complex elements of a project while placing our work firmly on the leading edge of contemporary discourse

Release Time: November 25, 2019

"Assembledge+ was founded on the theory of collaboration — with clients, expert consultants, contractors, building officials and public agencies, as well as collaboration within the design team which exploits the full design potential of each project. The name Assembledge+ is meant to convey our passion for 'assembling' all of the often, complex elements of a project to create successful design solutions while at the same time placing our work firmly on the leading 'edge' of contemporary discourse. In the spirit of this approach, we consistently challenge traditional limitations as to what can be achieved within typical constraints and use new technologies, materials and contemporary building techniques in the creation of an architecture that not only meets practical requirements but also inspires."

David Thompson, Principal and Founder, Assembledge+

I founded Assembledge+ in 1997 in Los Angeles, California after graduating with a bachelor's and master's degree in architecture from Tulane University in New Orleans. Since then my firm has grown into a full-service architecture and planning practice grounded in the belief that collaboration yields better results. Assembledge+ has, over the years, become recognized for its varied portfolio of projects from single and multi-family residential to commercial retail/hospitality and more recently planning and urban design projects.

In 2013, I was joined by my father Richard W. Thompson, FAIA as Principal for Urban Design and Planning. Richard has brought more than 45 years of experience to Assembledge+ having designed and planned a wide range of projects throughout the United States and abroad. Together my father and I are building upon the firm's commitment to collaboration and have broadened the firm's capability to address larger scale projects in the urban and civic environment.

▲ Ridgewood Residence(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: You are raised in the heart of Hollywood and completed a lot of projects in Los Angeles. What influence does this bring to your design practice?

David Thompson: I spent my youth exploring the streets of Hollywood where my father had his architectural office in the mid-1970s. Back in those days, Hollywood felt like a small town and while downtown Hollywood has always been one of the premiere epicenters of Los Angeles, it is currently experiencing a renaissance with new development occuring at a rapid rate. In 2015 Assembledge+ moved our offices to the heart of Hollywood, a half a block from the Hollywood subway station and surrounded by a wide variety of restaurants, bars, theaters and offices that all contribute to an upbeat and youthful vibrancy that is reclaiming Hollywood as a destination for people from all over the globe. From its very early days, Hollywood has always embodied a pioneering spirit that is different than any other place in the world and I wanted my practice to be at the center of that energy. Over the years that spirit of pioneering, experimentation and exploration has influenced my approach to architecture and design.

verse editorial: With over 25 years of diverse experience in architectural design, interior design, furniture design and art. Are there any difficulties in your career? How did you overcome it?

David Thompson: The two most difficult things that most young and growing architecture firms face here in the US and I'm sure around the world, are economic recessions and securing new commissions. Assembledge+ is no exception. Recessions are both unpredictable and generally out of our control. Having survived several since 1997 we have learned to plan our growth cautiously, attempting not to get too far out in front of the economic twists and turns of our modern global society.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the practice of architecture is securing the architecture and/or planning commissions themselves. Architects are typically not trained to market or promote themselves, so in order to be successful, they must either learn these skills or gather professionals to help them bring in new work. Over the years I have gotten much better at this aspect of the profession and as our body of work has been published more extensively, the process has gotten better but it still keeps me up at night.

▲ Sunset Plaza Residence(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

▲ Stoneridge Residence(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: Your projects are involved in large scale and small scale, from urban design to interior design to furniture and art installation, the design philosophy behind them is the same or different?

David Thompson: Both. They are the same and yet different at the same time. Good design is about problem solving whatever the scale. Doing your homework or research is fundamental – if you don't understand the problem, how can you hope to solve the problem. As our name implies once you understand the objectives for a project you can then assemble the resources or consultant team with the necessary skills to assist in creating the right solution.

verse editorial: When you start a project, how will you do initially?

David Thompson: We typically begin each project by doing our project research which is often about simply being good listeners. For the most part our clients come to us having seen our body of work, but they also come to us because we have a reputation for paying close attention to clients' needs and an understanding that listening is essential in producing the best possible outcomes.

This is the same for our planning and urban design work which is all about listening. Because of the complexity and scale of urban planning projects they have the ability to affect whole communities, businesses, campuses and urban districts and therefore come with huge responsibility. Listening to all the stakeholders and constituencies, being proactive in the crafting of strategies in order to open meaningful dialogues is what we have found leads to a consensus and the best result (or as close as one might get in a democratic society).

