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
— The Cliff Dwellers Club, Chicago
T. Thorson (guest): Things that had been done by other designers, architects, landscape architects, and, and I think of doing that, you know, back in the day I get to actually use them myself. I'm, I'm looking at railing designs. I'm looking at their use of lighting. I'm, I'm looking at their use of seeding elements every day. I say to myself, life, life is good. Life has been great. You know, I, we evolve as we get older. We lose friends, associates, relatives, relatives, family, and um, you realize, you know, enjoy every moment that you can on our short time here.
S. Salis (host): I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today's guest, Thomas Thorson. Thomas Thorson is a landscape architect and urban designer interpreting the physical world to interconnect people in an urban environment through dictation of parks, plazas, bridges, and the thoughtful shaping of streets and landscapes. Mr Thorson 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 the rapid pace of the daily routine and this week necessarily mindful contemplation of life. He serves on the board of directors at the cliff dwellers club and historical and iconic arts club in downtown Chicago that can count in its early members list Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and landscape architect. Jen Jensen. Tom, I never noticed your Minnesota accent…
T. Thorson: but that's because they don't know if it gets there. Perhaps there, but you wouldn't, you wouldn't notice it a little bit anyway. Okay. I was, I'm still catching up on that ability to get to, to be able to understand and identify, um, American accents. But you have a Minnesota accent because that's where you were born. I was born in northwestern Minnesota. Okay. In the Red River Valley of the north and uh, lived there until I was 18 and off to college. Where did you go to college? I went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis Institute of Technology School of architecture and landscape architecture. How did that choice come to be? Just I recall as a little boy in school when, you know, the, uh, for the teacher would ask what do you want to be when you grow up, drop drop picture or something. And I probably drew a, uh, a building and I think, uh, my teacher was quite impressed that I said I wanted to be an architect. What does the third or fourth grader know about architecture and um, but I always had an interest in the, the um, uh, various design fields. I did recognize that there was design intent behind objects at an early age and spaces.
S. Salis: So you, you, you recognize that the nature of those objects or things that like being designed where was intentional by another human being? Yes. And their function interested you? Yes. After a point I realized that was,
T. Thorson: that was going on. Certainly by the time I was in la in junior high school later in junior high school. In high school. Yes, I did.
S. Salis: Nice. Why do you think that is? Like, does your family have anything to do with that? Like what did your parents do?
T. Thorson: Not really. Um, my uh, father uh, ran a family business, a sand and gravel business in northwestern Minnesota and he dabbled in farming. My mother, as my father would say, raised five boys. There was her job that was her job raising five sons. She had an interest in, in the landscape and so far as she was a very avid gardener and grew very large flower gardens in that this was her hobby. Well, because you know.
S. Salis: All right, good. Thanks. In general, when you think of an architect, I think we were talking about this, but you think about buildings, you think about concrete and you did landscape design and urban design which includes data, but there is both components of both a rural community maybe in rural structure and landscape as that. And also as the streetscape I think as you call us. Right. So you, you merge those things together. And when did, when was it clear you went off to school for architecture? When was it clear that you had an interest in this to specific fields? To landscape architecture, I'm
T. Thorson: very early, I, I was hearing more about landscape architecture as a profession and a very much appealed to me and in some ways I thought there one would have more latitude in design in that field in, in some ways it continued at that time it was really an up and coming field and recognized field field. This was in the seventies, the early seventies. Um, of course, landscape architecture has been recognized as a profession since the 18 sixties, Frederick Law olmsted, the designer of central park in York. And um, but I would say that with the seventies came the recognition of the environment and ecology in sensible land use planning and landscape architecture was the profession that really took it upon itself to let that play into it. The profession and be demonstrated in the works are that are created by the profession. Why is it important to you?
T. Thorson: You know, we've reached a point in our world that we have, we have to have that recognition of the environment. We should have that record admission of the environment, uh, with regard to the impact that man has in. It's a work in design on the earth. This is something that, I'm not going to say that this is all something new in the 19 seventies, but there was definitely, you know, in 1960 there was the, a Earth Day I'm sort of celebration so that Americans were becoming more tuned into that and uh, as a profession in the sixties, in the seventies that a landscape architecture was, was coming on. So that was of interest to me and that, that got my attention. So says like a self conscious as the human race. He left spacious when you, you mentioned the sixties and the seventies,
S. Salis: this kind of awareness, but I don't know if you're familiar, but probably yes, but Buckminster fuehler the guy that designed the geodesic dome, that kind of stuff, or, or he stole it from his students, we don't know. But at the time he published a small book called operating manual for spaceship Earth. And then I think it was in the sixties and there was a, there was a wonderful little book that took it a metaphorically.
T. Thorson: Yes. And Buckminster Fuller is fairly elderly man came to the University of Minnesota, made a presentation at northrop auditorium in the early seventies. I was there. Fascinating. Oh, you went to his for his intuition. His presentation. Yes.
