Urban Prototyping: Using LEGOs and Parametric Modeling to Design Cities

Project for a CityScience Workshop at the MIT Media Lab

Purpose: to utilize LEGOs and parametric modeling tools (i.e., Grasshopper) to develop the concept of Compact Urban Cells — a neighborhood area of approximately 1 square kilometer in diameter that contains most of what citizens need for everyday life. Compact Urban Cells are walkable neighborhoods with a diverse mix of live/work areas that utilize shared mobility systems, distributed renewable power generation, shared spaces, and urban farming.

Instructors: Kent Larson (MIT Media Lab, Director of City Science Initiative), Ryan Chin (MIT Media Lab, Managing Director, City Science Initiative)

Deliverables: to explore urban systems at both the neighborhood scale (~1km²) and the block scale. Develop a process for understanding and resolving a set interdependent urban parameters including building massing, space use, shared mobility networks, streetscape types, parks, urban food production, and energy generation nodes. Work with 3D physical models using color-coded LEGO bricks as an abstract framework and parametric computation software such as Grasshopper. Precedents from existing cities and current urban theory will be used to inform the development of urban strategies that maximize livability and positive human interaction while minimizing the consumption of resources.

Site: MIT’s campus and the area surrounding Kendall Square divided into a series of 500m squared areas centered on the Kendall Square T subway station (refer to diagram below). Kendall Square was chosen as the case study because it encompasses many urban features of a compact urban neighborhood including public trasit, Hubway bike-share nodes, housing, retail, academic buildings, green space, various sized streets, and an energy generation plant (i.e., the MIT Co-generation plant). The City of Cambridge and MIT are also developing a plan for 2030, which will act as a comparison for our own proposal.

Overall Workshop Site: Each of the 6 sections were divided amongst students in the class. Each site measured 500m squared where one grid size was equivalent of 10m and represented by 1 LEGO node (as will be discussed later).

kendall_grid_sm-01

My Project Site: Site E had a majority of Academic buildings as well as parts of the retail along the Kendall Square T Subway System.

kendall_grid_site E-01

LEGO 3D Model: LEGOs were transposed onto a grey base plate that represents site E (500m squared) where each lego unit is equivalent to 1 building story or level.

LEGO unit-01

The model also uses the following LEGO block definitions: streets & sidewalks (exposed grey base plate), parking infrastructures (dark grey), residential (black blocks), office space (yellow), commercial retail (white), academic (beige), government (brown), green space (green), mobility systems (red), energy infrastructure (blue).

Note: all academic buildings are labeled by MIT building codes.

Note: all academic buildings are labeled by MIT building codes.

Virtual 3D Model: Using Rhino 3D, we were given a template to regenerate a virtual replica of the LEGO model. All sizes, volumes, and block definitions were kept the same. Hence, this virtual model will also be representative of the original satellite image.

This type of modeling is an interesting method of visualizing space utilization in a physical and digital sense. Of course, you can produce the same results with 3D printing a digital model as well. However, the accessibility of LEGO makes it a widely adoptable medium to introduce students to urban design.


Originally published at Lucy Zhao.