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Obituary for Professor Phil Thiel

December 20, 1920 - May 10, 2014

Phil Thiel Portrait


Philip Thiel, Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Washington, Naval Architect and community activist, died peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends Saturday, May 10, 2014. He was 93 years old.


Thiel left an impact in fields as diverse as naval architecture, architectural design and urban planning pedagogy, environmental psychology and community advocacy for people-centered urban design and development. He published Freehand Drawing (1965), Visual Awareness and Design (1981) and People, Paths and Purposes (1997), which introduced “experiential notation,” or ways to describe the human experience of moving through the built environment.

Through his courses and books he brought passionate commitment, multi-disciplinary intellectual breadth, and analytical rigor to his teaching. He opened students’ eyes to multiple aspects of visual perception, awareness and communication, and introduced them to a design philosophy centered around a rigorous study of the human end-users’ needs, practices and desires. He advocated designing with an understanding of how the built environment affects human use and interaction both physically and psychologically. Indulging his love of exploring new cultures and built environments, over the years he impacted student lives in the thousands through his teaching from Berkeley and Seattle, to Tokyo and Sapporo, Japan, from Arhus, Denmark to Bolivia and Peru.


Thiel was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1920 to Philip Thiel and Alma Theone (Meyer). As a boy he visited his father at the Brooklyn shipyards, where his father ran a freight forwarding company. Enthralled by the harbour activity of tugboats and freighters, he took a Bachelor of Science in Naval Architecture in 1943 at Webb Institute of Naval Architecture. The last years of World War II he designed ships in Boston to support the war effort. In 1945 he was awarded a patent for a design based on his Webb final thesis which was a prototype for container shipping, the “Sectional Ship.” After the war he spent what he considered halcyon days working with sixth-generation wooden boat builder, Dana Story, at the famed Story family shipyard in Essex before going on to take a Masters of Science in Naval Architecture at University of Michigan in 1948.

Invited to teach naval architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he met artist and theorist György Kepes, who was teaching visual design in a program that later became MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Inspired by Kepes’ theories on visual perception and communication, he quit his job teaching to study “dry land architecture,” completing his Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1952. He joked, “I was the only person to come to MIT as a professor and leave as a student.” While at MIT, Thiel was also able to work with Kevin Lynch, and was influenced by his studies of the human understanding of urban space. This would eventually lead in 1969 to his co-founding the first interdisciplinary journal focused on person/environment relationships, Environment and Behavior, with Gary Winkel and Francis Ventner. Following MIT, Thiel worked briefly at Bauhaus architects Marcel Breuer’s office in New York and Walter Gropius’ office, The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) in Cambridge before deciding his heart was in teaching and academia.

In 1954, Thiel followed William Wurster, who had been Dean at MIT, to the School of Architecture at UC Berkeley to join the faculty. He worked with noted designer Charles Eames on a new introductory program for design, and was involved in the establishment by Wurster in 1959 of the College of Environmental Design. A non-conformist even at bohemian Berkeley, he refused to wear the then mandatory tie – finally cutting a strip of cloth with a slit for his top button, and wearing this in protest. When Thiel came to the University of Washington in 1961, he built on his experiences from MIT and Berkeley, developing an introductory studio course on design, championing the establishment of the architecture department's woodshop and photography studio, and honing the pedagogical theory which he would later bring to universities around the world.


Thiel formed a deep relationship with Japan, in particular, through two connections. While at Gropius’ office, he met architect and educator Kiyoshi Seike; then at Berkeley he met his wife, artist Midori Kono, who shared his professional interest in the Japanese arts and culture. The confluence of these two important relationships would take him to Japan numerous times over the years, teaching at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Sapporo School of Design, developing deep and enduring collegial friendships.


In the mid-1970’s, Thiel revisited his naval architecture roots, designing a series of pedal-powered wooden boats, starting with the Dorycycle, progressing through the Skiff-cycle, Aphasia and the Escargot. The latter, with a cabin for sleeping 3-4 people, was inspired by his enthusiasm for sailing the canals of France for two weeks every year from 1997-2010. These trips became iconic for gathering friends, colleagues and students from all over the world for two weeks of sudden immersion with Admiral Thiel in boat-handling, lock-navigating and investigations into the built environment and esprit of French village life. His wooden boat designs have been built by enthusiasts from Seattle to Australia to Berlin.


