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Originally published June 15, 2014 at 7:04 PM | Page modified June 16, 2014 at 4:26 PM

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Former professor Philip Thiel advocated a U District plaza

Philip Thiel studied and championed public spaces where people could gather and interact, including in his own University District in Seattle. The former professor and naval architect died in May.


Seattle Times staff reporter

During the last years of his life, retired University of Washington architecture professor Philip Thiel advocated for a public plaza in the heart of the University District that could serve as a gathering place and a lively center for farmers markets, community festivals, artists, performers and kids at play.

Inspired by fellow architect Victor Steinbrueck’s campaign to save Pike Place Market, and by his own observations of town squares and plazas around the world, Mr. Thiel wrote letters, collaborated with younger activists and corralled journalists to the cause of creating a civic space in the neighborhood where he’d lived for more than 50 years.

Although he didn’t live to see his vision realized, others he inspired are continuing to press for a public square in the University District.

“He was the rare type of architect who was much more concerned with the human dimension and the public realm than with the buildings themselves,” said architect and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, Victor’s son.

Mr. Thiel died May 10 at his home of cancer of the thymus. He was 93.

Mr. Thiel grew up in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and developed an early love of boats and shipyards, said his daughter Kiko Thiel. He earned a degree in naval architecture in 1943 and taught naval architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But, inspired by new theories about visual perception and the human dimension of urban space, he quit teaching and earned another degree from MIT, in traditional architecture.

Mr. Thiel taught from 1956 to 1960 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met his wife, Midori Kono. Both shared an interest in Japanese arts and culture that would take them and their four children to Japan many times over the years, his daughter said.

From 1961 to 1991 he taught at the UW School of Architecture and Urban Planning, where he wrote several books, including “Visual Awareness and Design” and “People, Paths and Purposes.”

In 1969, he co-founded the first journal focused on the relationship between people and their environments, Environment and Behavior.

One former student, Donn Stone, recalled Mr. Thiel as an intellectually demanding professor, yet one who had a deep empathy for others. They remained lifelong friends and often traveled together, including more than a dozen trips on canal boats in Europe.

On those trips, Mr. Thiel filled notebooks with sketches of public squares, corners of parks, street benches — anywhere people met and interacted, Stone said.

“He’d be measuring it, pacing off the space and noting how people used it,” Stone said.

In retirement, Mr. Thiel returned to his love of boats and designed several small, pedal-powered wooden boats. Chris Cunningham, an editor for WoodenBoat Magazine’s forthcoming Small Boats Monthly, said he met Mr. Thiel when his high-school-aged son decided to build one of Mr. Thiel’s boats.

“Phil’s philosophy was, the faster you go, the narrower your perspective,” Cunningham said. “I learned the word ‘flâneur,’ from him. It refers to a person who sees things in fine detail, who comes across things by chance. That was Phil’s preferred method of traveling.”

Mr. Thiel is survived by his wife of 59 years, Midori, of Seattle; son, Kenji Thielstrom, of Los Angeles; daughters Tamiko Thiel, of Munich, and Kiko Thiel, of London; sister Janet Bachmann, of Florida; and a granddaughter. He was preceded in death by son Peter Akira Thiel, who died in 1978.

A memorial celebration of Mr. Thiel’s life is planned for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Center for Wooden Boats, 1010 Valley St.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes



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