Bill Mitchell Symposium was held at MIT on November 10-11, 2011.
Click here for its schedule.  


William J. Mitchell at
Luis Barragan's House
in Mexico City
(photo by Kent Larson)

MIT Faculty Memorial Resolution for William J. Mitchell

September 15, 2010

Dean William J. Mitchell died on June 11 at the age of 65. The cause was cancer, and this affected his life for the past several years. Nonetheless, he was active and vigorous throughout this period - as he was throughout his life - readily available to talk and to share his enthusiasm for new ideas in architecture and design, and frequently in flight travelling around the world. You could count on finding Bill in Cambridge, but you never knew which one. Bill was always a wonderful surprise, in where he turned up - usually everywhere - in who he was planning to meet - usually everyone - and in what he was thinking and doing - usually everything. It was an adventure being with him, when you could keep up.

Bill was an Australian, an academic, and foremost an architect. He loved the delight good buildings brought to the eye, the technical aspects of buildings and how these could be expanded and improved in innovative ways, and what good buildings meant for people and the quality of their lives. Bill loved architecture because it let us see more, and because it brought us closer together in shared creative experience. In this respect, his legacy at MIT is monumental and ongoing. As architectural advisor to President Charles M. Vest, Bill was a key figure in the way the campus grew and developed over the past decade. Frank Gehry's Stata Center, Kevin Roches's Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, Steven Holl's Simmons Hall, Charles Correa's Brain and Cognitive Sciences complex, and Fumihiko Maki's Media Lab addition are all Bill's creations, as well. They are inspiring examples of his spatial imagination and his unflinching commitment to diversity and high standards in the built environment. These buildings have changed MIT physically, and its social and intellectual landscape - they are already indispensible parts of what it means to be on campus for faculty and students alike. Our academic lives without Bill's buildings would be hard to imagine. Bill was the key ingredient that made them possible.

Enthusiasm for building buildings is not the usual locus of an academic career. Bill was a successful builder, and equally, an impressive thinker. He was a marvelous conduit and interpreter between different fields with vastly different perspectives, allowing for creative interaction between them. His many books punctuated his scholarly life. These came slowly at the beginning and rapidly in later years, always with a fresh point of view and a clear goal in mind. The common theme was computation and new technology, and how they might impact design teaching and practice, and everyone's everyday lives in cities and urban spaces.

Bill saw the unlimited potential of computation in architectural design at a time when it was hard to get a computer to draw or manipulate a straight line - and this prescience from one of the best draftsmen I have ever known. Bill drew effortlessly with clarity and precision - his drawings were beautiful - but this didn't keep him from seeing the promise of a brand new technology that didn't come close to doing what he could do immediately, holding a pen in his own hand. His pioneering books, first, Computer-Aided Architectural Design (1977), and then a decade plus later, The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation, and Cognition, profoundly changed how architects approach design and building. The way design and computation are taught today in architecture schools is the direct result of Bill's work. He had an uncanny sense of how much architects could take, gave them a little more than this, and made it possible for them to take the next step to a new way of thinking about a new technology.

Bill's interests were not limited to architectural design and computation. There were other books, too: one on the poetics of gardens, with the architects Charles Moore and William Turnbull, and one on digital photography when film was still the norm. And then, there was Bill's pathbreaking trilogy on urbanism, and the modern city as an electronically interconnected network of systems - City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, E-topia: Urban Life Jim - but Not as We Know It, and Me++: the Cyborg Self and the Networked City. As Bill liked to say, "Buildings and cities are getting nervous systems." It was his special area of expertise to describe this evolving urban landscape in which everything was linked up, and livable spaces were themselves sensate and responsive to unfolding events. Bill was a visionary in this, and also a traditional scholar who took the time to see what was going on as best he could, and to carefully analyze what it meant. Bill's instincts were more academic than his wonderfully enticing "digital" titles might suggest. He very much enjoyed the irony.

Bill's wide-ranging thought is also reflected in the several academic institutions he called home. In something like chronological order: Melbourne, Yale, UCLA, Cambridge, Carnegie-Mellon University, Harvard, and MIT. Bill improved all of them by introducing computation into professional education in architecture. He was a dedicated teacher - seductive, and deep and clear - and a steady mentor in academic and professional life, who shepherded many students into successful careers. Wherever Bill lectured in the past few years, his audiences, big and small alike, were evenly divided between his former students and everyone else who wished they were. Bill created a new subject, and he taught many who teach and enrich it today. Bill's students are spread far and wide in architecture schools and in architectural practices throughout the world. This year, Architectural Record placed MIT first in the teaching of computation. This would have pleased Bill - it was his goal, and he made it happen.

At the time of his death, Bill was designing cars - now in further development in Spain - in the Design Lab he founded after stepping down as dean. This involved a loyal cadre of graduate students from all across MIT. These were Bill's new colleagues. "CityCars" weren't ordinary vehicles, but lightweight, two-passenger electric cars with mechanical systems in their wheels. They were designed to be stackable and shared for mobility on demand, with pick-up and dropoff points located throughout urban areas. This appealed to Bill's political sensibilities, but he was especially intrigued with the computer algorithms needed to manage the entire system to maximize availability. Bill could never get away from computation - not even in a smart CityCar. Computation was infused in all of his thought. He understood its speed and efficiency. Bill didn't like to wait - there was more to see and do, and time was short.

Bill (at home, he was B1) leaves his wife, Jane Wolfson, their son, Bill (B2), his daughter, Emily, from an earlier marriage, and a loving extended family in Australia and the United States.

I've said very little about Bill. (He would have wanted me to read it from my BlackBerry.) But I don't have to say much. Bill left books, buildings, and students to speak for him for a long, longtime. He had a marvelous life, and this continuing voice will always ring true.

Be it resolved that the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at its meeting of September 15, 2010, record its profound sense of loss on the death of our beloved colleague and friend, William J. Mitchell, and express its deepest sympathy to the family.


George Stiny
Terry Knight
Takehiko Nagakura
Lawrence Sass
Dennis Shelden
Kent Larson