David Thompson builds his own path 

Lessons from the playground

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Reese Moore

Buildings are used for many things — a place to work, a place to worship, a place to call home. Local architect David Thompson thinks buildings are a way to express what is within.

Thompson's love of architecture began when the playground at his elementary school was being professionally designed. "I have wanted to be an architect ever since then," he says. "One person from each of the grades was able to work with the architect as a representative from that class. I was the person for my class."

After earning a degree in architecture at Virginia Tech, Thompson moved to Charleston in 1999. He'd fallen in love with the Holy City during a summer internship and was ready to escape his roots.

"I was tired of being in the suburb, automobile world of northern Virginia," he explains. "Charleston is old-world historic but also possesses a progressive spirit. The size of the city is large enough that something is constantly going on, yet small enough to foster relationships. We really have the best that the South has to offer."

Thompson worked with Gibson Guess Architects for eight years. "Alice Guess and Reggie Gibson were my partners for the last two years, and Reggie really exposed me to restaurant work," he says. "He's done it for quite a long time, and he was an excellent mentor."

This past March, Thompson made the official decision to go out on his own. He opened an office downtown, which he describes as a "one-man army."

"My daughters, who are seven months and five years, are a big part of the reason I did this," he says. "I felt like I needed more family time with my wife and daughters. I wanted my own schedule."

But Thompson insists that no architect truly works alone — a building is always a cooperative process. "You see a lot of headstrong architects who work by themselves," he laughs. "But the thing is, you can never do it by yourself. A building is a team effort of the client, the engineers, the building contractors — everyone is involved."

Thompson has worked on many different buildings, residential and commercial, but has developed a particular passion for restaurants. He's collaborated on places in the Lowcountry such as FIG, Wild Olive, Amen Street, and Fish. He strives to give each restaurant a distinct character.

"I don't believe in mimicking the past, but learning from it. I think it's important that a building acknowledges its cultural and environmental setting. I wouldn't say that I have a certain Charleston style, because I hesitate to just accept one style — it limits you. I've learned from sweetgrass basket stands along the highway and every structure in this city. I plan to always be a student."

Each restaurant tells its own story, according to Thompson, and he feels obligated to express a tale about the food, location, chef, and other qualities of its unique identity. "The building should reflect all that," he says. "With Wild Olive, you want to acknowledge that it's on Johns Island and also that it's an Italian restaurant. We strive to give the customers something they're comfortable with, but also a twist on the design, to blend comfort with the unexpected."

As far as Thompson's current work goes, he says that a great deal of business comes from the recommendations of the building contractors that he's previously worked with. "I think it's the best thing I could ask for," he says. "It's flattering that we've managed to create that kind of a team."

Thompson is excited about his new projects, which are mostly renovations. "I figure out how to use what we already have, what already exists in the city," he says. "To me, that's what being green is — not being wasteful."

Right now, he's working on a place called the Pit Stop Deli, on Society Street, as well as a new music and entertainment lounge.

But creating beautiful structures isn't the only thing Thompson does. He's also the director of South Carolina Learning by Design, a grassroots effort with about 16 other architects who volunteer their time for the school districts and teach today's kids about architecture.

"We'll do lessons about math but talk about windows on a building," says Thompson. "Or we'll do a social studies lesson and talk about Stonehenge. It's a way to give back, and maybe another kid will realize what I did, that they ought to become an architect. If they like drawing, or if they like playing with Legos, they could do it."


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