Skip to content ↓

Bill Mitchell, former dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, dies at age 65

He was an outspoken advocate for radically transforming infrastructure to create responsive sustainable cities, and played an instrumental role in transforming MIT's physical campus.
William J. Mitchell, the former dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning
William J. Mitchell, the former dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning
Photo: Webb Chappel
Mitchell works with Smart Cities researchers Ryan Chin and Michael Lin
Mitchell works with Smart Cities researchers Ryan Chin and Michael Lin

William J. Mitchell, the former dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, who pioneered urban designs for networked, "smart" cities and helped oversee an ambitious building program that transformed MIT's physical campus, died on June 11 after a long battle with cancer. He was 65.

Mitchell was considered one of the world's leading urban theorists. Through the work of his Smart Cities research group at the MIT Media Lab, he pioneered new approaches to integrating design and technology to make cities more responsive to their citizens and more efficient in their use of resources. He likened tomorrow's cities to living organisms or very-large-scale robots, with nervous systems that enable them to sense changes in the needs of their inhabitants and external conditions, and respond to these needs. A major portion of this new urban infrastructure focused on revamping urban transportation as we know it, and included the development of the CityCar, a light-weight, electric, shared vehicle that folds and stacks like supermarket shopping carts at convenient locations and has all essential mechanical systems housed in the car's wheels. Other Smart City innovations include the folding electric RoboScooter, and GreenWheel, which turns an ordinary bicycle into an electric-assisted one.

Mitchell, who was the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. (1954) Professor of Architecture and Professor of Media Arts and Science, joined MIT in 1992 and over the next 18 years contributed handsomely to the Institute's intellectual life and campus spirit. As dean of architecture and planning, he championed the importance of the visual arts to MIT and concentrated on infusing new energy and visibility into the school by recruiting a number of innovative young faculty members. As a professor in the MIT Media Lab, Mitchell explored the new forms and functions of cities in the digital era, and suggested design and planning directions for the future. He was particularly interested in the relationship between real space, virtual space and human communities.

But it was as architectural advisor to then-President Charles M. Vest that Mitchell left what was arguably his most visible and lasting mark on the Institute's campus. In that role, Mitchell guided one of the most ambitious building programs in U.S. higher education, a metamorphosis that added nearly one million square feet to MIT's 154-acre campus.

"One of my greatest pleasures at MIT was to work with Bill in his role as architectural advisor to the president. His guidance was essential in the transformation of our physical campus," said Vest. "He was a wonderful friend and colleague who brightened MIT and respected and advanced the human experience of our faculty, students and staff."

Central to the $1 billion building program were five innovative architectural projects by world-renowned designers: Frank Gehry's Stata Center, Kevin Roche'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 Complex, which formally opened this spring. Mitchell attached a deep significance to the new buildings, which he said gave meaning to MIT's existence and represented its hopes and values. "Leading intellectual institutions, such as MIT, carry a particular responsibility to conceive of architectural projects not just as the rational allocation of resources to achieve quantifiable management goals, but also as inventive, critical contributions to our evolving culture," he said at the dedication of the Stata Center in 2004. "Anything less is as scandalous a betrayal of their advertised principles as pedestrian scholarship or mediocre science."

Mitchell clearly relished the transformation of MIT's physical campus and his role in it, and it was not uncommon to see him leading community members and campus visitors on tours of the various construction sites. While each building was clearly unique, Mitchell wanted them all to be seen as part of a coherent landscape fabric; accordingly, he pushed for new "connective tissue" around campus — pedestrian routes, landscaping and commons facilities, for instance — to ensure that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. "The fundamental idea is to weave everything together in a vibrant, residential community," Mitchell said in a 2001 campus talk.

Mitchell offered an insider's look at the conceptualization, design and construction of the five buildings in his 2007 book Imagining MIT (MIT Press), which he drafted in one long weekend at a Dublin hotel. "The behind-the-scenes story about how architecture gets done — a rarely told story, a hard-to-tell story — needed to be written," Mitchell said at the time.

'A pioneer of the future'

Born in 1944 and raised in rural Australia, Mitchell received a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Melbourne, a Master of Environmental Design from Yale and a Master of Arts from Cambridge. He was a Fellow of both the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of six honorary doctorates. In 1997 he was awarded the annual Appreciation Prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan; he also chaired the National Academies Committee on Information Technology and Creativity.

Before coming to MIT, Mitchell was the G. Ware and Edythe M. Travelstead Professor of Architecture and director of the Master in Design Studies Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also served as head of the Architecture/Urban Design Program at UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning and taught at Yale, Carnegie-Mellon and Cambridge Universities.

Mitchell was a prolific author. In his most recent book, Reinventing the Automobile, co-authored with Christopher Borroni-Bird and Lawrence Burns (MIT Press, 2010), Mitchell reimagines the automobile for the 21st century, proposing that today's cars follow the same basic design principles as the Model T: they are well suited for conveying multiple passengers over long distances at high speeds, but inefficient for providing personal mobility within cities, where most of the world's people now live.

Other publications include World's Greatest Architect: Making, Meaning and Network Culture (2008); Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City (2005), Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (2003); e-topia: Urban Life, Jim-But Not As We Know It (1999); High Technology and Low-Income Communities, with Donald A. Schön and Bish Sanyal (1999); City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (1995); The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (1992); The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation, and Cognition (1990); and Computer-Aided Architectural Design (1977). He also served as chair of the Editorial Board at the MIT Press since 1994 and had been a member of the publisher's Management Board since 2000.

"Bill Mitchell was a very important thinker, truly a pioneer of the future," said Adèle Naudé Santos, current dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. "He was one of the first to understand the profound effects of computation on the architecture profession and of the Internet on everyday life. He also played an important role in research at the Media Lab and because he was such a prolific writer, his significant ideas will be with us for all time. His passing is an enormous loss. His contributions were unique."

"Bill's highly unorthodox approach to re-thinking and re-framing daunting societal problems was the essence of his brilliance," said Frank Moss, director of the Media Lab. "It has significantly impacted my thinking about how one changes the world for the better."

Mitchell is survived by his wife, Jane Wolfson; a daughter, Emily and son-in-law, Seth Rooder of Brooklyn Heights, NY; a son, Billy of Cambridge; his mother, Joyce of Berwick, Australia; a sister, Mary Close and brother-in-law John Close of Kallista, Australia; his previous wife, Elizabeth Asmis of Chicago; and a loving extended family.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Learning Prep School at 1507 Washington St., West Newton, MA 02465, where a technology fund will be established in his memory.

A memorial service will be held at MIT at the new Media Lab Complex, 75 Amherst Street, Cambridge, MA, on Wednesday, June 16 at 10 a.m. Private burial services will follow at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

Additional reporting by Scott Campbell and Ellen Hoffman

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News