Aether RetailImage courtesy of Assembledge+

Cactus Club Cafe at Sherway Gardens(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: What is the interesting sides of doing design?

David Thompson: Creating something from nothing is a wonderfully exciting adventure and architecture offers unparalleled opportunities for exploration of that kind of creative expression. However, unlike other forms of art, architecture must serve specific purposes all in service to man and his need for shelter, which from my perspective, adds to the challenge and the sense of purpose. Architecture is a unique mix of art, technology, engineering, craft and even human phycology. At the end of the day, a building must meet all user functional requirements, all zoning and code requirements, address budget limitations and practical concerns (the building needs to function properly (e.g. not leak, not fall down and provide comfort for its inhabitants) but in my view, in order for a building to rise to the level of architecture it must also touch the human soul and inspire the mind. That is my aspiration.

verse editorial: Your father joined Assembledge+ as an urban designer. How do you cooperate with your father when working on a project?

David Thompson: My father has always been my greatest resource in all thing's architecture and while our architectural focuses are very different (his focus has been on urban design and planning and mine on architecture and design), I have always looked to him for insight and guidance. Because we each have a different professional focus it has allowed us to broaden the firm's capabilities and enrich the dialogue and views of how architecture and planning co-exist and are mutually reinforcing.

Aside from seeking his advice on general issues of the practice (contracts, proposals, fee calculations and other business issues) Richard typically brings separate planning and urban design projects into the office and works somewhat independently, however we often collaborate during the early stages on some architecture projects where a planning and urban design perspective is important. For example, in the U.S., before projects can be approved for construction there are zoning, environmental and other planning requirements that must be met through an "Entitlement Review Process". As a planner and urban designer, my father often assists us in that process.

California State University, Palm Desert Satellite Campus Master PlanImage courtesy of Assembledge+

Yangzhou Gateway District Urban Design Plan, Yangzhou, China(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: Looking back on all of your projects, are there any projects that you think could be done better if you work on them now?

David Thompson: I think that every artist, architect or creative person, as they evolve, looks at their earlier work and wishes they could make a change or two. If that were not the case there would be no growth, no improvement, no breakthroughs into new ways of thinking - new ideas.

Architecture is a life-long learning process – here in the US, we often say that an architect does not reach his prime years until his mid-fifties or even later. The idea being that there is so much to learn (often thru trial and error) that it takes many years to become proficient at this profession.

For example, as I look back on some of my early work, I notice that the details were often unsophisticated. Over the years I have honed my skill with details by simply doing them and over time learning how to make them better. My extensive experience working in the field with contractors during construction has given me a deep understanding of the building process which has definitely made my work better.

verse editorial: What is your view on Chinese architectural design market?

David Thompson: Richard has worked in China and other Asian countries since the 1980s and has witnessed a huge evolution in the architectural design market, most notable in the level of skill and talent within the Chinese professional architecture community. When he initially began work in China, there was a shortage of more senior, experienced architects and planners so there was a need to seek much of this expertise outside of China in the European and American professional communities. Over the last 30-40 years, as young aspiring Chinese architects have matured, often by studying and working abroad, the improved capabilities and talent within China has reduced the need for outside expertise, although not completely. At the moment, the market does not appear to be hospitable to American design firms given the aggravated political nature of our two countries’ interactions. We recently lost two large planning projects we had been awarded as a result of the current political "Tariff wars" and have therefore have substantially reduced our efforts to seek work in China.

Oakdell Residence(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

King Taps(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: There will be a lot of buildings and space between buildings that need to be redesigned in China in future. What is your view on it?

David Thompson: After over 30 years of consulting in Asia and China in particular, Richard has made a few observations about the process for new development in China, starting with 3 questions:

- Why are so many of the recent new towns and communities in China uninhabited?

- As China prepares for the urban migration of hundreds of millions of rural Chinese how will the current model for real estate development be able to address this issue? Can it be successful?

- How can the current real estate development model be adapted to provide not only the quantity of development required but the quality of urban life appropriate for a modern nation?

