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All of us in CAADRIA are deeply saddened by the death of Bill Mitchell, one of the leaders of our field. We would like to share this appreciation of Bill and his work written by Tom Kvan, CAADRIA’s founder.
William John (Bill) Mitchell
One of the things we can say with all certainty is that Bill Mitchell was our friend, a friend of CAADRIA and a friend of each of us individually. He was the keynote speaker at the second CAADRIA conference (the first was too modest to have keynote speakers) and gave our fledgling organization generous support of his time and advice. Friendship was the premise from which Bill started. Bill always appeared to start, with the assumption that you and he could share an enthusiasm about the boundless opportunities in this world, so why waste time doing anything but engaging in such enquiry. With his wry smile and sparkling eyes, he would pick up any topic you proposed (or pitch one himself), start slowly in a measured voice that rapidly gained enthusiasm, typically taking a short detour into an exploration of irony or humor that could always be found in any subject, to end in an insight that you felt privileged to have shared in its discovery (if only because you were there at that moment). Bill did not do things for himself, he could not help but bring everyone else in to share what he was doing. Our only failing was we could seldom keep up; he was so prolific and energetic. As Bill’s health failed slowly over the past four years, several people remarked that this could not be possible; with boundless intellectual energy, Bill could only keep going. And this was true, it was his body that gave up, not his mind or ideas. A prolific author, his last book was published just as he entered his final, intensive and debilitating period of treatment.
In our community in of computer aided design, we all know of the work of Bill Mitchell, not least because he wrote the foundation text Computer-aided architectural design that was published in 1977. Having graduated from the University of Melbourne in Architecture, he went to study at Yale where the Master of Environmental Design was in its prime. He quickly realized that the progress of computational devices was such that they would soon have an impact on the architectural profession. While others wrote elegies to transformative power of digital approaches, Bill set out to write his first book in a style that he never lost – it was a straightforward account of what these systems were, how they worked and what this might therefore mean to the practice of architectural design. With this grounded clarity, Bill demonstrated a capacity to communicate the most complex of fields to the broadest audience. Here, in this first work, was the characteristic engagement of everyone who would open the covers, starting simple and ending up in ground breaking ideas of the potential. Bill’s final book, published in March 2010, addresses the future of transportation, and is unassumingly titled Reinventing the automobile. The same style is brought to bear, the reader taken through a straightforward review of what is and encouraged to take steps to think of what might be, ending in an audacious proposition.
In reading the many tributes to Bill that have been posted or emailed in the past 72 hours, several common points are made by former students and many friends and colleagues. Bill always listened closely, developed ideas with great excitement yet eloquently and made you feel part of their evolution. When asked why he was an academic instead of profiting of his many ideas, he consistently said the excitement of working with the best people and giving them the opportunity to flourish was the best reward he could imagine. I was privileged to first encounter Bill in 1977, just as his first book was published, and continued in several locations to work with and for him. As a research assistant on very early drafts of Logic of architecture I was lucky to see the way ideas developed, were tested and discarded if they did not stand up. As a co-author (with Robin Liggett) on The art of computer graphics programming I was privileged to see how my ideas could be made that much better through the clarity of their articulation and their potential revealed. I still have a manuscript version of one draft, showing Bill’s cut and paste technique (done with scissors and tape, since word processors were not widely available then). Bill wrote with a fluidity and clarity that came from a need to share ideas with anyone who would care to listen. His capacity to write rapidly was also important, since he had so much to communicate. He said that he wrote the first draft of his book on the design of the MIT campus (to which he contributed so much) was written over one long weekend.
While we in the CAAD community like to think of Bill as one of us, his contribution is of course much broader. His incisive architectural thinking can be seen in The poetics of gardens which he co-authored with Charles Moore and William Turnbull. The real change in the reach of his voice came when The city of bits was published. Walking past a London bookshop, there in the window I saw a pile of this title, making clear that Bill had managed to reach to the popular reader and communicate his ideas to a wider audience. From this point onwards, he was recognized and appreciated for his insights into the ways in which digital devices have fundamentally realigned the world. His telling of this story has ended with his last book, where the future of the automobile is largely the future of digitally enabled transportation, and he has left it to us to continue the story telling. All of us, as his good friends, have a part to play, to keep the story developing, to maintain the clarity of its telling and to ensure we do it enthusiastically for the potential and excitement, always doing it for others and ensuring they get as much fun out of it as Bill would have found in the enquiry.