An eternal optimist with an eye for the big picture and a ready smile is what comes to mind as we remember Milton Tan. Before I met him personally, my first meeting with Milton was during a virtual design studio session between NUS Singapore and ETH Zurich in 1994. His signature energy and enthusiasm for digital media in design studies were evident during a week long intense design charette that we undertook on the then nascent Web. Milton’s research interests in electronically mediated distributed design teams led him subsequently to lead the CAAD Futures conference at NUS in 1995 with the theme ‘The Global Design Studio’. The other research interest Milton had fostered during his PhD studies first at UCLA and then at GSD under the supervision of his mentor Bill Mitchell revolved around shape computation, emergence and creativity; threads that he continued to develop in various publications and presentations.
Milton’s students and most colleagues in CAADRIA community know of his association with NUS. His easy charm and ability to draw the big picture propelled him from the academic environment to a secondment with the DesignSingapore Singapore, the peak agency charged with a mandate to elevate the island state to develop as a design capital. That is when Milton reframed object of designing along various scales from milimeter to kilometer, and challenges and opportunities it raised for Singapore in the coming decades.
Closer to the the CAADRIA community, Milton’s contribution appeared at a time when the organisation needed a stable home and steady stewardship. His role first as Secretary and then as Honorary Advisor to CAADRIA is gratefully acknowledged.
A few brief words here will hardly capture the breadth of Milton’s expertise, interests and achievements. Here is what one finds on a blog that he started in early 2010: windshield wipers, Picasso, creativity, crash course in Asian history, and plenty of other subjects that took Milton’s fancy. Go along and browse his blog @ http://miltontan.wordpress.com/
As he was battling away with illness in the last few months, he continued to burst with ideas. In the last email exchange we had, we talked about reading the book ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’. I am sure Milton is still reading it somewhere.
Milton Tan’s untimely passing is a sad reminder of the fragility and impermanence of life. I was his student at NUS, Singapore and a research assistant in his CAAD lab in the early nineties. He introduced me to a new world of design thinking and I have many fond memories of our three years working together in NUS.
When I first met him, he lent me a book called “the electronic design studio” which became my introduction to computer-aided design in architecture. Milton always spoke about architecture in an interdisciplinary manner, as a “knowledge” discipline, and referred to medical research methods, legal reasoning and precedents, business school case-methods, language theory and information systems. In the foreword to this PhD thesis, he wrote that it was even more critical to create better architects than architecture, and he followed this up with new and radical transformations to design education at NUS in the nineties.
What I most admired about Milton was the clarity and simplicity of his solutions. He was a lateral thinker and a “big” picture person, who always managed to solve problems by relating specifics and details to its wider context. I have fond memories of the lead up to CAAD Futures 1995 when Tee Sasada was to give a keynote presentation, and his hard drive was not mounting. We were reading disk drive manuals and trying in vain for hours to bring the disk to life (in those days, we had to mount drives manually). As tensions grew and it became apparent that “T” would have to give a talk without his multimedia presentation, Milton calmly assessed the problem. He recalled that SGI Irix 4.5 Indigo machines had a disk utility. It would automatically recognise, recover and mount disk drives. He had one transported from the NUS lab to the conference venue late that evening and T Sasada was able to give his fantastic keynote presentation the next morning.
His excitement and enthusiasm were infectious and he was always a smiling and friendly presence. He was a strategic thinker, and when he went to government, he worked tirelessly to improve design and design outcomes in the wider Singaporean community. He will be remembered for his lasting contributions to research, education and design policy in the University, in Government and in the Community.
Milton was an accessible person, who shared his ideas openly and was always looking ahead, always keen to see beyond the horizon. At our last meeting in 2009, he talked with excitement about the next phase, returning to NUS, working on his book and the challenges that lay ahead. Little did we know what lay ahead.
Our last conversation was in June this year, a few days before Bill’s passing, and he revealed that he had not been well. With characteristic optimism he described his medical condition, its genetic origins, treatment and prognosis. He marvelled with pride at the research and technological progress in Singapore that allowed him to have a full bone marrow transplant, and gave him an even chance of beating insurmountable odds.
