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Former Dean Bill Mitchell Dies At Age 65

A Transformative Figure at SA+P, at MIT and in His Field

William J. Mitchell, dean of the school from 1992 to 2003, died on June 11 after a long battle with cancer. He was 65.

During his tenure as dean, Mitchell transformed the School of Architecture + Planning by consolidating its space and sense of community in Building 7, overseeing the renovation of its design studios, actively recruiting women and minority faculty members and, perhaps most importantly, establishing SA+P as a leader in digital technologies related to design.

He was a major supporter of collaborative efforts such as the Program in Human Rights and Justice, a joint venture of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning with the Center for International Studies, and an early champion of web-based and remote collaborative design. He was also instrumental in the development of ArchNet, an innovative teaching tool and research resource for the study of architecture in developing countries.

One of his goals as dean was to develop a robust design culture at MIT, an aim that resulted in his becoming architectural advisor to MIT President Charles Vest. In that role, he guided one of the most ambitious building programs in US higher education, a metamorphosis that added five landmark buildings to MIT's campus designed by Frank Gehry, Kevin Roche, Steven Holl, Charles Correa and Fumihiko Maki, whose new Media Lab Complex for SA+P was formally opened this spring.

When he stepped down from his role as dean, Mitchell returned to his first loves – teaching and research – serving for two years as head of the Media Arts and Sciences program then establishing the multidisciplinary Design Laboratory. He was an inspiration to hundreds of students over the years, playing an important role in the development of their careers; many of them are now in important leadership positions in academia, professional practice and industry.

As head of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities Research Group, Mitchell pioneered new approaches to integrating design and technology to make cities more responsive to their citizens and more efficient in their use of resources. A major part of that work focused on revamping urban transportation, including the development of the CityCar, a light-weight, electric, shared vehicle that folds and stacks like a shopping cart; the folding electric RoboScooter; and GreenWheel, which turns an ordinary bicycle into an electric-assisted one.

Born in 1944 and raised in rural Australia, Mitchell joined MIT in 1992. He 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 in 1992, 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. At the time of his death he was Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. (1954) Professor of Architecture and Professor of Media Arts and Science.

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. Other publications include World's Greatest Architect: Making, Meaning and Network Culture (2008); Imagining MIT (2007); 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."

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.