Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 10 (October 2001)

Autodesk Architectural Studio

By Jerry Laiserin

While addressing a "computers for architecture" conference in the mid-1990s, William J. Mitchell, dean of the school of architecture and planning at MIT, held up a blank sheet of paper. "If computers had been invented first," he said, rattling the paper, "this would be hailed as a revolutionary interface technology." Speaking only half facetiously, Mitchell cited paper's advantages: portability, interoperability, adaptability to multiple input media and file formats, zero power consumption, and so forth. Architects in the audience chuckled knowingly, aware of the disruption that CAD software had imposed on their centuries-old process of thinking by drawing.

Starting with Ivan Sutherland's Sketch pad in the early 1960s, CAD software had grown ever more complex and abstract-even as it became more comprehensive and realistic. Arcane commands and coordinate systems, layers, levels, cells, blocks, entities, objects, at tributes, viewports, layouts, and file formats encrusted the design process like so many barnacles, slowing down what should have been smooth sailing. Many frustrated architects looked in vain for a better way of using computers to directly express their design ideas.

Fast-forward to the turn of the millennium. Autodesk unleashed a team of developers to rethink and revamp the entire process of using software as an aid to architectural design. Ironically, the metaphor for this new approach was the old, paper-based architectural studio: a workspace for drawing and making notes; trays full of pens, pencils, markers, brushes, erasers, X-acto knives, scale rulers, and geometric templates; rolls of tracing paper and sheets of graph paper; reference and display space for photos, sketches, and alternative schemes; model-building materials for quick 3D analyses; and the like.
Architectural Studio's interface includes a tray of 2D tools (left) and 3D tools (right), transparent tracing paper, and the ability to work interchangeably with photographs, sketches, CAD files, perspectives, and models.

Working initially under the code name Project Nora, then under the working title StudioDesk, what became known as the Architectural Studio development team (Arch Studio, for short) devoted nearly two years to creating and testing a working prototype. The version discussed here reflects the main features implemented as of press time and offers a reasonable prediction of the commercial Version 1.0 anticipated by year-end.

The most noticeable thing about Arch Studio's interface is that it doesn't look like CAD software, or even like typical Windows software. In fact, experienced CAD jockeys who've tried it are initially puzzled by its simplicity. Where are the pull-down menus, the tear-off palettes, or the floating toolbars? Where are the windows, panes, title bars, and control menus? However, designers who have been frustrated by that sort of computer complexity jump right in.

The maximum real estate on the default startup screen is devoted to a lightly gridded workspace, bordered on the right by a tray of 3D tools and on the left by another tray of 2D tools plus some templates-all reminiscent of pre-computer drawing boards. The 2D tools look and behave like their physical counterparts. Using the recommended stylus and tablet or touchscreen hardware, you point to a roll of tracing paper and drag it across the workspace to unroll a new transparent sheet. Select any of the default or user-customized pens, pencils, or markers and start to draw, using templates to switch between freehand or hard-lined geometric drawing.

Just as with real tracing paper, one can roll out another layer, and another, to work on top of the first drawing. Any image, photograph, or CAD drawing (in GIF, JPG, PNG, DWG, or DWF) can be imported and used as an underlay for subsequent tracing. Preliminary sketches, intermediate work, or alternative schemes can be "pinned up" on the workspace as thumbnails that remain available for reference and instant reuse. Sketches and images also can be cut with a knife tool or captured in a snapshot with a camera tool and exported (as JPGs) or saved for later use.
Architectural Studio's initial feature set includes simple shadow casting, "hand-rendering" of perspective images, and round-trip compatibility with Autodesk's Architectural Desktop CAD program.

Any 2D sketch or image, such as a site plan or aerial photograph, can be tilted into 3D as a ground plane for solids chosen from the 3D-tool tray. Solids can be stretched and twisted, merged or subtracted, even sliced with a wire tool, as one might do with a clay model. Walls and volumes can be extruded into 3D from lines on the 2D ground-plane image, and 2D lines can be drawn directly on the faces of 3D objects. There's also a kind of 3D paint, with point-and-shoot color fills of 3D solids. ArchStudio 3D models ex port directly into Autodesk's Architectural Desktop (ADT) for further refinement and ADT (Versions 3.3 and higher) has a "publish to ArchStudio" command. This round-trip compatibility with Autodesk's conventional CAD tools supports design integration from the earliest sketches to the most detailed construction documents.

ArchStudio runs locally, but workspaces are saved in the background to an Internet server. This allows multiple users to share the same workspace, annotating each other's work and even collaborating concurrently on the same design. As with most initial releases, there will be a few "nice-to-have" features missing from ArchStudio 1.0: Areas for potential improvement include better access control for shared workspaces; true drag and drop (rather than copy and paste) between ArchStudio and Autodesk's ADT; direct insertion of Web-based objects (as currently available in 3D studio via Autodesk's "i-Drop" technology); direct PDF output; and availability of Pantone colors.

While many CAD vendors are successfully expanding and refining an object-oriented or parametric virtual building model approach to design in programs such as Revit from Revit Technology, ArchiCAD from Graphisoft, and ADT from Autodesk itself, ArchStudio represents a new, parallel approach to the design process. Autodesk sees ArchStudio as more than and different from just pen-enabled CAD. Instead, it is a complement and supplement to CAD that better and more completely models the workflow and task assignments of real-world architectural firms. ArchStudio deserves attention from any architect who is serious about design.

Architect Jerry Laiserin, FAIA, provides strategic consulting services to architects and their technology providers. He can be reached at

Price: Downloadable software licensed on a subscription basis; monthly fee to be announced Minimum
System Requirements: Windows 98/NT/2000, Pentium II, 128MB of RAM