The Contrarian Conversations with Philip Thiel ’43
e’re sitting in a sunbathed, secluded café terrace near the University of Washington—Philip Thiel ’43 and four young engineers from the Glosten (’40) Associates. Thiel has begun to wax nostalgic about the 100-foot wooden tug on which he spent his Saturdays as a teenager. He gets as far as the engine room before he notices furrowed brows. “You know what a Scotch boiler is? You don’t? That’s incredible!” He pauses. “I really have to explain this.” Thiel reaches for a hand-sharpened #2 pencil and begins sketching on plain paper. The drawing starts as a circle beside a rectangle—a profile and a section. He names the components as he draws them, emphasizing the assembly process with subtle flourishes. Our brows furrow again; we’re frustrated that we can’t make sense of his clean, descriptive lines. Then he pencils in the water level, and a realization washes over us: Thiel has drawn this beautiful sketch of a Scotch boiler upside-down for himself so that it would be right-side-up for us. We had been blinded by our expectations. I recount our epiphany to Phil Thiel a few days later, and he chuckles. “You have to know how to draw upside down for clients as an architect,” he says. Now it’s my turn to chuckle, for I can’t imagine an architect or an engineer in my generation including upside-down sketching on a list of essential skills. Yet it isn’t so much that the 92-year-old Thiel is anachronistic; he’s just deliberately and unapologetically different. “My position is: I always do the opposite,” he says. “I’m a contrarian—by choice, because I think you discover more things by taking the opposite position.” Philip Thiel grew up in Brooklyn and on Staten Island, but had you asked him as a youngster where his home was, he probably would have pointed toward the nearest dock. From the time he was old enough to walk, Thiel would accompany his father, a marine freight forwarder, to the wharves every Saturday. While the elder Thiel attended to business, the younger Thiel would undertake a self-guided tour of the vessel and watch the stevedores work their steam winches. “That’s how I got infected,” he recalls. “It’s never left me. I’ve always been fascinated with ships and still am.”
As soon as he was employable, he leveraged his father’s connections into apprenticeships at local shipyards and nominal positions aboard harbor tugs and merchant vessels. Thiel’s high-school graduation gift? A two-month cruise to Valparaiso and back on a coastwise Danish freighter. Ironically, the contrarian followed a rather trodden path to Webb: as a youth he dreamed up his own boat designs, and when he read Howard Chapelle’s Yacht Designing and Planning, he decided to become a naval architect. He learned about Webb while visiting a shipyard associated with Chapelle in picturesque Ipswich, MA shortly after he graduated from high school. Phil Thiel remembers his time at Webb as “the best four years of my life because I was doing full-time—24 hours a day, seven days a week—things I loved. It was heaven. No distractions.” Well, almost no distractions: Thiel recalls mandatory ballroom dancing lessons with “beautiful young ladies” whom Admiral Rock had invited over. For his thesis, Philip Thiel designed and patented a “sectional ship,” a cargo carrier with an interchangeable barge in lieu of a hold—a proto-LASH, quasi-ATB concept. After Webb, Thiel returned to Massachusetts to design fishing vessels. He became an early proponent of the double-chine hull form, and within a few years he was off to the University of Michigan to subject this form to tank testing for his master’s thesis. His research led to an instructorship at MIT the following year. Thiel almost instantly began to feel restless: “I realized I needed to add some more dimensions to my life… another activity where I could use my creativity with more social involvement.” He followed his passion for art and design, became a protégé of György Kepes, and graduated from MIT at age 31 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. “I think I was the first person to enter MIT as an instructor and leave as a student,” he quips.
The Winter 2012 edition of Webb Institutes Magazine