S. Salis: I think I. Yeah, that's what you were saying. Cold tumor where you. That little small book and I think it was also the time of the whole earth catalog by a brand in the on the on the. It's now made famous because Steve Jobs loft at, 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 old catalog and it kind of like was meant to give us a unity of our promotions in the universe and so how we should take care of it and amazing photographs of the earth from space and all that. Here we are on this. On this blue marble. Yeah, that's exactly it was. You
T. Thorson: graduate and then what do you do? What, what? What was your first job? Well, I received a professional degree in landscape architecture. I went to work both in the public and private sectors. I was fortunate to have a variety wide variety of projects, um, many of them transportation related, including working with structure, structural engineers on a bridge design with a special emphasis on context in the community and bridges, statics also development of, of streetscapes and I'm associated with a lot of those public projects would be, um, spaces for people, not just for cars, a multimodal settings, uh, four bikes, a Walker's activities, outdoor activities, a recreation areas, parks, plazas. So you designed mostly like communal shared space for the event. For the most part, for the most part I've done some private design residential design, um, but for the most part public projects, they, if somebody gives me to design applies a blank and I go like, yeah, make, make a circle what goes into maybe a bench and a tree like, yeah, you're good to go.
T. Thorson: Well, you know, I think back to my, uh, uh, years in, in design school is the school of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota. And, um, my um, wonderful professor, Roger Martin would, would comment on how these things can be our friends, these constraints that we might have, that they provide the, the, the, the parameters so to speak of a project. And it's so of course not everything is, you seldom have a project that's designed and avoid. It has to work with the context that it's within. And that may, that may be in an, in an urban setting, it might be in, in downtown, in the city year, might be in a residential area, it might be a part of the school, the landscape architects or texts it consider the context and the environment. And you're originally from Minnesota, Minneapolis, lived in Minneapolis. He, Wharton Simple, um, and you now live in Chicago, which is considered the, the home of the international style.
T. Thorson: And on the Pothole, that part, who are those cds to you? We have friends and we're connected to them for some specific reasons. And, uh, we have, I that we developed the same connections to some cds, right? One of the reasons that I more recently decided to do a little exploration on my own, now that I'm not practicing and strike out live with things that other designers have, have done, liquid, lived downtown. Oh, I walk out of my glassy high rise downtown Chicago that's located on the Chicago River and go for a walk along the river. Uh, look, 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, I'm looking at railing designs. I'm looking at their use of lighting. I'm, I'm looking at their use of seeding elements. Is this fun for you?
T. Thorson: Yes. It's kind of automatic. It's just, isn't it? When, but um, it's, it's, it's more interesting now for me because I'm relaxed about it, living with it. It's not, it doesn't work. So you know, when one could actually ask me, what do you think? And so yes, of course, you know, I look at things that had been done by other designers, architects, landscape architects, and, and I didn't, I think of doing that, you know, back in the day, you know, that's, I, I'll look at something that's very, 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, why did
Speaker 3: IMC am Alice Ed visits Homans with today's guest, Thomas Thorson, landscape architect and urban designer.
T. Thorson: Do you have a favorite movement in architecture that are so many different movements? And he goes pretty much like art at the same time, even though it is more connected to engineering than any painting will ever be. Well, I've already, you know, I was trained as a modernist landscape architect. That was the era early 19 seventies trained by, by very well known in educated people in the design fields and they were modernists. And so, um, we had our heroes back then, um, landscape architects like and Paul Freeburg, Lawrence Halprin. I learned more. I learned more about the, uh, city. Beautiful Movement. What is it about. Well, you know Daniel Burnham, what shirt? A famous Chicago architect and one of the early founding members of the cliff dwellers club. He was very much a one of the most renowned representatives of the city, beautiful movement and city of Washington DC.
T. Thorson: The development of the capital mall, the, the layout of the city, but the city beautiful movement. The term I think is more of a late 18 hundreds terms certainly made popular by the Chicago world's Columbian Exposition in 18, 93. Yeah. I think a lot of modernist designers sort of dismissed a lot of that and I can understand why they did that, but I'm going on the other hand, I think we started looking in the 19 eighties at Ed, all of that. Again, some of the tenants of the city, beautiful movement. I admire how it organizes it can, can organize cities if it's. If it's done well. It's a tool like modernist design is, you know, and then with the recognition of, of the environment. The other thing that was coming on in the 19 eighties is the new urbanism looking at urban design. Historically, and what are those things that, you know, they, they were onto something. Then there were things that were happening with the layout of cities and, and residential areas of cities. It's grid system and the way that they manipulated that, uh, 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, them not to be afraid to, uh, look at all of those things and not just say I'm a modernist end.
