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Thomas Thorson is a landscape architect and urban designer interpreting the physical world to interconnect people in an urban environment.

Through the creation of parks, plazas, bridges, and the thoughtful shaping of streets and landscapes, Mr. Thorson's focus is to no just see urban architecture as concrete and buildings, but as the space in between them to empower every human being to fully live their lives eliminating the friction between the rapid pace of the daily routine, Sweet, necessary, and mindful contemplation of life. He serves on the Board of Directors at the Cliff Dwellers Club, an historic and iconic arts club in downtown Chicago that can count in its early members list, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and landscape architect Jens Jenson.

"We evolve as we get older. We lose friends, associates, relatives, family. And you realize: enjoy every moment that you can, during our short time here."
—Thomas Thorson

Thomas Thorson - Transcript

Thomas Thorson (guest): You know I look at things that have been done by other Designers, Architects, Landscape Architects and why I think of doing that you know back in the day. I get to actually use them myself. I'm looking at railing designs, I'm looking at their use of lighting, I'm looking at their use of seating elements, every day I say to myself, “life is good, life has been great.” You know, we've all, as we get older we lose friends, associates, relatives, family and you realize; you know enjoy every moment that you can on our short time here.

Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist with today's guests Thomas Thorson. Thomas Thorson is a Landscape Architect an urban designer interpreting the physical world to interconnect people in an urban environment through the creation of parks, plazas, bridges and the thoughtful shaping of streets and landscapes. Mr. Thornton's focus is to not just see urban architecture as concrete and buildings but as the space in between them to empower every human being to fully live their lives eliminating the friction between their rapid pace of the daily routine and the sweet necessarily mindful contemplation of life. He serves on the board of directors at the Cliff Dwellers Club, an historical an iconic arts club in Downtown Chicago that can count in its early members list, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and landscape architect Janse Jenson. Tom I never noticed your Minnesota accent but that's because they don’t.

Thomas Thorson: I think it's there, it's perhaps there but you wouldn't notice it.

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: A little bit anyway.

Simone Salis: Okay I was still catching up on that ability to be able to understand and identify American accents but you have a Minnesota accent because that's where you were born I guess.

Thomas Thorson: Yes; yes I was born in North Western Minnesota.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: In the Red River Valley of the North and lived there until I was 18 and off to college.

Simone Salis: Where did you go to college?

Thomas Thorson: I went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Simone Salis: How did the choice come to be Scientist?

Thomas Thorson: I recall as a little boy in school when you know, for instance, the teacher would ask, what do you want to be when you grow up? Draw a picture or something and I probably drew a building.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: And I think my teacher was quite impressed that I said I wanted to be an Architect. What does a third or fourth grader know about architecture but I always had an interest in the various design fields. I did recognize that there was design attempt behind objects at an early age, and spaces.

Simone Salis: So, you recognize that the nature of those objects or things that like being designed where was intentional by another human being.

Thomas Thorson: Yes.

Simone Salis: And their function interested you?

Thomas Thorson: Yes after a point I realized that was going on certainly by the time I was in Junior High School, later in Junior High School, in high school yes. I did recognize this.

Simone Salis: what do you think that is like? Does your family have anything to do with that? Like what did your parents do?

Thomas Thorson: Not really, my Father ran a family business, sand and gravel business, in North Western Minnesota and he dabbled in farming, my Mother as my Father would say raised five boys.

Simone Salis: What was her job?

Thomas Thorson: That was her job raising five sons, she had an interest in the landscape, and so far as she was a very avid gardener and grew very large flower gardens, this was our hobby.

Simone Salis: Well because you know Architects in general when you think of an Architect I think we talked about this but you think about building, you think about concrete and you did landscape design and urban design which includes that. But there is both components of both a rural community maybe in rural structure and landscape as that and also as a streetscape I think as you classify.

Thomas Thorson: Yes.

