Movie stars and rock legends don’t make me swoon, but 92-year-old architects with visions of public plazas dancing through their heads, now that’s something to write home about.
The caption under his picture says it all, “Citizen Thiel fights for a plaza above Brooklyn Station with his weapon of choice: an architectural model.”
And that’s what he had the first and only time I saw him; two years ago he came to speak in front of the Sound Transit Board (where I work – disclaimer!) pulling that architectural model out from under his arm and good naturedly made his case for a public plaza that would be like the great ones in Venice, Paris, and Rome.
It was, he told the Sound Transit board, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sign me up, Mom.
But the Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Planning at the UW didn’t get to see his battle through, let alone won. Philip Thiel died peacefully May 10, 2014 surrounded by family and friends. The fight for a public space above the Sound Transit University District Station is still undecided. The question is will it be the expected development, likely office space, over the underground light rail stop that opens in 2021, or will it be what Thiel envisioned, a public space along the lines of a European plaza.
The cause has been taken up by many others since being launched by Citizen Thiel.
One of those others helping to carry the torch is Cory Crocker who came across one of Thiel’s type written flyers promoting the plaza idea lying on a table at Café Allegro in the U District. Thiel had left the flyers around the café where he enjoyed free life-time coffee (thanks to another public space battle he led, that one, on the café’s behalf).
After seeing the flyer Crocker called Thiel. He helped take the cause high tech by setting up a website for U District Square – the heart shaped logo design was Thiel’s, and Thiel’s early passionate, type written flyers are posted on the site’s blog.
Thiel was insistent that community action could change the course of development, says Crocker, that government agencies and public institutions worked in silos without always seeing the big picture or understanding what was in the public good. Neighbors, Thiel felt, had to rise up and give direction, says Crocker. “Public streets really are owned by us.”
Crocker says Thiel put the idea of a public square out there showing that it could catch hold, become contagious.
Thiel was giving directions and providing inspiration for the square even from his deathbed. Says Crocker, “his mind was sharp to the end.”
A memorial celebration for Phil Thiel will take place at the Center for Wooden Boats on August 17. Naval architecture was a first passion for Thiel, so it’s appropriate that the arc of his life would be celebrated there. He had a special affinity for designing pedal boats and tiny houseboats that as one commenter replied put everything wonderful together, tiny houses, boating, and bicycling.
The memorial is open to the public. Family and friends welcome those wanting to help support the cause of a public square in the U District and just ask that folks RSVP through the U District website for planning purposes at www.udistrictsquare.org/memorial.
Joining other visionary Seattle architects who have left their mark on the city, perhaps sipping a coffee at a small table, Thiel will likely be watching it all, as his family has said, from that great plaza in the sky.