S. Salis: This is beyond the label. You were trying to find a good points to value in both being a motor nist and admiring the city beautiful movement and merged those together.
T. Thorson: It's best if you can be flexible and, and, and draw them all of that.
S. Salis: Oh, you designed lots of bridges and that's why. 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? Because to me, sometimes it can become a metaphor to re connecting point a from point b, especially with people.
T. Thorson: Well, yes, it was fortunate for me, I had the opportunity with projects that were presented to me that contained that component, a bridge landscape. Architects have a history of design of bridges, but it's, 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 a landscape architects do this. A lot of it is, is a, an aesthetic suggestions for the bridge working with, with the, uh, bridge engineers, structural engineers. But I'm beyond that. You'd also often, bridges are located within our communities. There are a component of our communities. It's, it isn't just getting from point a to point b. The bridge is a gateway. It's, it's a prominent, uh, work, uh, design within the community. I saw the opportunity sometimes to introduce a 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 and an overlook of whatever you're crossing river, for instance. And uh, a place to interpret the river valley or spend a little time, sit, sit there. So
S. Salis: yeah, I think it sounds very poetical. So when you said you see they're a little bit because it's comforting to hear that a designer and an architect actually thinks about that moment when you walk by a bridge and you stop for a second, maybe contemplating what you can see from there. Know it's just a nice image. The theme like rage needs to ring from point a to point B car, humans. And then you're like, you have a need to consider that somebody sits there for a little bit. That's the human part of it. That's true. Do you have any favorites
T. Thorson: spots in the city of Chicago now? Did she moved here? The river. Okay. Is I, until I moved here and lived and had been living on the river and overlooking the river. I have an incredible view of the river and, and, and the downtown. I did not realize how important the Chicago River was to the city of Chicago the night. And I see it if I'm up in the middle of the night for some, you know, just looking out the window, I'll see a huge barge. Yeah, moving on on the river. And so the rivers used 24 hours. And then the, um, of course, this time of the year, the summer, the use that the recreational use three receives and boats, private boats moving and sail boats moving out to the harbor area, the use of the use of the river by a pedestrians walking along the river and sitting along the river and eating on the river.
T. Thorson: There's places to eat along the river. So I'm most impressed with that in, in Chicago. What do you do in your free time now? It would. When did you, you're part of the cliff dwellers club. Well, yes. The, the cliff dwellers club has been an important part of my life. Well, I've been living in downtown Chicago for the past five years. And, and, um, it's, it's a club. It's an organization that supports the arts of Chicago. It's a hit it historic club. There's, there's a emphasis on all of the arts course. I'm drawn to the design field, slave 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, on a farm in the Red River valley where it's wide open spaces, what spaces to be living in a, in a, uh, the third largest city in the United States and its downtown, which is probably the second most built up downtown in the United States.
T. Thorson: So because La doesn't definitely have anything like the downtown Chicago. Yeah, I think you'd have to look at New York at Manhattan. Yeah, exactly. You know, looking ahead now in these years that I'm, that I'm not a practicing so to speak. Yeah, I mean once, once the 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. And it's very fine arts. I'm a director, I'm on the board of directors of the club and on several committees that the club has a lot of incredible. I think programming is of interest. I think to people who, who have that, uh, are drawn to the arts and certainly are the arts in Chicago. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person in your own meaning? Not necessarily religious. I would say that landscape architects certainly have that.
T. Thorson: That's a, that's a component of spiritual. Yes. You know, recogni recognition of our, of our place, this planet has in the universe of, of our, of our city. Within, on this continent. Yes. Probably have to pair for a phrase, Frank Lloyd Wright in this, in this. He said something to the effect if you seek God, look at nature. And certainly that's something that, that landscape architects. So that's, that's something that a lot of people do. And um, so is that spiritual? I, yeah, I believe we do say is, is it a presence? Is it a presence or
S. Salis: a belief that you have? You know, I can see this connection that you're talking about and I think it is potentially beautiful and humble because a designers to me definitely have, can have the power very close to whatever. What could be the power of shaping matter and given it a function. Yes, and if you do believe in any kind of superior power shaping matter and allowing you to at least to start to function with or without freewill, that depends on how you say it. If you say like that, at the end of the day, God is a little bit of designer for whoever it exists. Right?
T. Thorson: Well, I suppose, you know, I mean, I, these are some things that I, I don't think of so deeply. Maybe when I'm, when I'm at the, uh, my, my friend's lake place in Minnesota sitting out on the dock at sunset and I'm thinking, yes, or if you know, if, if you're, if you're traveling and, and you see these incredible natural vista and all of this, you can't, you know, for me, you can't help but think. I'm not saying it's intelligent design. I mean it might be that guy is a designer if it exists and just made a mess and considers this disgusting and maybe that's what it is. What it is, just like God, like stumbled on a bucket and that was it. Like, oh, it's beautiful and it's just a bucket there was spilled and we have to make something of it. And I, and we said, now we gotta make it a beautiful live with what we have to do.