Simone Salis: So you merged those things together and you went off to School for Architecture. When was it clear that you had an interest in this two specific fields?

Thomas Thorson: To landscape architecture?

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: Very early, I was hearing more about Landscape Architecture as a professional.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: And it very much appealed to me, and in some ways I thought there one would have more latitude in design in that field. In some ways it continued, at that time it was really an up incoming field and recognized field.

Simone Salis: This was in the 70’s?

Thomas Thorson: Yes, the early 70’s, of course landscape architecture has been recognized as the profession since the 1860’s. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York. But I would say that with the 70’s came the recognition of the environment and ecology and sensible land-use planning, and landscape architecture was the profession that really took it upon itself to let that play into the profession and be demonstrated in the works that are created by the profession.

Simone Salis: Why is it important to you?

Thomas Thorson: You know, we've reached the point in our world that we have to have that recognition of the environment, we should have that recognition of the environment with regard to the impact that man has in its work and design on the earth. This is something that I'm not going to say that this is all something new in the 1970’s but there is definitely, you know in 1960 there was the Earth Day sort of celebration. So, that Americans were becoming more tuned into that, and as a profession in the 60’s and 70’s that landscape architecture was coming on, so that was of interest to me, and that got my attention.

Simone Salis: So it was like a self-conscious as a human race, it was vicious?

Thomas Thorson: Yeah.

Simone Salis: You mentioned the 60’s and the 70’s about this kind of awareness but I don't know if you're familiar but probably yes but, Buckminster Fuller, the guy that designed the Geodesic Domes, that kind of stuff or he stole it from his students . We don't know but at the time he published a small book called Operating Manual to Spaceship Earth, and I think it was in the 60’s.

Thomas Thorson: Yes

** S. Salis**: And there was a wonderful little book that took it metaphorically, and….
Thomas Thorson: Yes, Buckminster Fuller is fairly elderly man, he came to the University of Minnesota and made a presentation at North auditorium in the early 70’s .I was there, fascinating.

Simone Salis: Oh, you went to his presentation?

T. Thomas: I went to his presentation, yes, fascinating.

Simone Salis: Okay, yeah, what you were saying called too many that little smoke book there, and I think it was also the time of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Thomas Thorson: Yes.

Simone Salis: My Brand, and it's now made famous because Steve Jobs loved it. But there was a picture of earth from the moon it was a tiny; tiny speck of dust in the center of this black cover for this all health catalog. Kind of like was meant to give us a unity of our proportions in the universe, and so how we should take care of the…

Thomas Thorson: Amazing photographs of the Earth from space, you know that here we are on this blue marble.

Simone Salis: Yeah, that's exactly what it was, you graduate and then what do you do? What was your first job?

Thomas Thorson: Well I received the professional degree in Landscape Architecture.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: I went to work both in the public and private sectors.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: I was fortunate to have a wide variety of projects, many of them transportation related, including working with Structural Engineers on bridge design with special emphasis on context in the community and bridge aesthetics. Also development of street scrapes and associated with a lot of those public projects; would be spaces for people not just for cars, multimodal settings for bikes, walker's, activities, outdoor activities, recreation areas, parks, plazas.

Simone Salis: So, you designed mostly like communal spotlight shared spaces?

Thomas Thorson: Yes for the most part, for the most part. I've done some private design residential design.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: But for the most part public projects.

Simone Salis: If somebody gives me to design a plaza, I’d blank and I go like, yeah make a circle. What goes in maybe a bench and a tree yeah you're good to go.

Thomas Thorson: Well, you know I think back to my years in design school, the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota. And my wonderful Professor Roger Martin would comment on how these things can be our friends, these constraints that we might have that they provide the parameter so to speak of a project. And, so of course not everything is, you sell them a project that's designed and avoid, it has to work with the context that it's within. And that may be in an urban setting, it might be in downtown in a city area, might be in a residential area, it might be, you know as part of the school ,the landscape architect's consider the context and the environment.

