Leveraging Technology for Inclusivity in San Francisco’s Scale Model

By Ishita Jain

In 2017, a 77-year-old scale model of San Francisco used for urban planning resurfaced after being out of the public eye for decades. Although it is the largest and most intact of the many American city models, parts were still missing. At the request of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Autodesk employees Marti Deans and Gabrielle Patin helped recreate missing pieces, so the model could include all of the city’s neighborhoods.

SFMOMA’s request was an opportunity for Autodesk to leverage its expertise in 3D design software and 3D printing tools to help foster inclusivity for all communities in the model. “The project was specifically about recreating the parts that had gone missing,” recalls Marti Deans, Autodesk’s Technical Marketing Specialist. “We wanted to make sure that those neighborhoods didn’t feel excluded when the model was displayed across the city.” 

Once assembled, the model is an impressive 37 by 41 feet and composed of 6,000 removable blocks, each one corresponding to a city block. The blocks organize into 140 sections, each on a stand. The genius of the model is that it literally fits together like building blocks connected by wooden pegs. Unfortunately, many blocks disappeared over the years, including City Hall, Seals Stadium, the Golden Gate Bridge, and part of the Bay Bridge.

One missing piece of the model was Potrero Terrace, now a housing project. “When the model was originally created, the housing project wasn’t there, so we debated whether the housing project should be represented in the updated piece we’d be creating,” Marti explains. “In the end, we decided to represent the area as it would have been produced in the late 1930’s, without the housing project. This way, we’d stay true to the original model and the time in which it was designed.”

From Design to Fabrication

The Autodesk team worked with Dutch artist team Bik Van der Pol to realize their vision of the restoration. Over the course of two weeks, the design and production process included the following steps: 

Measurement and 3D Design 

First, Autodesk visited SFMOMA to experience the model and take measurements of the missing pieces. These measurements were then used to design the replacement blocks in Autodesk’s Fusion 360, a cloud-based CAD/CAM tool for collaborative product development that combines industrial design, mechanical engineering, and machine tool programming into one software solution.Each missing section was designed as separate blocks, like the originals, to ensure that individual blocks could be swapped out or changed if needed. The design work took Deans and Patin several hours to complete and is available to viewhere. 

Prototyping and Testing 

The Autodesk team created a set of prototypes to ensure pieces would fit together seamlessly. Bases of pieces were printed and tested on the model. If a piece did not fit, measurements were retaken and prototyped again.

3-D model on Fusion 360, Image Source: Autodesk

3-D model on Fusion 360, Image Source: Autodesk

3D Printing and Fabrication 

The 3D printing and fabrication were done at the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco. The center is a hub for research, development, and testing of new manufacturing technologies. There are several different methods of 3D printing, but the most common is a process known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM printers use a thermoplastic filament, which is heated to its melting point and then extruded, layer by layer, to create a three-dimensional object.  

3-D printed model in the FDM machine, Image Source: Autodesk

3-D printed model in the FDM machine, Image Source: Autodesk

The team decided to use the FDM process with a material called ASA, Acrylic-styrene-acrylonitrile plastic for the print. The topography of the model, with visible layered structures on the surface, served as a helpful example, since the model did not have a lot of highly detailed buildings or skyscrapers. The model did not need to withstand intense pressure, nor did it need structural strength, so the Autodesk team knew it could save materials by creating a honeycomb-like structure under the solid filament. The 3D prints took about 30 hours from start to finish. The final prints were sent back to SFMOMA for installation in the model. 

“The 3D printed blocks will stand out in contrast to the original historical model of the city due to their surface texture, color, and material. This will call attention to the history of the model and the pieces that disappeared over the decades, while not erasing the San Francisco neighborhoods that make up those blocks today,” says Gabrielle Patin, 3D Print Shop Specialist at the Autodesk Technology Center. Patin, who once participated in a residency at SFMOMA, added that it felt good to support others who were doing the same.

Ishita Jain leads design and innovation at the Autodesk Foundation. She uses her design thinking and social innovation expertise to support entrepreneurs and innovators who are using technology and design to solve some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. She has a Masters in Design for Social Innovation from the School of Visual Arts, NY and a Masters in Industrial Design from the National Institute of Design, India. Ishita is based in San Francisco, California.