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Arquitectura Fantástica: SketchUp as School of the Mind

Ed. note: When we first glimpsed the work being done by Professor Joaquin Lorda and the architectural history students at the University of Navarra in Spain, we knew this story, a melding of tradition and whimsy, had to be shared. Sadly, shortly after concluding the following interviews, we received word that Professor Lorda had passed away. Despite this somber news, Professor Lorda’s boundary-pushing work continues to inspire us all. After consulting with the University of Navarra, we decided to publish this blog post in tribute to Professor Lorda and his dedication to the crafts of Architecture and Education.

Each semester, Professor Joaquin Lorda assigns a supplemental project that asks students to explore classical architectural methodologies, while iterating upon those prolific traditions. Students work in small teams, employing elements from Late Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Gothic, Mexican, Spanish and other time-honored styles, into collaborative architectural models limited only by imagination and processor speeds.

We asked Professor Lorda and students Álvaro Martínez Alcalde Tejerina and Miguel Acebrón to talk about the benefits of using SketchUp to collaborate in a classroom setting.

Professor Lorda’s class is divided in groups of two or three students, and a timetable is used to meet the organizational demands of complex collaborative modeling like this.

Your students’ projects revolve around collaboration. Can you talk about the challenges this presents, and how you overcome those challenges?

Professor Lorda: Time and organization are the greatest challenges. This exercise is not a traditional architectural design project where each student presents an individual design. It’s a complementary exercise within the History of Architecture course. Students learn historical architectural composition, bringing out the best of its forms, while making progress using 3D programs. The exercise must be done in a short period of time, and students must not do an individual project; they must work one over the other, as artists did in medieval cathedrals.

“Students develop the design in couples, taking different elements of the whole building or complex. Professor Lorda sets the main space structure and then all students have to keep the same compositional style during the process.” – Miguel

How does the class approach the presentation phase? Is rendering or photo editing software used?

Miguel: We don’t use any rendering software. We export the model in a 2D graphic (.jpg) with high quality and then Professor Lorda highlights the volume drafting with ink pens. It’s not a very common process but the results are quite impressive. Occasionally we add characters from William Walcot via Photoshop in order to show the scale of a building complex.

These images were exported directly from SketchUp; no rendering software was used.

How does SketchUp affect traditional modeling and drafting methods in the classroom?

Professor Lorda: SketchUp is an ideal tool for working on this kind of expressive architecture by adding or taking away a little bit in the composition, in the same way as if you were drafting or sculpting with your own hands. Modeling gives expressivity to architecture: a building may be strong, delicate, proud, or implacable… these qualities were acquired traditionally by drawing multiple drafts.

“We use SketchUp because it allows for the development of 3D designs in an intuitive way, making lessons more fluent and articulate, ultimately getting quick visual results needed to understand the space.” – Miguel

Álvaro: In my case, this was the first time that I used SketchUp and it was really useful. Since that moment it was, and is, as important a tool as the pencil when you want to design.

The collaboration and complexity of projects in Professor Lorda's class often requires best practices in model organization and file-size management.

The projects you model are very large. How do you employ lean modeling practices to navigate the model with ease?

Miguel: Each piece of modeling is developed by a couple of students in a different SketchUp file. The complete model takes a lot of time to process when navigating so we work in separated layers, hiding the areas we are not working on at that moment.

Álvaro: We work with a lot of components, only changing the scale or symmetry. Working this way is really very efficient.

Ed. note: Using layers to help you organize your model is a great way to save time and model faster. Here’s some more information on getting started with Layers.

“We intend that our projects are practicable buildings employing ancient technology, due to the subjects studied in the History of Architecture. Nevertheless, there are no limits concerning forms or architectural composition. We encourage students to be very creative.” – Professor Lorda

What SketchUp functions proved fundamental to this design process?

Professor Lorda: Components proved invaluable, since almost every element or building is symmetrical. We can easily divide in 2, 4, 8, etc. equal or symmetrical pieces (inverted vertically or horizontally). For instance, any cuboid modeled is made into a component.

The Scale Tool was used to quickly adjust cuboid shapes into any size and dimension. We create all basic volumes (thick or thin, high or low) within an architectural composition. Walls, plinths, bases, baseboards, roofs, floors, moldings, etc. all are made the same way; a basic piece is made into a component and is stretched with the Scale Tool to fit any particular place.

Using Components, Push Pull, Follow Me, Arc, Circle, Scale, Offset, and other basic SketchUp tools, Professor Lorda's students are able to create wonderfully detailed models.

Miguel: We try to generate the fewest amount of different components we can and later combine them in a wide range of dispositions, similar to traditional architecture’s handling of symmetry and radial display.

“The majority of this model was completed with just two tools: Push/Pull and Scale. These common tools proved powerful enough to solve most of the details.” – Miguel


To learn more about the program at University of Navarra, or to learn more about Professor Lorda, please visit the University of Navarra website.

About the Author

Chris has been with Trimble since 2007. He's on the SketchUp for Education team and can be found in his free time constantly redesigning his tiny house or breaking things in his workshop.

Profile Photo of Chris Brashar