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Picture This: Sketchup2.1 and Piranesi3
Jerry Laiserin

Like the ancient game of Go, which is trivially easy to learn, yet affords an infinitely complex set of variations, Sketchup from @Last Software combines ease of learning and ease of use with a rich set of modeling and visualization possibilities. Adding the slick "3-D painting" effects produced by Piranesi (from Informatix) delivers a powerful yet flexible combination that belongs in every designer's toolkit.

Ever since 1963, when MIT Ph.D candidate Timothy Johnson developed the first 3-D CAD system (Sketchpad III, which extended the 2-D CAD interface of Ivan Sutherland's pioneering Sketchpad), software developers and building designers have struggled to define and refine computer interfaces best suited to sketching and developing 3-D building design models within the inherently 2-D interface medium of the computer display screen.

Designers readily understand massing studies with geometric volumes sketched in and implied by their edges within non-digital interfaces such as the proverbial "cocktail napkin." Yet, most approaches to computer-based 3-D "sketching" have relied on solid modeling concepts such as extrusion, revolution and lofting, as well as Boolean operations such as intersections and unions. Sketchup cuts through the conceptual and interface clutter that follows from traditional approaches and delivers the most intuitive and natural set of tools imaginable for architectural sketching in 3-D.

Whether the user is working in plan, section, elevation or perspective views, Sketchup continuously infers 3-D geometry from 2-D input. Viewed in perspective, any volume can be stretched or squeezed by gripping its edges or by pushing and pulling on its faces. Constructions of effectively limitless 3-D complexity and detail can be crafted almost as quickly as one can think and draw. In fact, Sketchup is the ideal embodiment of most architects' "thinking by drawing" design process. Sketchup—now available in original Windows and new Macintosh "flavors"—can export model data to all leading CAD packages for further design refinement, extraction of working drawing views, or addition of building details and intelligent data attributes.

Besides serving as the perfect 3-D/sketch front end to production-oriented CAD packages, Sketchup contains enough shadow-casting, shading, material textures and so forth to function as a stand-alone design/presentation tool. However, Sketchup's volumetric approach to sketching also makes it an ideal complement to the special 3-D painting qualities of Piranesi.

Painting the Town
Unlike 2-D paint programs, which operate by coloring pixels as displayed on the 2-D screen face, Piranesi adds depth information to every pixel and adds geometric constraints to areas displayed on-screen. This combination of depth-understanding plus recognition of planes and edges allows Piranesi to paint colors and textures intelligently onto 3-D objects viewed in perspective. While plug-ins exist to apply Piranesi effects to 3-D models created in a wide range of popular modeling/rendering programs, the natural affinity of Sketchup's 3-D sketching and Piranesi's 3-D painting is so strong that Sketchup has provided (since version1.2) the ability to save its output directly in Piranesi's .EPX format.

Thus, the two packages work seamlessly together for a design/presentation experience that multiplies their respective strengths into something so compelling that architects, interior designers and planners who don't already own and use both programs owe it themselves and their clients to drop whatever else they're currently using—whether pencils and markers or some other mouse- or stylus-based software—and pick up Sketchup+Piranesi right away.

Like Apples and Oranges
One frequently asked question about Sketchup and the Sketchup+Piranesi combination is "how does this compare to Autodesk Architectural Studio (AAS)," recently* announced and shipped in release3.0 (we covered AASr2 in IssueTwelve). AAS represents a radical approach to computer design/drawing interfaces—"radical" in its original sense of going back to roots or origins. Since pre-computer and non-computer designers worked with pencils and markers on multiple layers of tracing paper, perhaps with underlays of photographs, site plans or hard-edged drafted work, the developers of AAS consciously and deliberately set out to replicate that process within the 2-D digital screen interface; in this they succeeded brilliantly (AAS' handling of 3-D design, whether by extrusion from 2-D or by Boolean manipulation of volumetric primitives, is neither as radical nor as successful as is AAS' 2-D drawing functionality).