Simone Salis: And you're originally from Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Thomas Thorson: Yes

Simone Salis: Lived in Minneapolis you worked in Saint Paul.

Thomas Thorson: Yes

Simone Salis: And you now live in Chicago which is considered the home of the international style and all that part, who are those cities to you? We have friends, and we are connected to them for some specific reasons, and I think that we developed the same connections to some [11”:55 inaudible].

Thomas Thorson: One of the reasons that I more recently decided to do a little exploration on my own now that I'm not practicing.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: And strikeouts.

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: Live with things that other designers have done.

Simone Salis: Like what?

Thomas Thorson: Live downtown, oh I walk out of my classy high-rise downtown Chicago that’s located on the Chicago River ,and go for a walk along the river. Look at how other designers have worked with those spaces, interpreted those spaces to develop spaces for people, I get to actually use them myself. I'm looking at railing designs, I'm looking at their use of lighting, I'm looking at their use of seating elements.
Simone Salis: Is this fun for you?

Thomas Thorson: Yes

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: It's automatic.

Simone Salis: Yeah, is it?

Thomas Thorson: But it’s more interesting now for me because I'm relaxed about it.

Simone Salis: It's not work.

Thomas Thorson: I’m living with it, it isn’t work, so you know one could actually ask me what do you think? And so, yes of course you know I look at things that have been done by other designers, architects, landscape architects, and you know when I think of doing that you know back in the day. You know, that's… I'll look at some things that's very clever, that's very innovative or you know on the other hand I may look at that, oh come on you know they can't be serious why did they do that here?

[Music Interlude]
Simone Salis: I am SimonE Salis, and this is Hoomans with today's guests Thomas Thorson, Landscape Architect and Urban Designer.

Simone Salis: Do you have a favorite movement, you know in architecture there are so many different movements and it goes pretty much like art…

Thomas Thorson: Yeah.

Simone Salis: At the same time, even though it is more connected to Engineering than any painting will ever be.

Thomas Thorson: Yeah, well I you know I was trained as a Modernist Landscape Architect

Simone Salis: Okay

Thomas Thorson: That was the era, early 1970’s trained by very well-known and educated people in the design fields, and they were modernists. And so, we had our heroes back then landscape architects like Paul Freiburg or Lawrence Halprin. I learned more about the city beautiful movement.

** S. Salis**: What is their problem?

Thomas Thorson: Well, you know Daniel Burnham.

** S. Salis**: Sure

Thomas Thorson: Famous Chicago Architect, and one of the early founding members of The Cliff Dwellers Club, he was very much one of the most renowned representatives of the city beautiful movement, and city of Washington DC, the development of the Capital Mall. The layout of the city but The City Beautiful Movement the term I think is more of a late 1800’s term, certainly made popular by the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

S. Salis: Yeah

Thomas Thorson: I think a lot of modernist designers sort of dismissed a lot of that, and I can understand why they did that. But I mean on the other hand I think we started looking in the 1980’s at all of that again, some of the tenets of The City Beautiful Movement. I admire how it organizes, it can organize cities if it's done well, it's a tool like modernist design is, you know and then with the recognition of the environment. The other thing that was coming on in the 1980’s is the new urbanism, looking at urban design historically and what are those things that you know they were onto something then. There were things that were happening with the layout of cities and residential areas of cities, its grid system and the way that they manipulated that from a design standpoint. That was a value, and we see it as a value today really liked the idea of borrowing from modernism city, beautiful movement, the new urbanism not to be afraid to look at all of those things, and not just say I'm a modernist and this is how am…

Simone Salis: Should be unbelievable you were trying to find good points to value in both being a modernist and admiring The City Beautiful Movement and merged those together.

Thomas Thorson: It's best if you can be flexible and draw from all of that.

