William J. “Bill” Mitchell 1944-2010: my teacher, mentor and friend

In Uncategorized on 2010/06/14 at 12:02 am

I just lost my teacher, mentor and friend, Bill Mitchell. He passed away on 11 June 2010, after gallantly battling cancer for over a year.

I first met Bill when he accepted to be a keynote speaker at “The Architect’s Computer” conference that I organised in Singapore in 1985.  I had found him from a library search (no Google in those days) that turned up only one book: Computer Aided Architectural Design (1977), the only major publication on design and computation at the time.  Over drinks one evening at the Mandarin Hotel, I told Bill that NUS (National University of Singapore) wanted me to undertake a PhD but, like all architecture graduates then (trained for practice rather than academia), I had the faintest idea how to go about it.  Even at that initial meeting, Bill was gracious to take me on as his PhD candidate despite my ignorance. He was at UCLA at that time.

In 1986, I set out to LA with my wife and our two young boys. Bill had a number of interesting things going at UCLA that benefited me immediately: shape grammars and parametric variations in particular.  Bill always have a pool of talented graduate students that I also benefited from.  He loved teaching and research, and treated us as collaborators.  That inspired all of us.

In 1987, Bill left UCLA for Harvard, and arranged for me to transfer together with him as his first PhD candidate at Harvard. It was such a privilege for me to first tap on his cumulative wisdom at UCLA, and then to follow him to pioneer a computer-aided design program at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Computers were alien at the GSD then! We unpacked the first shipment of Apple Macs in a storeroom at the GSD which was my makeshift workplace.

Bill always had time for me and the other students that he supervised.  On several occasion he would come to see me straight from Logan airport with new ideas for my work that he had figured out on the flight.  It was the clarity and simplicity of his ideas that always impressed me.  He was also able to write and draw it all out, often in single sittings on a blank sheet of paper.  His book, Logic of Architecture: design, computation and cognition (1990) was our benchmark in writing.  Bill freely gave us his drafts for reference. Only after I graduated and interacted more generally with Bill, that I find him enormously multi-disciplinary and visionary — aspects that I did not fully appreciated when I was cocooned in my specific PhD thesis.  The amazing thing about Bill is that he always carried with him a witty and persuasive “big picture” of the future; it was always so refreshing and exciting to talk to him about “the next big thing” not because of isolated innovations, but revolutionary changes such as pervasive democratisation from digital imaging.  His book, The Reconfigured Eye: visual truth in the post-photographic era (1992), was thought provoking.  Bill even had a regular column in the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Journal, which culminated in his book, Placing Words: Symbols, Space and the City (2005).  I managed to get Bill to be on the international advisory panel for the development of OneNorth — the 200Ha R&D district, formerly known as Science Park, in Singapore (master planned by Zaha Hadid).  My copy of his book, e-topia (1999), still have the numerous bookmarks that relate his articulation of “the networked-mediated metropolis of the digital electronic era” to OneNorth.

When I was Head of Architecture at NUS, I sought advice from Bill on setting a mission statement. He shared that his implicit mission is “to change the world”, no less!  I asked him how he went about this. In reply he said, “hire the best people you can find, and then leave them to work”.

I had the privilege of commissioning Bill as one of nine Design2050 Studio Masters to present aspects of life in 2050 at the ICSID World Design Congress in Singapore in November 2009.  Bill could not come to Singapore as he was undergoing medical treatment, but he went out of his way to make his presentation, Reinventing the Automobile 2050, with a video recording. As usual, he was totally committed to make a good presentation, complete with simulations and working demonstrations.  This was supposed to lead to a MIT-NUS mirror research project on urban mobility in Singapore.

I will miss Bill, but his prolific writings and memories of all the good times that I had with him will live on. Thanks, Bill.

  1. Milton, your words really bring to life those early days at Harvard and sketch a picture of Bill’s impact. Thanks.

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