Nolli connections

by hhf3

Tuesday night I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by a local author on urban design, mapping, and how cities have evolved. The author (whose name I am now conveniently blanking on) is a professor in the urban planning/design department at a local university (but not mine). I didn’t glean much from the talk other the chance to see some very pretty looking historical maps and the chance to briefly see how the author had created a standard mapping schema to understand and compare hundreds of cities.

The one thing that really piqued my interest more than anything, though, was the concept of Nolli connections. A Nolli map is a special kind of map developed by a guy named Nolli (you guessed it!) to map Rome back in the 1700s. Briefly, it shows all public areas in white, and all private areas in black. It varies a bit from a traditional figure/ground or solids/voids map in that public area can include interior spaces that are open to the public, such as the Pantheon, small churches, etc. I’ve definitely seen the Nolli map before, and have even made a couple of my own for various projects. What I hadn’t been alerted to before is a neat little feature of the Nolli map: showing interior connections. For instance, if one is in the center of a block and desiring to get to the other side, normally one has to walk down the streets to get to their final destination. However, a Nolli connection might cut through the block by walking through a church and then through a passageway out to the other side of the block. I do not think it was Nolli’s express intention to show these connections, but he does provide a valuable resource.

We all have our own Nolli connections, though. They don’t simply exist in Rome, and they may not be officially mapped, but they do exist. For example, at my undergraduate university, to get from morning swim practice to my 9am methods class at the opposite end of campus, I would take this much shorter route instead. I’d exit the athletic center, walk around the playing field, through the children’s hospital to the atrium where I would purchase breakfast at the bagel stand, on through the regular hospital, over a walkway bridge, through a parking garage, through a parking lot, down a side street, and up a sorority house’s driveway to get to the side door. Quite complicated, it did take me quite some time to learn that shortcut (and learn the official name: Nolli connection!). The nice thing was that it mostly inside, always a plus in these brutal winters, and that it was partially self-created. The hospital shortcut had been passed down from older swim team members, and I did my best to pass it on, too. The rest of that route? All mine. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one who knew it. In a university of 10,000 students all navigating the same urban campus, sometimes it is nice to feel like one has their own space.

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