The William J Mitchell Archive: Digital Historiography and the fight against banality

Writing in the Introduction to The Electronic Design Studio a book he co-edited William J Mitchell was to proclaim that architects should:

“should think of design systems as open, flexible, constantly evolving knowledge-capture devices rather than static collections of familiar tools and dispensers of established wisdom. When we can do this, I think we will see the emergence of design systems that do not just mechanically assemble banalities, but that have real style and flair”


In 1986, Mitchell was appointed Professor of Architecture and director of the Master in Design Studies Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He later joined MIT in 1992 until his death in 2010. He is perhaps best for his book City of Bits.

William J Mitchell archive

The recently acquired William J Mitchell archive at Melbourne University enables an insight into Mitchell’s career as a thinker in relation to the development of Computer-Aided Design in architecture as well as the early history of parametric design.

Mitchell’s archive points to the problems with the contemporary parametric gospels as well as raising questions about the relationships between architectural theory, historiography and digital archives. In 2011 the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning Prof. Tom Kvan organised for William J Mitchell’s archive to come to Melbourne University. Professor Kvan, had been a former student and collaborator of Mitchell’s.

3.5 inch floppy discs

Included in the collection now at the University of Melbourne are a variety of digital storage media including 104 iOmega Zip disks created between 1995-2001, 51 Maxell 8mm HS-8/112 Data Cartridges first released in 1989, as well as 241 3.5 inch floppy discs of various kinds created between 1985 and 1993.


In the mid to late 1980s, Mitchell was exploring the capabilities of the Apple Macintosh computers in the network he was building at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). In 1986, there were three Apple models available on the market these were the Macintosh Plus, the Macintosh 512Ke, the Macintosh XL. All of these models were aiming at the consumer and education markets.


The disks in the Mitchell archive has been examined using Forensic Toolkit (FTK). FTK is mostly used in digital forensics and law enforcement but can be directly applied to archival contexts.  FTK can interrogate digital media to identify, preserve, recover and analyze digital information.


As result of our work with FTK The software title that appears to predominate on the 3.5-inch disks in the archive relates to Topdown. These disks includes disks that were student submissions as part of teaching at Harvard. Topdown was Milton Tan’s PhD thesis was undertaken at Harvard between 1987 and 1991 which Mitchell supervised; Topdown was developed and coded by Tan, but the work probably started at UCLA in collaboration with Mitchell and also Robin S Liggett who knew how to code.

 The birth of parametrics: Topdown

Topdown was a “knowledge-based design system” that also employed some parametric functions. While AutoCAD 10 had been released in 1988 Topdown was not merely a linear drafting tool drafting tool like AutoCAD. Topdown was developed in Lightspeed Pascal for the Macintosh and in Microsoft Pascal under Microsoft Windows for the IBM P5/2. But in 1989 the system was not yet able to utilize object-orientated programming.


As Mitchell was to liken, it at that time it, most computer drafting systems were seen to “work in a bottom-up fashion.”  As Tan and Mitchell contended Topdown was software that was an attempt to make a tool inherently parametric. Mitchell contended that a “CAD system should automatically maintain structure as a designer manipulates a geometric model.”

In using Topdown in his teaching, Topdown appeared to allow Mitchell’s students to replicate the generative exploration and selective decisions of classical architecture. However, the classical orders were no longer drawn but selected and elaborated via the graphical user interface using a Macintosh personal computer.

Emulation for digital historians 

Further research into the archive will allow for the emulation of the Topdown program itself.  Emulation is the concept that a computer program in one digital device can imitate or mimic another application or device without needing the original hardware. In other words, digital entities or fragments produced on earlier machines can be emulated on later platforms allowing them to be viewed as if they were running on the original system. The development of emulation services suggests that architectural historians must also know computer languages, hardware, networks, storage and memory capacities, graphics, user interfaces, display technology, as well as regimes of application and software development and individual applications.

Shape grammarists 


Mitchell’s and Tan’s work and effort to develop Topdown followed on from the shape grammar work of Stiny and Gips. In the early 1970s, it was Stiny and Gips (above) who advanced theoretical notions of shape grammars and parametric design in a series of papers.