Trying to break away from its inbred 2-D drafting interface culture and accompanying CAD overhead, Autodesk strove mightily (and, as I say, successfully) to deliver in AAS a drawing interface that even the most CAD-ophobic designer could love. However, compared to Sketchup's approach to 3-D sketching through edge/face-defined modeling, one wonders whether Autodesk perhaps threw out the could-have-been AAS modeling baby with the CAD-overhead bathwater. AAS perfectly replicates the paper-based preliminary design process—everything that was good about that process, along with much of what was not so good, too. Plans are plans and elevations, elevations; assembling them into models, whether by extruding from them or pasting them onto the faces of Boolean solids, is not very different on an AAS-equipped computer than it was on a bumwad-equipped drafting board.

Back to the Future
In making AAS a system that is as close to backward-compatible with paper-based design workflow as any digital product is likely to be, Autodesk has repeated many of the best and worst behaviors of its own Architectural Desktop (ADT), which—with its drawing views X-ref'd together into models—tries to be as close to backward-compatible with 2-D AutoCAD as any nominally intelligent 3-D product is likely to be. In one of those cosmically amusing quirks of fate, during essentially the same time frame in which an Autodesk team in Ithaca, New York was turning the developmental Project Nora into what was to become AAS, a non-Autodesk team—operating with the under-the-radar name of Charles River Software—labored in Waltham, Massachusetts to produce the design tool that was to become Revit. Autodesk subsequently acquired Revit and declared it to be Autodesk's strategic platform for building information modeling. The irony here is that the current, non-Autodesk Sketchup feels more simpatico than AAS as a front-end/companion to what is now Autodesk Revit (RVT). As RVT replaces ADT (which Autodesk's strategistas say they would prefer to see happen sooner rather than later), one wonders about the future of AAS, which right now bears more of a family resemblance to the waning ADT than it does to the waxing RVT.

OK, you say, so what if Sketchup has a more "next-gen" look and feel than the decidedly retro AAS? What about AAS' much-ballyhooed collaboration capabilities—especially the project-spanning multi-enterprise collaboration service called DesignSite that we and others thought so highly of in AASr2? Curiously, support for the ASP-hosted DesignSite has been unceremoniously dumped from AASr3 in favor of simpler and faster peer-to-peer, LAN-only collaboration built into each copy of AASr3 at no additional cost (those brave and/or foolhardy enough to insist on AASr2-style multi-enterprise collaborative design in AASr3 can exploit its undocumented "feature" of accepting all comers if run outside the firewall).

Given this sad diminution in AAS's former advantage in collaborative capability, plus its promised-but-yet-undefined interoperability with RVT (Autodesk's declared platform of the future), just how does AASr3 match up against Sketchup2.1? Certainly not on price, since AAS costs US$1,100 per seat, versus US$475 per seat for Sketchup. In fact, North American users can purchase Sketchup AND Piranesi for only US$1,200 total—a scant 9% more than Autodesk's price for AASr3, with arguably much more than 9% worth of additional usability.

To repeat the point one final time: anyone who designs buildings, whether from the inside, the outside or in town- or campus-sized bunches, should own and use a copy of Sketchup and a copy of Piranesi.

* AASr3 was announced a few days prematurely on November 19, 2002. I'm writing on November 30, 2002, but the cover date of this much-delayed IssueFourteen reads September 2, 2002. Readers of The LaiserinLetter as well as visitors to the laiserin.com website find it confusing when content dated September 2 isn't published until, say, December—and includes "post-dated" news to boot. Accordingly, effective with IssueFifteen, the cover date will coincide with the nominal publication date. On the other hand, when launched The LaiserinLetter promised to be weekly, yet after 26 weeks, this is only IssueFourteen. We still intend to produce 52 issues by our week 52 or one-year anniversary—which means cranking out twelve extra issues (38 total) over the next 26 weeks. Keep your fingers crossed.

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