Simone Salis: Oh, you designed lots of bridges and how did this focus come into your career? Like how many did you design, and where did you design them, and what do they represent to you? These to me sometimes it can become a metaphor too, connecting point A from point B especially with people.

Thomas Thorson: Oh, yes it was fortunate for me I had the opportunity with projects that were presented to me that contained that component, you know a bridge. Landscape Architects have a history and design of bridges but it's somewhat unusual certainly not insofar as it's a lay person wouldn't think that a Landscape Architect would be involved with the with the design of a church. But in fact Landscape Architect's do this a lot of it is aesthetic suggestions for the bridge working with the Bridge Engineers, Structural Engineers. But beyond that you'd also often bridges are located within our communities, there are a component of our communities, it isn't just getting from point A to point B, the bridge is a gateway, it’s a prominent work design within the community. I saw the opportunity sometimes to introduce places for people whether at the ends of the bridge or even at the center of the bridge with development of for instance a Plaza on a bridge, an overlook of whatever you're crossing, river for instance and a place to interpret the river valley or spend a little time sit there.

Simone Salis: I think it sounds very poetical also when you said, sit there a little bit because it's comforting to hear that a designer and an architect thinks about that moment when you walk by a bridge, and you stop for a second and maybe contemplating what you can see from there.

Thomas Thorson: Yes

Simone Salis: It's just a nice image to say, like yeah, bridge needs to bring from point A to point B, car, humans. And then you're like, you never need to consider that somebody sits there for a little bit, that's a human part of it.

Thomas Thorson: That’s true.

Simone Salis: Do you have any favorite spots in the city of Chicago, now that you moved here?

Thomas Thorson: The river.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: Until I moved here and have been living on the river, and overlooking the river I have an incredible view of the river and the downtown. I did not realize how important The Chicago River was to the city of Chicago, you know. And I see it if I'm up in the middle of the night for some, you know just I'm looking out the window I'll see a huge barge moving on the river. And so, the river is used ,you know 24 hours, and then of course this time of the year the summer the recreational use that the river receives. And boats, private boats moving and sailboats moving out to the harbor area, the use of the river by pedestrians walking along the river, sitting along the river and eating on the river, there's places to eat along the river, so I'm most impressed with that in Chicago.

Simone Salis: What do you do in your free time now and you're part of The Cliff Dwellers Club?

Thomas Thorson: Well, yes The Cliff Dwellers Club has been an important part of my life while I've been living in downtown Chicago for the past five years, and it's a club, it's an organization that supports the Arts of Chicago. It's a historic club, there’s emphasis on all of the arts, of course I'm drawn to design fields, like architecture and landscape architecture. That has been an important part of my daily life, and you know it's kind of interesting for somebody who grew up on a farm in the Red River Valley. Where it's wide open spaces to be living in the third largest city in the United States, and its Downtown which is probably the second most built-up Downtown in the United States.

Simone Salis: I believe so because L.A. doesn't definitely have anything like the Downtown, Chicago.

Thomas Thorson: Yeah I think you'd have to look at New York and Manhattan.

Simone Salis: Yeah, exactly.

Thomas Thorson: Before, yes, you know I looking ahead now these years that I'm not practicing, so to speak.

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: You know once a Designer, once an Architect, once a Landscape Architect, always you know of course The Cliff Dwellers has been an outlet for that ,and it's very fine arts programs.

Simone Salis: What do you do there?

Thomas Thorson: I'm a Director I'm on the Board of Directors.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: Of the club and several committees, the club has a lot of incredible I think programming is of interest I think to people who have that are drawn to the arts and certainly the arts in Chicago.

Simone Salis: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person? In your own meaning, not necessarily religious.

Thomas Thorson: I would say that Landscape Architects certainly have that, that's a component of spiritual yes, you know recognition of our place this planet has in the universe of our city within on this continent. Yes, probably have to paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright in this, he said something to the effect, “if you seek God look at nature”, and certainly that's something that Landscape Architects, that's something that a lot of people do. And so is that spiritual?

