Architect and lecturer at Edinburgh University

Born: June 10, 1935;

Died: August 20, 2019

AART Bijl, who has died at the age of 84, was a distinguished architect in South Africa who went on to found the Computer Aided Architectural Design Services (CAAD Services) at the Department of Architecture, at the University of Edinburgh, in 1968.

He held the official title of Senior Lecturer but much of his time and energy was directed at CAAD Services, which was an expanding division of the university and with which Bijl was closely associated from 1965 until his retirement in 1995.

His interest in and passion for computer design and its future were reflected in his comment: “If we place computers among people and expect them to behave like persons would do, then computers would stand out as utterly defective people.”

Bijl had spent some of his youth in South Africa and throughout his life he campaigned in Scotland against apartheid. His practical knowledge of the widespread hardships that were being experienced in the country gave his campaigning an extra zeal.

Aart Bijl was born in the Netherlands but within a year his parents had emigrated to South Africa. His childhood was handicapped as he had contacted bone tuberculosis. He spent nearly five years immobilised on a bed in a Cape Town hospital. In 1947 his mother, who had been the secretary of the Liberal party in South Africa, brought him to London to gain specialist medical advice.

He attended a progressive school in Burgess Hill, in West Sussex. During this period his mother died and in 1951 he returned to South Africa to live with his father and his second wife. Bijl read architecture at Cape Town University and graduated in 1959 with a first-class degree and got a position as an architect, firstly in South Africa then in Rotterdam.

Back in South Africa, he formed a partnership with colleagues to design what became known as the House Bruynzeel in Stellenbosch. With considerable imagination Bijl incorporated Bruynzeel’s lifestyle into his design. The Dutch wood merchant Kees Bruynzeel was not only a lover of wood but also of the sea and sailing ships.

Bijl created a monument to sailing in glorious wood: one architecture critic labelled it “a true work of art”. The roof resembles an enormous sun sail on a yacht, which seems to float in the air. It is lined with precious yellow wood yet the roof never touches the walls directly but rests on two feet coming off the two lower corners of the roof.

Despite this success Bijl’s architectural practice in 1961 was a casualty of the political unrest in South Africa and particularly after the Sharpeville massacre of March, 1960, in which almost 70 people were killed.

Bijl had one large project, with the design complete, when the client withdrew the project and refused to pay any fees. He decided as a consequence to close down the practice.

After a time with a London firm of architects he and his wife, Valerie (whom he married in 1965) and son Paul came to Edinburgh and he joined the Architectural Research Unit (ARU) in the Department of Architecture at Edinburgh University.

By 1968 Bijl began doing research as an adjunct to the ARU with a new division, CAAD Services. His driving interest was to explore the use of computers in all branches of modern society and to develop the relationship between computers and design practice.

His authoritative work at CAAD Services researched questions about design, computing, artificial intelligence and knowledge processing. As he observed wrote: “People can fudge what they say they do, Computers can’t.”

In 1968 Bijl chaired a far-ranging report into ARU’s financial arrangements as the initial grant was ending.

The following year he led a team of ARU researchers (until 1973) into how architectural design had to adapt to the arrival of modern technology – particularly addressing planning for housing estates. His work in Edinburgh explored many subjects about the design and extra knowledge gained through the increasing use of computers. The department gained a deserved international reputation in computer applications and the fundamentals of computer systems.

Bijl gained a strong reputation both in computer applications and the fundamentals of computer systems and wrote in many learned publications and attended conferences around the world. In 1989 he was awarded a visiting professorship at Tokyo University.

Bijl was a much-published author and his books, especially Computer Discipline and Design Practice – Shaping our Future (1989), and Ourselves and Computers – Difference in Minds and Machines (1995), were widely read by colleagues and students. He founded the Aart Bijl Student Prize for outstanding leadership in learning and in welfare of the student body.

In 1996 he and Valerie moved from Edinburgh to Dumfries and Galloway. Valerie, Paul, and daughter Sally all survive him.