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Architecture Professor Emeritus Philip Thiel – age 91 – is back on the streets and in the news again with his campaign to stop a potential high-rise development above the new Sound Transit station to be built underneath the block at NE 43rd & Brooklyn next to University Tower.


Instead of tall buildings on the lot above the underground station, Thiel advocates a public open space. The site is ideal for an open community plaza, he says, and that should be consistent with the goals of the UW and University District planning.

For a fuller accounting of the issue, go to the Seattle Times story


Agreeing with Thiel is architect Robert Sowder (UW “53), the NBBJ designer of the adjacent Safeco Tower, now owned by UW and called University Tower. He writes


“The Safeco Tower Complex was designed as a pedestrian-friendly addition to the University District, allowing the Safeco Plaza to be used as a public route connecting the District to NE 43rd Street and beyond. This public use of private property makes (University Tower) the perfect neighbor for a new Transit Plaza.

“The long-term benefits…of the creation of a pedestrian plaza will far exceed any short term gain from filling this space up with buildings.”

If you are liked-minded and want to get involved in the issue, then Phil Thiel welcomes your phone calls at 206-633-2017 or letters sent to his home at 4720 Seventh Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105.


In the spirit full disclosure, I – John Stamets – confess that I”m indebted to Phil Thiel because he strongly advocated in 1992 that I be hired for the position I still hold, Lecturer in Photography at the Department of Architecture. However, he retired from teaching as I was being hired, so we were never on the faculty at the same time.


In the next 20 years our paths crossed occasionally, usually concerning photography for one of his civic campaigns. Now he”s back again, and I marvel at his energy, wit and sustained community activism that he has maintained over the last 20 years.



Here is a partial list of the community projects he”s been involved in since retirement:

1998 -  University Playground Boules Court

2000 – NE 45th Tunnel @ U-Way

2003 – Campus Parkway Proposal

2003 – Pocket Park at NE 43rd & 11th NE

2004 – University Playfield Fence & Entrance

2005 – Allegro Cafe/UNICO PLAZA

2008 – Zoning Heights Transition Proposal

2012 – North Passage Point Park Sculpture

2012 – Open Space for U-District Sound Transit Station


Phil accredits his civic activism largely to his former mentor Victor Steinbrueck, the UW architecture professor who led the campaign to save the Pike Place Market in 1972.


Phil Thiel got his job at UW by accident, as he tells it.  In 1961 – with a degree in architecture from MIT and five years of teaching experience at Berkeley online casino – he was returning from a 15-month fellowship in Japan with the intent of going to St. Louis where he had a job offer at Washington University.


Since the ship from Japan landed in Seattle, he stayed here a few extra days to visit relatives. On the 2nd day, he decided to check out the UW architecture program. He walked in the door unannounced, but was graciously introduced to some of the faculty, including Victor Steinbrueck who gave him a complete tour of the program and campus. Then Steinbrueck and Dean Bob Dietz treated him to dinner, and by the end of the evening they offered him a job.  So Phil stayed in Seattle with his wife Midori Kono, and they never made it to St. Louis. Both are still happily married and living in the same house since 1961 on 7th NE in the University District.



Phil is just as passionate about his first profession – naval architecture – as he is about architecture and community activism. For his most recent naval project, he made the news again, but not in the way he intended.  A salvaged historic propeller for a public park was stolen was Phil”s backyard: http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattle911/2012/02/01/seattle-thieves-grab-1300-pound-steel-prop/

The resulting publicity resulted in a warehouse watchman reporting it to the police. Today the propeller is safely installed at North Passage Point Park on Lake Union, as shown in the accompanying photo.

Phil is also well-known in the field of wooden boats. In Sept. 2011 he was featured in Wooden Boat magazine in an article titled: “Slow By Design: Phil Thiel”s Quiet and Simple Boats.”


As his 92nd birthday fast approaches, Phil notes wryly “The end of the rope is getting near. Now there is not much time left, but the list of things to do is getting even longer!”

As for his driving philosophy as a non-practicing academic architect, Phil says:

“It is my social obligation to make my professional skills available to deprived communities that lack the knowledge and resources (of urban planning & architecture) to stand up to the powers that be.”

And that is exactly what he is doing today.


Photos and text  by John Stamets.



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