Simone Salis: Yeah, I believe.

Thomas Thorson: Would you say?

Simone Salis: Is it a presence or a belief that you have? You know I can see this connection that you're talking about, and I think it's potentially beautiful and humble because designers to me definitely can have the power very close to what could be the power of shaping matter, and give it a function.

Thomas Thorson: Yes.

Simone Salis: And if you do believe in any kind of superior power, shaping matter and allowing it at least to start to have function with or without free will that depends on how you see it, if you see it like that. At the end of the day God is a little bit of designer for whomever it exists. Right?

Thomas Thorson: Well, I suppose you know I mean these are some things that I don't think of so deeply, maybe when I'm at my friends lake place in Minnesota , sitting out on the dock at sunset and I'm thinking..

Simone Salis: For a second.

Thomas Thorson: Yes or if you know if you're traveling, and you see these incredible natural vistas now and all of this you can't, you know for me you can't help but think.

Simone Salis: 25:06: I'm not saying its intelligent design I mean it might be that God is a designer if it exists and just made a mess and considers this disgusting.

Thomas Thorson: And maybe that’s what it is

Simone Salis: That’s what it is, just like its God like stumbled on a bucket

Thomas Thorson: Exactly.

Simone Salis: That was it, and like it's beautiful, it's just a bucket that was spilled.

Thomas Thorson: And we have to make something of it.

Simone Salis: And we said, now we got to make it beautiful.

Thomas Thorson: We have to live with; this is what we have to live with.

S. Salis: Now, we’ve got to give it a meaning.

Thomas Thorson: Or work with it.

Simone Salis: Or work with that. So, what do you focus on? Like say to enjoy a good day or to just, you know what is your day like? What do you focus on?

Thomas Thorson: I think having a good time with people; my friends and you know we're enjoying each other. Wonderful conversations, sometimes just having the time to do that and to make arrangements to do that with friends ,a quick lunch or a coffee that that you know becomes you know it was going to be just the 15 minute thing and becomes a two-hour conversation.

Simone Salis: Right, yeah.
Thomas Thorson: You kind of get lost, and yeah I enjoyed those things.

Simone Salis: It seems to me that your goal is as simple and respectable because it's hard and you need to reach that as simply having a good time with the people near you, and with yourself, is that right?

Thomas Thorson: Yes, well with the people and with the people near me , and my friends of course one hangs with those people that share interests.

Simone Salis:Okay, and some people I might be one of those do feel the need to either pretend or maybe it's true to them find other reasons other than just simply having a good connection and having a good time. Like yeah, something like I'm doing you know sometimes I ask question is like but what's the real meaning with that? And there is not necessarily that but you need to get to that conclusion somehow, like you need to get to the point in life where you realize that's what it is. The thing is I just want to enjoy a sweet time, a good time and have a good time with the people that I have around me.

Thomas Thorson: On our short time here.

Simone Salis: On our short time here.

Thomas Thorson: Very short time.

Simone Salis: Is that a factor in this decision?

Thomas Thorson: Oh absolutely; absolutely I mean every day I say to myself life is good life has been great. I don't have that all that much time left, you know we've all as we get older we lose friends, associates, relative, family and you realize you now enjoy every moment that you can. So, I delighted to have time to spend with my friends, many of them like me who are interested in similar things the arts like I am. We of course growing up as a young gay man in the Red River Valley of North Western Minnesota, and…

Simone Salis: How was that?

Thomas Thorson: It was fine, yeah it was fine. And I think it's been more challenging for me to see what I think isn’t, somewhat unfortunate struggle of gay people to be recognized by some institutions that you think would be more ready to recognize gay people. So, there was a bit of a struggle there but you know overall in the past certainly 20 years we've seen big changes, we can go back much further than that but perhaps here in this country the United States is a little bit ahead of quite a few other countries in the world.