In his seventies, after unsuccessfully battling forced retirement, Thiel became more involved in civic activism, largely inspired by Victor Steinbrueck, the UW architecture professor who led the campaign to save the Pike Place Market in 1972. Spearheading efforts to humanize the urban environment by creating "pocket parks" wherever possible, and preserving the character of existing neighborhoods, he was granted lifelong free coffee by the Allegro café for his successful efforts to minimize the impact of redevelopment of the church across the alley.  Recently, he achieved some measure of media notoriety when the large salvaged historic propeller intended as sculpture for the North Passage Point Park was stolen from his backyard. The thieves abandoned the propeller after a blitz of newspaper and television bulletins about the theft. Until the very end he was working on a community advocacy project to ensure the inclusion of a public plaza as part of the University District Sound Transit station.

Thiel is survived by his wife of 59 years, Midori Kono in Seattle, his son Kenji in Los Angeles, daughters Tamiko in Munich and Kiko in London, his sister Janet Bachman in Florida, and granddaughter, Ravenna in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. His other son, Peter Akira, died in 1978.

Please join us to celebrate the life of Professor Phil Thiel on Sunday, August 17th at 6:30pm at the Center for Wooden Boats at South Lake Union, in Seattle.

The U District Square project has set up memorial pages on which the location, time and date will be announced. Reminiscences, anecdotes, photos, articles etc. about Philip Thiel are welcome to be uploaded to the memorial pages for potential inclusion in the celebration.

We also invite you to read the excellent obituary written by Lynn Thompson in the Seattle Times.