Whereas Stiny saw the link between shape grammars and abstract art, Mitchell saw the connection between shape grammars and the games and systems inherent to classicism in architecture. This is obvious in the publication in 1990 of The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation and Cognition.In many respects, there was an attempt to replicate the systematic and layered nature of classicism in the Topdown software.


Positioning the digital fragment 

The Mitchell archive suggests the need for architectural historians to develop new methods of archival research. Given the history of incremental and disruptive innovation in computing, the architectural historian and digital archivist must recognize this state of flux. The history of the digital model in architecture is only a partial history if it does not position the digital fragment into its appropriate technological context.

The shift to digital practices, as exemplified in the Mitchell archive, indicates a need to revise principles governing museology, collections, and conservation. In this context, is it merely a matter of developing new technology based methods and practices to extract historical data? Or does the extant digitization of an archive shift how fragments emerge and are selected as quotations in historical narratives?

Forget chronology, style and type.

Historiographical theories and methods can no longer rely on the old taxonomies of physical media based on the verities of chronology, style, and type (isn’t Parametrics now all about overturning the old orders?) In relation to digital archives, instruments of architectural theory and criticism will need to be cognisant of technology. Digital archives suggest the need for socio-material or technical methodologies that account for the materiality of technology and its interconnection with architecture.

In some ways architecture, its canon, norms, and histories is now a creature that has become a kind of cyborg. Architectural theory as an abstract game, as it is for some historians and theorists, sourced in critical theory, continental philosophy and logic will no longer suffice. I would suggest that in this new digital context, historiographic perspectives that recognise socio-technical work and digital ethnographies of the social sciences is the work that needs to be done.

Assembling the banalities.

Mitchell’s Topdown indicates that he saw parametric design as a way to attempt to link the canon and norms of architectural design to computing. It was an effort to both translate and assert architecture as a canon of knowledge into and against the crude digitization of architectural knowledge through machine computing and an effort countering the mindlessness of engineering optimization and efficiency. The paradox is that parametric design methods have themselves now come to exemplify an architectural approach that appears to mechanically assemble the banalities that Bill Mitchell himself loathed.

This blog is based on a paper was written in conjunction with Peter Neish the research data curator at Melbourne University. It was presented at SAHANZ 2017 you can access the full paper here. We would like to acknowledge Geoff Laurenson, and Millicent Weber, who imaged and cataloged the disks as well as Naomi Mullumby, Sarah Charing and Professor Tom Kvan for their role is securing and documenting the archive.

Architects versus the barbarians: Saving Sirius in the housing policy dead zone.

In Australia most architects design housing. In some ways, it is the last bastion of architectural control. But only just. Since the 70s housing has increasingly come under the control of developers, project managers and builders. Single interest groups, none of whom have the slightest interest in design, who see policy as being about their own profits, have dominated housing policy and as a result government’s have done little to develop housing policies.

Since abandoning the Public Work Departments in the 1980s state and bureaucratic actors have left it up to the market. The last gasp of the Victorian Public Works Department can be seen in my own suburb which is littered with small well-designed houses by architects. You can read about it here. These buildings still stand, fit into their streetscapes, and despite impoverished State Government maintenance regimes they still look great.

The Privatisation Experiment 

So where has housing privatisation  actually got us? There answer is this: homelessness for the vulnerable, a casino type mentality in our property markets, inner cities turning into swamps of unsustainable cheap curtain wall ugliness and intergenerational inequity. The Australian dream of home ownership has gone.

Let me repeat that: The Australian dream of home ownership has gone. It no longer exists, but Australians still cling to it. Because we are still clinging to the dream, this is exploited by a consortium and class of people who do not give a shit. The real dream is that Australia has always been a property developers paradise. Let’s hear it for the beautiful tower products of  Central Equity.

So now our cities are a ticking time bomb as climate change and two degree warming, or more, kicks in. Alongside this failure of policy,  housing in our cities, has lapsed into a miasma of deteriorating public assets, a new ageing and impoverished demographic, and a generation of young home buyers locked out of housing markets. Capital flows have led to the housing being valued more as an asset class, and hence subject to speculation, rather than as a right. Is it too little to ask for a actual policy: given the newly minted crap towers in our inner cities and the “cheap as chips” suburbs, where builders are too mean to build houses with no eaves, because a bit of extra framing is expensive?