Simone Salis: Well, I mean yeah, Italy for example has civil unions doesn't have equaled…

Thomas Thorson: Yeah.

Simone Salis: Marriage equality.

Thomas Thorson: It varies.

Simone Salis: Yeah, the names vary and it takes a while to but definitely like compared to other countries not even Western countries, so a little bit ahead but you say it like growing up as a young gay man in Red Valley.

Thomas Thorson: You didn’t, well you weren't… there wasn't a label on you know you were just …

Simone Salis: Tom.

Thomas Thorson: Tom.

Simone Salis: When did you first come out?

Thomas Thorson: You know there's different ways people of my age would come out ,and I would say you come out to yourself when you are a teenager a bit, you come out to your very closest friends somewhat later back certainly back then we're talking…

Simone Salis: What was the age for you?

Thomas Thorson: Half a century ago, I don’t…

Simone Salis: 20’s

Thomas Thorson: I have to think about that. Yeah, probably yes.

Simone Salis: Okay

Thomas Thorson: Yes

Simone Salis: So, there was your second past, like first you accept it with yourself and you come out to yourself a little bit, then your closest friends because of courses.

Thomas Thorson: And then after a while with work associates but a few work associates. Yes today it's different but there are protections for some protection.

Simone Salis: Some not the entirety of United States.

Thomas Thorson: Not

Simone Salis: Protects from discrimination of the workplace.

Thomas Thorson: No

Simone Salis: Because of orientation and gender.

Thomas Thorson: No, and of course that's a big concern, that was a big concern 40, 50 years ago.

Simone Salis: Were you active in to LGBTQ rights?

Thomas Thorson: In Minnesota I was for same-sex marriage.

Simone Salis: Okay.

Thomas Thorson: Yes, I was because I saw it as a civil right, and we are going to have another discussion on marriage but as a civil right you know that was something that I firmly believe in.

*S. Salis: So, in just having the same opportunity as straight people.

Thomas Thorson: Yes.

Simone Salis: Then the institution itself from what you're saying it's a different topic?

Thomas Thorson: Well, that would be a different topic, and I may think that's fine.

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: But I mean that's a civil right.

Simone Salis: Just to get to the same level.

Thomas Thorson: Yes, and there's our tax structure for instance in the United States and recognition in other ways in Minnesota that was 2008, 2010.

Simone Salis: It was one of the first states.

Thomas Thorson: First sates yes, the legislature in Minnesota put it on the ballot, the question of it would go into the state constitution.

Simone Salis: Okay

Thomas Thorson: And which was to say to prevent same-sex marriages.

Simone Salis: Wow.

Thomas Thorson: So, there was a big campaign no this had not worked out in other states certainly to the advantage of the LGBT community which is what we called it at the time but…

Simone Salis: A few letters ago.

Thomas Thorson: Yeah, and we knew we had a struggle on our hands and but no Minnesotans said we're not putting that into our Constitution and then there was a movement to pass it in the legislature.

Simone Salis: Do you believe that you were able to fully live your life as a gay man growing up with no particular obstacle? Except well you mentioned of course the marriage inequality up until a while ago but there was not necessarily a personal thing, but did you feel comfortable growing up?

Thomas Thorson: Yes, I did okay and I had many friends, you know we're all very supportive of each other, that’s important perhaps it's easier for people who make friends readily.

Simone Salis: Yeah.

Thomas Thorson: I would say that it's been very positive, and it's been certainly what has been happening over the past generation has been very positive for gay people.

Simone Salis: Thomas Thorson today on Hoomanist.

Thomas Thorson: Thank You.

Simone Salis: Thomas Thorson is a landscape architect an urban designer interpreting the physical world to interconnect people in an urban environment. He serves on the Board of Directors at the Cliff Dwellers Club and historical and iconic Arts Club in Downtown Chicago; you can find more about Tom and the Cliff Dwellers Chicago visiting