See also: Stamets, John (2012), “Citizen Thiel,” ArchBeLog



Cory Crocker May 11, 2014
I am so sorry to hear the news of Phil's passing yesterday evening. He was a great man with a passion for seeing what was missing from our world and inspiring others to create it, together. His enthusiasm for ideas was as contagious as his belief in the common, greater good. My life has taken a different trajectory since meeting Phil Thiel. He helped me to rediscover my academic focus on public space and see that its pursuit was anything but academic. It will happen, and Phil will be honored as our patron.
Katie Bucy May 16, 2014
Philip Thiel was one of my favorite professors at the UW, and I'm sad to hear of his death. He was a wise, demanding, and kind teacher w/a dry sense of humor. He motivated me to work hard that summer in Architectural Design, and although I'm not an architect, I remember much of what he taught me. My condolences to his family.
Lois Logan Horn May 16, 2014
My thoughts are with Midori whose beautiful kanji for Outside Person hangs in my entry hall.
Dan Greenfield May 16, 2014
So sad to hear that Phil has died. I am also glad that i had the chance to sit with him not long ago and talk. My thoughts are with Midori and with Kenji, and with my dad, who was a life long friend.
May 16, 2014
I grew up looking at Phil's book "freehand drawing." it made me want to learn to draw, and I did. Not a natural, but i took two college courses and proved that anyone--even me, could learn. Thanks, Phil.
May 19, 2014
I was too frightened of Professor Thiel to sign up for his classes. But I made up for it in his last years. I worked with the Professor on pedal boat APHASIA at Center for Wooden Boats, never suspecting he had a spiritual bent. We were out on Lake Union a few years ago, talking, I suppose about getting old. He surprised me, after a long silence, with a prayer of thanksgiving, to a benevolent higher power: "Thank God for Viagra!"
Karen Schmidt May 29, 2014
I was saddened to hear of the passing of Phil Thiel today on this website. I was a co-member of Roosevelt Neighbors Alliance with Phil for many years in the 1980s and beyond. We lived only a few blocks apart. I always appreciated Phil's intelligence, and his commitment to people and the neighborhood environment. (He was a key player in the people-friendly design of the park at NE 50th Street near the University Branch Library.) I also learned how to play "petanque" from Phil! From this website l see how much more there was about Phil and his wide range of experience that I was not aware of. My sincere condolences to Midori and family. Phil will be missed by many. Karen Schmidt
Stan Mitchell (@ UW 1973-75) Jun 30, 2014
Phil was a great teacher. Very enlightnening classes I took with him. I'll never forget his telling of visiting his grandfathers farm in Brooklyn NY!
Darragh O'Brien, Melbourne, Australia Jul 8, 2014
Very sad to hear (belatedly) about the passing of Phillip Thiel, but what a legacy. His book People, Paths and Purposes was extraordinary in its breadth, depth and detail. It was a key text in the Interior Architecture program I ran at Monash University in Melbourne and it inspired my doctorate on Evidence-Based Design. My condolences to his entire family.
Tom Abels, UC Berkeley, '62 Jul 15, 2014
I was happy to see reference to 'the tie', an enduring symbol of personal courage and creativity that was so influential in those days of search for values and meaning. I've passed on that story many times over the years. Thanks, Mr. Thiel.
Jerry DeWolfe Jul 16, 2014
Ah you made it to your 90s, Phil. Thanks for being there at UW in the '70s. Your lectures on "Human Experience" led me down paths in life that I never would have found on my own. Thanks again!
Nancy Eisenman Jul 21, 2014
From John Quincy Adams. " The greatest gift given to mankind was friendship."
Dan McMullen And Susanne Freeborn Jul 21, 2014
Professor Thiel was my 2nd year (1958) design teacher at Berkeley, and much of what he taught us was to observe, analyze and imagine a better way to make our environment, espeially built, work for people. He always challenged us to think deeply and see beyond the technical to the social and environmental impacts of what we built. This concept followed me through 45 years of architectural pratice, designing and supervising the construcion of single family and multi-famiy homes of small and large scale, commercial bulidings, educational buildings. libraries and detention facilities that were and are successful buildings in the environment. Some of these involved new and experimental designs for the types, and Professor Thiel always came to mind in the design process while looking for solutions to new and untried ideas. And, he was a "hoot" to be around, always being a little playful in his interactions with students, treating them more as friends and fellow voyagers in design and life. But he gave no quarter for lazyness, either. He deserved the long and fruitful life he lived, and we are all better for his journey with us.
Mit Mitropoulos Aug 11, 2014
Some people I had expected will live for ever--at least hoped wouldn't go before me as I there is more to say and do.Notations is one group of works that has still not made the impact it was necessary for--assuming the anticipated urban complexity dimension: has someone else picked it up from where he had left? I had reviewed his Paths book for IAPS People-Environment Studies, Unfortunately,I never made it to the West Coast,stuck to the East when in USA.As for his Japanese connection he was very lucky to have both had the chance and have taken it: I visited for 3 weeks in 2005 for a presentation and remain in awe. Furthermore I am sure he would have been delighted to hear that I have used my Urban Complexity background to deal with my mother's Memory Degeneration Complexity,doing Relational Exercises with her to solicit her brain--with success. Prof Philip Thiel stays for me.
Blake Stephens Sep 5, 2014
Philip Thiel was my favorite professor at the U of W in the late 70's. He inspired me to be an architect and now a professor of architecture. He helped me to write curriculum to mirror his foundation studio course 4 years ago. Thank-you for your wonderful outlook on life and the profession!
Maurice Amiel, Montreal Jun 9, 2015
First an anecdote: During a critique of a design project I had produced for a pedestrian space next to what used to be "the Bon" in Seattle, a design involving an exhibition centered structure, benches etc., Philip had this to say ... which said it all: "Maurice you have missed the boat" Meaning the space should have been left empty but full of a meaningful emptiness ... as I imagine his project for a public space in the U District would be if he has his way. Second a personal reflection: Philip has been a source of pedagogical insight when it was my turn to teach drawing for aspiring designers, and a key source theoretical insight for my courses in environment and behavior classes, thanks to his space experience notation which was enriched by the further contributions of the field of environment and behavior studies, notably by EDRA. I was fortunate to be able to keep in touch with Philip throughout my teaching career at the School of Design of the University of Quebec at Montreal, and had the opportunity to recognize my intellectual debt in articles dedicated to him, for which he was thankful. RIP Philip ... never to be forgotten.