This situation is, not just an Australian problem but  a global problem. Arguably, London is a city where we can begin to see what will happen to Australian cities, and suburbs, if we persist with our current dead zone policies. In London the Grenfell tower fire has perhaps focused the debate around these issues and what some call the colonial politics of space. Three new books on housing suggest the range of approaches, and type of research advocacy, that is missing here in Australia.

Saving Sirius 

In Sydney the battle over the Sirius building is a case in point. For architects the brutalist aesthetic in architecture came at a time when architects still had control over projects. Sirius exemplifies this, housing containing, and allowing for a range of family demographics along with the inclusion of collective functions. Housing made through  participation. A building designed to engender a sense of, wait for it, community. A housing development that was actually designed and its delivery controlled by an actual architect instead of few corporate marketing types aligned with the UDIA. 


“A drab relic of union power” 

Meet the Barbarian 

Sadly for Sirius, this last week, the Land and Environment Court in NSW denied it heritage status. This was probably helped along by  NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet who unleashed a vitriolic diatribe via the Daily Telegraph on 28 July, dismissing the Sirius building as “a boxy blight on The Rocks,” made from “towering slabs of grimy concrete,” that stands as a “drab relic of union power.” He went on to say:

“Sirius represents the destructive, dehumanizing vandalism of the modernist movement; the legacy of the likes of architect Le Corbusier, high priest of the cult of ugliness, who was determined to demolish the stunning heritage of downtown Paris in favour of utilitarian concrete skyscrapers,” he proclaimed. “You might say it’s brutal: the epitome of the out of touch left, putting ideology before people.”

Oh yeah Paris in 1925 is so so so like the Rocks in Sydney. Maybe Dominic should tell the late President Nehru or the proud Punjabis that the pride they take in Chandigarh is misplaced because Corbusier designed it. Not sure Sirius is actually a skyscraper  and maybe Dominic P should look out the window and notice the “utilitarian concrete skyscrapers” mostly apartments, now emerging on our skylines, but I guess they are ok, because whilst being made of concrete, they are covered in shiny shiny glass. Lets shout it out. Dominic: they too are made of concrete. Is he proposing that Sirius should be chopped down a few stories and covered in glass to make it all ok? He definitely needs a Bex.

There is not a lot more I can say about his diatribe. It’s just plain wrong and completely ignorant of 20th Century architectural history. Maybe a staffer wrote it. How do people like this get into our parliaments?

All this says to me that Dominic is a true Barbarian. Mate, FFS dont take take the name of Corbu in vain. Calling , long dead architects names, only coarsens our political culture.  Yet, Dominc is not alone, another of the political class, another lawyer who has had no architectural training in either architectural history or visual arts training. I am not sure if he, or others like him, are then qualified to talk about aesthetic ugliness and I don’t see why, as architects, we have to put up with these ignorant barbarians who want to inflict their own personal tastes onto the public. The Korean guy does that as well. Remember when Joe Hockey said wind turbines were ugly?

You can read Dominic’s maiden speech here especially the bit where he says:

“My second ideal is generosity”, but there is nothing generous in his comments about Sirius with their tinge of vindictiveness towards Corbusier (WTF?). Also, there is nothing like holding a grudge against the unions after a few thousand years since the BLF green bans. He is a really generous guy.

As he also stated in his maiden speech:

I strongly support the principles of free markets–we are the party of small business, of enterprise and of wealth creation. And I agree with Churchill when he calls the socialist model the equal distribution of poverty, not wealth. I oppose plans for more social engineering, more welfare handouts and the continual obsession with our rights at the expense of our responsibilities. These toxic ideas signal the death of the opportunity society.

Oh yeah, that’s right let’s not put out of touch ideology before people.  This guy really hates architects now, and maybe any educated so-called elite, for that matter. Just like Trump. Only problem is, with a Law and Commerce degrees he is an elite as well, not to mention his Tom Ford City of London Chambers style glasses, or the fact that he is the Treasurer of NSW.


Calling out the Barbarians

When this happens architects need to call out this kind of talk out, draw a line in the sand, and assert our knowledge and expertise in the public domain. Thankfully,  it appears they have indeed done this. 