T. Thorson: Now you've got to give it a meeting or work with it, work with that. So what do you focus on, like say to enjoy a good day or two to just, you know, what is your day like? What do you focus on? I think having, I think having a good time with, with people, my friends and, and you know, we're enjoying each other. Um, wonderful conversations sometimes just having, having the time to do that or to end to make arrangements to do that with friends. A quick lunch or a coffee that, that you know, becomes a, you know, it was going to be just a 15 minute thing and becomes a two hour chat. Yeah, you kind of get lost. And I enjoy those things.
S. Salis: It seems to me that your goal is 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?
T. Thorson: Yes. Well, with the people and with the people near me and my, my friends, of course when he hangs with with those people that share interests,
S. Salis: 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 are then just simply having a good connection and having a good time. Like something like I'm doing, you know, sometimes they ask question is like, what's the real meaning with that? And there is no necessarily that. But you need to get to that conclusion somehow like you. 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 as sweet time a good time and have a good time with the people that I have around me on our short time here on our short time here shortly is, is there a factor in this?
T. Thorson: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I always, uh, every, every day I say to myself, life, life is good. Life has been great. I don't have that all that much time left, you know, I, we, we've all, um, as we get older, we lose friends, associates, relatives, relatives, family, and um, you realize, you know, uh, enjoy every moment that you can. So I'm delighted to have time to spend with my friends. Many of them like me who are interested in, in a similar things, uh, the arts like, like I am. We of course a growing up as a young gay man of, in, in the Red River Valley of, of the, of northwestern Minnesota. And it was fine.
S. Salis: It was, yeah, it was, it was fine.
T. Thorson: Um, and, and I think it's been more challenging for me to see what I think is somewhat unfortunate struggle of gay people in, 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, we can go back much further than that, but perhaps here in this country, the United States is a little bit ahead of, have quite a few other countries in the world. Uh, I
S. Salis: mean, yeah, I, I, I, yeah, I the only. Well, Italy for example, has civil unions doesn't have equal marriage. Equality varies, you know the names various in it takes awhile too. But yeah, like compared to
T. Thorson: other countries, not even western Western countries, you know, say this is a little bit ahead, but you, you, it, like growing up as a young gay man in Red Valley would, you didn't, well you weren't, there wasn't a label on you, you know, you were just, you were just Tom. Tom. When, when did you first come out? You know, there's different ways. There's different ways people of my age would, would, would come out and I would say you come out to yourself when, when you're a teenager a bit, you come out to your very closest friends somewhat later back. Certainly backed out and we're talking half a century ago. I don't to think about that probably. Yes. Okay. Yes. So there was your second pair, like first you accepted with yourself and you come out to yourself a little bit, then your closes friends because of courses and then after awhile with, with, with work associates, but have a few work associate sales.
T. Thorson: Today it's, it's different, but there, there are protections for some, not the entirety of the United States protects her and discrimination in the workplace. No, because of orientation and gender. And of course that's a big concern. That was a big concern a 40, 50 years ago. Were you active into um, Lgbtq rights in Minnesota? I was for the same, for same sex marriage. Okay. Yes, I was, because I saw it as a civil right, just a now we're going to have another discussion on, on, on, on marriage, but as a civil rights and all that, that was something that I firmly believed them. So in just having the same opportunity as, as straight people then yes. The institution itself, from what you're saying, it's a different topic. Well that would be a different topic and I may think that's fine. Yeah. But I mean, it's, it's, it's a civil rights just to get to the same level.
T. Thorson: Yes. And there's a, our tax structure for instances United States and, and a recognition and other ways. And in Minnesota that was 2008, 2010 until he was one of the first things first state the legislature in Minnesota put it on the ballot. A, the question of it would go to, it would, it would go into the state constitution. Okay. And, um, which is, which was to say to prevent same sex marriages. Wow. So there was a lot. There was a big campaign. No, this had not worked out in other states too, to the, certainly to the advantage of, of the lgbt community, which is what we called it at the time. But um, and, and a few letters to go and we knew we had a struggle in her hands and, and, uh, but no minnesotans said, we're not putting that into our constitution. And then there was, then there was a movement to pass it in the legislature.
T. Thorson: Do you believe that you were able to fully live your life as a gay man growing up with no partier? Obstacle except. Well, you mentioned of course the marriage inequality up until a while ago, but there was not necessarily a personal thing. Right? Did you feel comfortable? Yes. Okay. Yes, I did. Okay. And I had many, 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 that way. I would say that it's been very positive. It's been certainly what has been happening over the past generation has been very positive for for gay people.
S. Salis: Thomas Thorson today on Hoomans. Thanks Tom