William J. Mitchell, 1944-2010
The former MIT architecture dean and technology pioneer is remembered for his vision and vitality
Ed Quinn/Courtesy MIT Spectrum

Lively in person, prescient about the future, and fearless in borrowing quotes from Star Trek, William Mitchell, who died on June 11 of cancer at age 65, brought an indefatigably human sensibility to his far-reaching investigations into the integration of technology and computers into urban life. A former dean of the School of Architecture (1992–2003) at MIT and head of the media arts and sciences at the school’s Media Lab, Mitchell was a pioneer in computation design, later focusing his research on cities, cars, and social issues, which led in part to his Smart Cities initiative and the folding, electric City Car prototype.

Mitchell championed design both in class and on campus, promoting such buildings as Frank Gehry's Stata Center.
Galawebdesign/COURTESY Wikimedia Commons

As advisor to MIT President Charles M. Vest, Mitchell was instrumental in upgrading the school campus to world-class status with buildings by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, Kevin Roche, Charles Correa, and most recently, Fumihiko Maki, whose Media Lab Complex opened this spring. Famously in 1999, Mitchell gathered a roster of eminent architects on campus for a three-day design charrette, with the additional aim of directing the architects’ attention to community building. (At one point, to lighten the workaholic mood on campus, Gehry is said to have suggested installing a Ferris wheel.)

Terry Knight, a professor of design and computation at MIT’s School of Architecture, had Mitchell as a faculty advisor at UCLA in the late 1970s. She recalls how he impressed her at their first September meeting as someone to whom constant attention must be paid, but then he ended the meeting by saying he’d see her next in January. “He was just like that—always inspiring, always traveling,” Knight said. When he became dean at MIT, he brought Knight along to help with his work in establishing a computation program as he had at UCLA and Harvard.

His dedication to students was boundless, she said, with his door always open, and on at least one occasion staying up all night to wait for a plot to come off a computer (back in the very early days of computation). “He was always hands-on, and had a way of showing students what could be done and also pushing them to do things they didn’t think they could do,” Knight said. “The field of computer-aided design owes much to him in building up its foundations on both coasts. There is not a person in the field today not taught either directly by him or by one of his students.”

Larry Sass, an associate professor in the architecture department and former student, built and tested computer models as a member of Mitchell’s computation group at MIT. He described how early in the 1990s, Mitchell was already promoting and using video-conferencing, digital fabrication, prototyping, and parametric modeling. “At MIT, his interest shifted from scientific research to applications and applied research. He told me once that he really wanted to find ways to interact with the public,” said Sass, adding that Mitchell found deep inspiration in the works of science fiction writer William Gibson, especially the 1984 novel Neuromancer.

The City Car, a product of Mitchell's Smart Cities initiative.
William Lark Jr./Courtesy MIT MEDIA LAB

Born in Victoria, Australia, Mitchell never forgot his small-town origins and, according to Knight, “considered himself 100 percent Aussie.” His relaxed and inclusive manner suited him well throughout his years teaching architecture and urban design at UCLA in jeans and sandals, switching to a suit when he started teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design but always ready to roll up his sleeves for hands-on involvement with his students at MIT and the Media Lab.

As colleagues back in UCLA in 1975, George Stiny and Mitchell pursued parallel and intertwining career paths. Stiny, now a professor of computation at MIT, remembers Mitchell inking the drawings on one of his first papers. “He was an extremely good draughtsman,” Stiny said. “He had one of the fastest hands I ever saw. Drawings would take me a day; he could do one—and do it well—in about five minutes.” Mitchel Resnick, another colleague at the Media Lab, was equally amazed at Mitchell’s prolific facility at writing books, among them the still relevant Computer-Aided Architectural Design (1977); The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation and Cognition (1990); and E-Topia: Urban Life, Jim, but Not as We Know It (1999), with its titular nod to Star Trek’s futuristic and all-too-human starship captain.

Mitchell’s love of architecture was imbued with that same sense of expertise and finesse. Colleagues describe his determination in making sure architects saw the full range of what computers were capable of doing, as well as making them see the necessity of using these new tools. Long before others, he understood the implications of the cultural shift underway, whether it was his anticipating that ATMs would change banking or, more recently, understanding that laptop screens visible in sunlight could alter how people do their jobs by allowing them to work outside. “He was always ahead of everyone else but not so far ahead that he didn’t drag everyone along with him,” Stiny said. “Bill set the agenda for computers in architecture and made sure that it took root in a meaningful way.”

Julie V. Iovine