A grounded globetrotter

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Gerhard Schmitt has done a lot of pioneering work, including serving as the firs

Gerhard Schmitt has done a lot of pioneering work, including serving as the first delegate for the university’s global presence. (Image: Norbert Staub / ETH Zurich)

Researcher, lecturer, Executive Board member, and the first global ambassador for ETH: Gerhard Schmitt wore many hats during his time at ETH. Schmitt has now retired from his post of Professor of Information Architecture. Here we take a look back at his eventful career.

Gerhard Schmitt was interviewed for this article in Einsiedeln, where he lives with his wife and daughters. For centuries, the town has been a destination for religious pilgrims and a source of inspiration for the non-religious as well. In order to maintain social distancing, we met outside at the great square in front of Einsiedeln Abbey, where Schmitt was recognised and greeted by numerous passers-by: a sign that the recently retired ETH professor has maintained strong local connections despite his reputation as a visionary and his many years as a global ambassador for the university.

However, the time he spent as a globetrotter was not something that could be taken for granted. "Early on in my career I realised that being physically present is a luxury, and a stressful one at that," he explains. "Around one-third of my duties required meeting face to face. The other two-thirds could be done just as easily online, if not even better." Armed with this conviction, Schmitt made use of virtual meetings for his academic work starting in the early 90s, connecting with scholars around the globe. In the year 2000, he and his project team launched the ETH World programme, which developed numerous virtual tools and collaboration methods for the university. Examples include a production platform for video streaming, the ETH video conferencing system, the E-pics image information system in use at the ETH Library, and the ongoing Project Neptune initiative, which provides students with top-of-the-line mobile computing equipment. The coronavirus, which has confronted us with unprecedented challenges, ultimately confirmed the prescience of Schmitt’s vision.

The earthquake that started it all

In the early 70s, academic mobility within Europe was not yet the norm, but that didn’t hold true for Schmitt. He grew up in Eltville am Rhein, the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, and trained as a paratrooper before going on to study mathematics, physics, astronomy and political science at the University of Frankfurt - where Schmitt’s mother, a pioneer in heart surgery, worked as a professor and ran a lab. At the time, many students saw the classroom more as a stage for political protest rather than a place to acquire knowledge.

Not for this reason, but because he discovered his passion for architecture, Gerhard Schmitt soon moved on to the Technical University of Munich. The architecture curriculum in Europe at the time did not pay much attention to earthquake research, energy efficiency or computer modelling methods. However, these were the areas that Schmitt most wanted to explore, inspired in part by the devastating earthquake that hit the Friuli region of Italy in 1976. A merit scholarship sent him to UCLA in 1979 and one year later to Berkeley, where he worked on what would later become his Master’s thesis in 1981: a four-volume work on energy-conscious construction. Thanks to the supercomputer housed at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Schmitt was able to more thoroughly explore the links between energy research, architecture and computer simulation for his doctoral thesis.

Early proponent of computer-aided architecture

In 1984, Schmitt became an assistant professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Three years later, he was promoted to associate professor. In 1988, he was called to ETH Zurich to work on Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD) and establish computer-aided teaching and research within the Department of Architecture. In his role as researcher, Schmitt launched Swiss National Science Foundation projects on topics such as artificial design intelligence for the development of completely new design aids. Within a decade, over 3,000 students and doctoral candidates studying in his department gained valuable CAAD skills.

Schmitt’s academic interests were always subordinate to the aim of trying to help people optimise their shared spaces. "When I started researching 40 years ago, the goal was modelling the best building shells," he explains. "But that wasn’t enough. The people who use the building impact up to 80 percent of the energy consumption. So models also need to take human behaviour into account." In earlier times, construction standards simply revolved around humans and their natural environment. "There was deep knowledge on the influence of materials, locations and weather, meaning we already had sustainable building construction and maintenance centuries ago," says Schmitt. "Monasteries like the one here in Einsiedeln are excellent case studies of ’responsive’ design - responsible, long-term construction methods that are consistently adapted to human needs and abilities." According to Schmitt, today’s architecture and urban planning research often focuses on generating the same kind of effects achieved by these older structures, but on a much larger scale.

Working on behalf of ETH

Schmitt worked on behalf of ETH as a whole from 1998 to 2008. During his time as Vice President for Planning and Logistics, he managed the autonomy process made possible by the revised ETH Act which substantially increased the institution’s creative freedom. He also paved the way for significant private and institutional co-funding for new buildings such as the Branco Weiss Information Science Laboratory and the Sport Centre. And not least, he shaped the character of the Hönggerberg campus, helping it develop into a living "science city" and also worked with the Planning Commission to prepare the massive expansion of the university.

While ETH Zurich has always had an open and international character, it wasn’t until 2008, under the tenure of then-President Ralph Eichler, that the university developed an official strategy for its international involvement and activities. Schmitt became ETH’s first delegate for International Institutional Affairs, a unit that merged with the North-South Centre to become ETH Global in 2012. Together with Gerhard Schmitt in his role of Senior Vice President for ETH Global, this staff office bundled the entire spectrum of globalization and development activities at ETH.

Knowledge with an impact

Taking a holistic perspective is also the approach that Schmitt applied as the founding director of the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC), a project that he heavily promoted with a great deal of personal dedication starting in 2010. The centre is home to the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), which has identified a number of factors critical to sustainable urban development such as society, infrastructure, transportation, business, culture, and politics. Researchers at the centre study the overall impact of these factors "through science, by design, in place", as the FCL puts it. Schmitt and his team shared many of their findings to over 180,000 students from 180 countries in the MOOC series "Future Cities".

In parallel, he continued to develop the field of information architecture, thanks in part to enormous advances in computer and data science. His experience with the Science City project played a key role in this process and led to the development of what is termed Citizen Design Science: he and his team developed crowdsourcing tools that allow citizens to simulate and visualise urban life on all levels, from individual buildings all the way up to entire metropolitan regions.

The "in place" part of FCL’s motto points to an important motivator for Schmitt: the need for his knowledge to have an impact on the ground. Issues such as air pollution, noise, environmental damage and climate change-induced heat waves have become enormous challenges in densely populated metropolises around the globe. "We need fast, easy-to-implement solutions to prevent living in big cities from becoming even more of a health risk," says Schmitt. "This is why I’m happy that the city of Singapore is involved in Cooling Singapore - our transdisciplinary, cross-institutional project - and is integrating the findings and suggestions into their planning."

Research on issues of urbanisation, resilience and health technology is growing. Under Schmitt’s tenure as director, three large-scale projects were launched in 2020, with investments to come from the Singaporean government, ETH Zurich and Singapore-based universities over the next several years.

Rediscovering architecture

Now that Schmitt has retired and handed over the reins in Singapore to Gisbert Schneider, he has been able to reconnect with his passion for architecture. Four years ago, his childhood home in Rheingau fell victim to a fire. The replacement building designed by Schmitt is a showcase for his talent and skill. "The house is on a vineyard and will be made of wood," he explains. "Linked up with high-tech, not just smart but responsive too. And it will produce a lot more energy for housing and mobility than it consumes, serving as a small example for the regenerative cities of tomorrow."

Norbert Staub