All I want for Christmas is for the political a class to craft some decent housing policies. Is it too much to ask? Is that too socialist and ideological?

At the MSD this semester there are about 9 different design studios exploring different aspects of housing all across the spectrum of  housing. Architects have always been involved in and actively exploring housing, and housing policies, for other Australians. You can come and visit at our annual exhibition and see for yourself.

Maybe the political class types need to come see what architects actually do before they mouth off about Corbusier. Until then there is no reason why architects shouldn’t name and shame our politicians as the cultural and policy barbarians that some of them seem intent on being.

Phillip Room, photo by Barton Taylor. You can also help the Save our Sirius Campaign here. I might  even go to the book launch which I would urge you to attend.




The destruction of our 1960s and 1970s Architectural Heritage: The demise of Robin Boyd

Dr. Christine Phillips from RMIT and I recently presented a paper on Robin Boyd at SAHANZ 2017. SAHANZ is the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. This year it was around the theme of Quotation, Quotation:  What Does History Have in Store for Architecture Today? For the conference we chose to focus on the Australian Architect Robin Boyd; over a series of previous SAHANZ papers we have sought to demythologise Boyd’s work by a close examination of the Boyd archive at the State Library of Victoria.

What follows are excerpts from our paper alongside a call to arms, as we increasingly find our architectural heritage from the 1960s and 1970s slowly being destroyed.

At the conference, we were able to duck out and visit two notable Boyd buildings. The Zoology Building at the Australian National University competed in 1961 and Churchill House on Northbourne Avenue, completed after Boyd’s death in 1971. The Zoology building is finely constructed and Spartan modernist building within it is a characteristic Boyd courtyard.Taken together both of these works indicate how Boyd himself changed over the tumultuous 1960s.

IMG_3412 (1)

Zoology Building 

The research for this paper adopted a framework focused on a discursive analysis of Boyd’s journal articles and books of the 1960s to his death in 1971. We chronologically mapped and matched his writings to his public building projects during and across this time period.  The analysis revealed how Boyd’s works and writings from 1960-1967 depict a relatively consistent commitment to a universal modernism tempered through a regional lense. This is exemplified in the earlier Zoology building.  On the other hand, Boyd’s later writings and works from 1968 through to his death in 1971, diverge into a less coherent and fragmented body of work. This is arguably evident in the later Churchill House.

IMG_3469 (1)

Churchill House 

This trajectory illustrates the degree to which Boyd’s Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s, his last works arguably expressing a crisis and bewilderment in Boyd’s own thoughts about modernist architecture. This also echoes the degree to which Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s as it entered into Post-Modernist tendencies.

In a number of later projects Boyd appears to produce conceptual designs which highlight the iconicity of quoted fragments rather than trying to produce an integrated concept. Neptune’s Fishbowl is a good example. It is a project that appears to indicate an abandonment of the principles espoused by Boyd earlier in the decade. This was an iconic geodesic dome reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller, but via it’s use of integrated advertising signage it also appears to allude to the iconicity of Venturi, Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas published after Boyd’s death in 1972.


Churchill House designed in 1968 and 1969 also appears to show Boyd’s experimental bent and abandonment of an integrated and universal modernism. Again, this plays on a dichotomy of forms but there appears to be no effort to integrate or reconcile these forms together.  Each façade has a different compositional treatment and the building is not a whole, like the earlier zoology building, but composed as series of fragments.


Churchill House Detail 

The sloping glass box which sat on top of the original Churchill has been destroyed. It is only a matter of time before either of these fine buildings face demolition. As with the Sirius building in the Sydney and Kevin Borland’s Harold Holt Pool, not to mention the imminent destruction of Robin Hood Gardens in London, these buildings face mindless destruction.

This destruction is ironic given this is a time when the curiosities of Brutalism and other architectural moments and experiments exemplifying the 1960s and 1970s are rushing through our social media feeds. What we need to understand about these buildings is that they represent an era, if not the very last era, when architecture and architects still mattered. This heritage is now slowly being destroyed.

For those of you interested the French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen’s keynote at the Conference was delivered on 6 July 2017, introduced by Gevork Hartoonian. Its a great lecture and can be found here.