In recent years, economists and planners have noted that there may be some fundamental disfunctions in the current Chinese real estate development model, the results of which are readily visible in the many uninhabited new towns and mega-developments around China. While there are various reasons for this phenomenon in China, one that stands out is the method by which land is acquired and disseminated for new town development. In the mid-1980s, the Central Government adjusted the tax structure for local governmental jurisdictions and municipalities by reducing their share of the overall tax revenues. In exchange, to insure continued revenues to local governments for infrastructure and community development, local governments and municipalities were allowed to appropriate land from small land owners and farmers (ostensibly with compensation), to then create master plans designating how that land should be developed and then to sell that land to developers for subsequent implementation. The higher the density allowed in the plan the more the sale price.

While this seemed, at the time, like a logical solution to China's growing needs for urbanization, the unintended consequence has been a continually growing number of these uninhabited new town development projects, primarily residential. Recent studies indicate that there are approximately 64 million unoccupied apartments in China. Understanding that this also reflects the desire of many middle class families in China to participate in the growing economy thru speculation, it has created a wasteful system that results in unused development at a time when China has announced ambitious plans to bring hundreds of millions of rural citizens into urban areas.

The speculative nature of this entire process is resulting in an unsustainable model that desperately needs adjustment. If early speculation by local municipalities can be balanced with a more realistic view of creating more livable communities based on sound economic analysis and planning, projects have a better opportunity to be successful and attract more than simply speculators. The process needs to be adjusted to encourage the creation of "Livable Communities" not just sources of tax revenue and profit.

verse editorial: Which material do you adopt often? Why?
David Thompson: A key component of residential and hospitality projects are the materials selected and how they are used in the design. These type projects are meant to be experienced in a very intimate manner – up close and personal. This means surfaces not only need to be seen but also to be touched, to be lived with daily so that their tactile qualities, their color, their transparency (or lack there of), how they age over time and how they are detailed are all integral to the design process.

While our materials palette is evolving as new construction materials are developed on a continuing basis - wood, glass and cement panels are among our favorites because of their distinct characteristics and their ability to work together harmoniously.

verse editorial: What are you focusing on now?

David Thompson: Currently Assembledge+ is fortunate to be working on a variety of project types including several luxury single family residential projects in various stages of development. Construction is nearing completion on two projects here in Los Angeles. We also have recently completed our first project in Washington DC, which we hope will bring a little Southern California flavor to our nation’s capital. We have also recently begun the design process for a new single-family estate on a 50 acre rural site outside Canton, Ohio. We are excited to bring our design sensibilities to that part of the country. In the hospitality realm, we have a number of projects on the boards, including a new restaurant concept in Kelowna, British Columbia with our long time Canadian client The Cactus Club.

In terms of planning projects we are just beginning work on a new campus master plan for the University of Hawaii community college in Hilo, Hawaii and are awaiting the results of an environmental evaluation of a planning project for the University of Southern California (USC) that proposes linking two distinct areas of the campus by closing a major street to create a public/private park for both the University and the surrounding community. Now that California has legalized marijuana, we have recently been commissioned to plan and design a new office/laboratory/warehouse project for a large cannabis grower and distributor - an unusual but interesting project.

▲ Cactus Club Cafe: Station Square(Image courtesy of Assembledge+)

verse editorial: What is your plan in future?

David Thompson: We are continuing to develop a sustainable practice that is creating meaningful contributions to the built environment and in the world of architecture. One of my fundamental objectives is to maintain the ability to be personally involved in the design process. While the current size of our practice allows ample opportunity for principal engagement and involvement, we are mindful that as we continue to grow we need to be strategic and not necessarily just grow for growth’s sake. For us, this means making sure potential projects and clients are aligned with our goals and aspirations and have a desire to create good architecture. Finding this balance is extremely important to me as we assess our growth.

While our primary goal is to produce great architecture, it is also my goal to build a business that is achieving success in all the other facets that gauge business prosperity. A major element of this goal is the development of a strong office culture. We believe in the wellness of our people and believe that their lives outside the office make important contributions into the essence of who we are as a company. The members of our team are an important piece in our story and our work is a reflection of those personal contributions. I don't remember learning that in school.

verse editorial: Could you please give some advice to the young generation architects or designers?

David Thompson: Hone your skills and make them the tools of your creativity. The ultimate goal of any artist is to be completely at ease with the tools of his trade so that it comes almost naturally and you are not thinking about how to make the computer drawing but rather using the computer drawing in the service of your creative idea.

Travel the world – as architects our work is reflective of what we have learned to that point in our lives. As we grow and learn, our approach to design will reflect that - so see the world, absorb life and incorporate what you learn into what you create.

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