Friend, Colleague, Teacher and Supervisor, Adieu.
I feel really sorry to hear about the passing of Milton Tan.
I met him for the first time in 1988 at GSD Harvard, when I was a visiting scholar there, to learn from Bill a method of CAAD education. Milton was a PhD student of GSD at that time. It was a good memory for me that Milton and I attended ACADIA ’88 Workshop held at Michigan together. He kindly offered me to share a hotel room, where we talked a lot CAAD techniques and CAAD education after the workshop.
CAAD Futures 1995, Singapore was also a memorable one. He had not only well organized the conference but had nicely edited quite a thick book of proceedings, titled “The Global Design Studio”. During the conference, he arranged a small informal meeting with attendants from institution in the Asia and Oceania: I remember Tee, John, Tom K., Tom M., Jerzy, Nancy, Rivka, Mao-Lin, Jin, Aleppo and many other old friends gathered around him.
It was the first step to start the CAADRIA in 1996 hosted by HKU.
He was always a stimulating scholar and sincere friend to all members of CAADRIA.
I would like to offer my deepest condolences to his family.
Mitsuo (Moro) Morozumi
This is a terrible passing of one a colleague who gave so much to his communities and friends, someone to whom we in CAADRIA owe much for providing us with a firm foundation on which to build our activities. I came to know Milton as he arrived in the US on his higher degree studies, teaching him at UCLA in the introductory computer graphics class and have always enjoyed catching up with him through the many years since, revelling as he engaged in ways to bring design to recognition and substance in education and governance. Most recently I caught up with him in July this year when he was talking of the book he had underway with this focus. He was typically realistic of his condition and positive his outlook, using whatever time he had to the fullest. His recent return to NUS, even though followed immediately by going on medical leave, brought him back to a research context where he could flourish. It is sad he did not have the chance to enjoy that return.
Milton is indeed a good scholar and friend to all CAADRIA members.
I recalled his active role in CAAD Futures conference when I first time met him in 1995 in Singapore, and later on joinly initiated the CAADRIA. He carefully prepared documentation to register and secure CAADRIA’s funds, and informed me about his concerns and prospects of forming a society. We may only image him to deal public works recently, but certainly cannot forget the way he wrote notes in his Newton and passions about academic works in earlier days.
I sincerely express my deep regret of missing an “old friend.”
I write this with a heavy heart. It is with sadness that I post this news of the passing of our colleague, Milton Tan.
Milton has been undergoing treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) since January 2010; he was recovering well until August when his cancer went into remission. Thereafter, he underwent a second bone marrow transplant in September. Unfortunately he succumbed to the illness.
He was a student of William Mitchell at UCLA and followed Mitchell to Harvard to pioneer a computer-aided design program at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and was Mitchell’s first PhD candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). He was one of the pioneer members of CAADRIA, holding Secretary post and Editorial Board Member of the International Journal for Design Computing. He organized CAAD Futures 1995 in Singapore and was the conference chair for CAADRIA 2000 held in Singapore.
Milton Tan joined the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1982 and was Head of Department from 1 Feb 1998 to 30 June 2002. He was subsequently seconded to Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA)in the same year, remained there until end of last year as the founding Director of DesignSingapore. In his tenure at DesignSingapore, he added considerably to the promotion of design, design awareness and education at the national level. He was conferred the Public Service Medal (PBM) by the President of Singapore on National Day this year. The PSM is conferred in recognition of significant contributions to the public and key public sector agencies of Singapore.
He was a creative person and had great passion and enthusiasm for things he believe in. He will be missed. Rest in peace.
His wake starts tomorrow 9 Nov and Wed 10 Nov 2010 at the Garden of Remembrance, 920 Choa Chu Kang Road, Singapore. Funeral is on Thursday, hearse will be leaving Garden of Remembrance at 11 am to Mandai Crematorium.
See his website at http://web.mac.com/miltontan/firmament/About_Me.html
Beng Kiang TAN