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Bill Mitchell, 65, architect; advised on remaking MIT

(Janet Knott/Globe Staff/File 2003)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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Architecture was the discipline that summoned him to the world stage that was Cambridge and MIT, but neither Bill Mitchell nor his work fit easily into any category. He did not mind.

“Personally, I don’t care whether we call it architecture or if they call me an architect,’’ he told Metropolis magazine earlier this year. “I care about doing progressive, socially effective work. Wherever it takes me, I’ll go.’’

From the Australian bush country of boyhood, he came to the United States as a graduate student, then taught architecture at UCLA, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A founding partner of the Computer-Aided Design Group of Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he later put his stamp on the look of MIT as architectural adviser during the school’s ambitious $1 billion building program.

It was, however, as a thinker that Mr. Mitchell soared, colleagues said. He was helping oversee a project to reimagine urban transportation by creating lightweight electric cars that stack like grocery shopping carts. Looking at a city, he saw a living creature with technological tendons that connect people, transportation, and buildings.

“Consider, if you will, Me++,’’ he wrote. “I consist of a biological core surrounded by extended, constructed systems of boundaries and networks.’’

Mr. Mitchell, an architecture professor at MIT whose trio of books “City of Bits,’’ “e-topia,’’ and “Me++’’ helped define, explain, and foresee the rapid changes of the Internet age, died of pneumonia Friday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he was being treated for leukemia diagnosed four years ago. He was 65 and lived in Cambridge.

“It always struck me that Bill had the ability to see all the dimensions of an issue,’’ said Charles M. Vest, the former MIT president who tapped Mr. Mitchell, a former dean of the architecture school, as an adviser while remaking the campus. “I would only see one or two, but he would see them all. What we were working on was really not buildings, it was changing the social and intellectual landscape of MIT. It was one of the most exciting times I ever had because of the clarity of Bill’s thought and his counsel and advice.’’

George Stiny, a professor of design and computation at MIT who met Mr. Mitchell when both were at the University of California, Los Angles, said his colleague “introduced high class architecture to MIT, and it really needed it.’’

“Bill had a knack for presenting stuff at just the right level,’’ Stiny added. “He was always not so far ahead of things that people didn’t understand him, but far enough ahead that he was always contributing to the field. I found that highly impressive. Not too many people can pull that off.’’

Ranged widely across the 21st century intellectual tableau, Mr. Mitchell was helping design so-called smart cars that can communicate through the Internet with smart cities to ease traffic hassles. And he envisioned smart buildings that use sensors to respond to the inhabitants’ needs.

“He knew a lot about a lot of things,’’ said Ryan Chin, a doctoral student of Mr. Mitchell’s who worked closely with him on the CityCar project. “One of his former students said, ‘Bill Mitchell’s domain is the English language.’ It’s not just architectural design; it’s not just urban planning; it’s not just computation.’’

A prolific writer who enlivened technical musings with wit and puns, Mr. Mitchell published a shelf full of books, including “Placing Words.’’ Essays in the 2005 collection draw a narrative line from writer James Joyce to the television show “Desperate Housewives,’’ explain why people flock to the Formaggio Kitchen gourmet shop in Cambridge when it’s easier to order groceries online, and dissect design parallels between Manolo Blahnik shoes on television’s “Sex and the City’’ and a building proposed for the World Trade Center site in New York City. (“Both Manolo spikes and world’s tallest-building candidates depend for their dramatic effect upon breathtakingly excessive height combined with improbable slenderness,’’ he wrote.)

William John Mitchell was born in Horsham, Australia, “a lonely flyspeck on the absurdly empty map of the Australian interior,’’ he wrote in “Placing Words.’’ His parents were teachers, and the express train to Melbourne loomed in his memory, literally and metaphorically.

“When I was learning to write schoolboy essays of my own, perched at a wooden desk with porcelain inkwell and steel-nibbed pen, I often thought of sentences as trains,’’ he wrote. “Like empty boxcars, they could carry the weight of simile and metaphor.’’

He graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1967 with a bachelor’s in architecture, from Yale University in 1969 with a master’s in environmental design, and from the University of Cambridge in England in 1977 with a master of arts degree.

Mr. Mitchell’s marriage to Elizabeth Asmis ended in divorce. Their daughter, Emily, lives in Brooklyn and shares her father’s love of photography.

In demand as a speaker worldwide, Mr. Mitchell traveled often, but his favorite destinations were New York, to see his daughter, and Australia, where he visited his sister, Mary Close, in Calista, and his mother, Joyce (Toole), in Berwick.

Mr. Mitchell lived in Cambridge with his wife, Jane Wolfson, and their son, Billy, in a house where every spare space was given over to bookshelves.

“He loved his children, Emily and Billy, more than anything,’’ his wife said. “Even though he was very prolific and accomplished a lot within a relatively short period of time, I think that the quality time that he spent with his family was everything to him and everything to us.’’

The family plans to hold a memorial service for Mr. Mitchell at 10 a.m. today in MIT’s Media Lab Complex. Burial will be private in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

At home, his wife said, Mr. Mitchell and his son often could be found together, the family’s cocker spaniel at their feet, reading far-flung publications on their laptop computers, Bill perusing the French newspaper Le Monde, Billy checking out the Sydney Morning Herald from his father’s homeland.

Mr. Mitchell’s connection with current and former students was nearly as intimate.

“Most schools of architecture worldwide that started teaching computing in the mid-’90s, up until today, have a professor of computing who was one of Bill’s students,’’ said Larry Sass, an associate professor of architecture at MIT. “. . . There’s no one in the field who hasn’t been touched by Bill Mitchell, from major architects like Frank Gehry to the smallest architectural firm.’’