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This massive 3D-printed model shows off San Francisco in amazing detail

115 blocks of a neighborhood undergoing constant change

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Virtual 3D models of cities are nothing new, but bringing one into the physical world is a bit more challenging. AutoCAD maker Autodesk and creative marketing agency Steelblue did just that, however, with this massive, incredibly detailed 3D print of San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. All told, it encompases more than 115 city blocks, mainly in the northeast part of San Francisco’s 7-by-7 mile footprint.

The map covers a number of the city’s landmarks, including AT&T Park (home of the Giants), the Bay Bridge, and the San Francisco Ferry Building — but perhaps more importantly, it covers what is probably the city’s most rapidly changing area in terms of real estate. The 3D print was designed for real estate developer Tishman Speyer to help the company with urban planning and construction decisions — each block of the map can be picked up and replaced to help developers see exactly what new construction will look like in the context of the neighborhood. In fact, a section of the map shows SOMA not as it is now, but as it’ll look in 2017 when a number of major construction projects are finalized.

The model becomes really useful with the addition of a projector mounted over the map: developers can overlay data like street maps, future subway lines, traffic patterns, or simply color outlines to highlight different parts of the city. Right now, that involves a pretty elaborate setup, with the projector mounted high above on the ceiling, but Autodesk and Steelblue also built a translucent prototype, which would allow images to be projected from below the map.

Beyond its utility for developers and urban planners, the map is an impressive piece of art in its own right — there’s an incredible amount of detail in each of the dozens of blocks that make up this part of San Francisco. I happen to live in an area captured by the map, and the amount of detail poured into the buildings that I see every day when walking around the city truly brings the model to life. The print was done at a resolution of 16 microns, which made reproducing minute details possible — you can pick out individual seating sections in AT&T Park, for example.

Right now, there’s only one copy of the map, and it’ll be in possession of the real estate developer whom it was built for — but Autodesk plans to print another and have it available for viewing at its gallery. Steelblue and Autodesk also have plans to print other cities — and possibly expand on the San Francisco map, as well. We’ll have to see how they’ll tackle the city’s famous up-and-down topography, however — most neighborhoods in San Francisco are a lot hillier than SOMA.

Autodesk's huge 3D printed map of San Francisco


The view from AT&T Park, looking north towards San Francisco's financial district.