My Own Personal Nolli Map

Nolli maps are one of my favorite kinds of maps. And that’s saying something—I am a big map fan. But Nolli maps were a big revelation to me, both because they’re beautiful and because when I first saw them, they expressed so precisely the most important thing about how I think about cities.

Nolli maps (I’ve probably mentioned them before) were drawn by this Nolli fellow, an 18th century Italian architect. The absolute genius of these maps is that rather than distinguishing between interior and exterior space, they distinguish between civic and private space. So anywhere that anyone can go—the street, inside a cathedral,  the colonnades at St. Peters—is white, while private places (as well as walls, columns, etc.) are black. (You can, by the way, own a facsimile of the map portfolio for a mere $250, though I think I’ll stick to the interactive Nolli map website).

The accuracy and shear usefulness of this map is pretty astounding, considering it’s from 1748. But there are a few tweaks I’d make (of course) if I were making a Nolli-inspired map of New York, for example.

First of all, while I love the simplicity and elegance of black and white (and I understand the printing limitations Nolli was operating under), a little color could add new layers of meaning. The meaning I’d most like to add is the gradation between truly public space, like the street, and semi-public space, like a shop, which could maybe even be done in shades of grey, but color would probably be clearer.

A project for a rainy day—my own personal Nolli map…

That white space—the aggregation of all the places you can get without a key—is where civic life happens and where the character of the city is contained. I love the variations that distinguish the spectrum of this space. A slightly higher curb, a unique paving, a little shade, each can change the degree of publickness of a particular spot. A bench, an old school news stand, or an antique post box can all make an otherwise unremarkable place special by distinguishing it just a bit from the space around it. Eddies in the space time continuum, so to speak.

The cumulative interaction of all of these spaces—from the sidewalk to the corner stool at the corner bar—are pretty much the best thing ever. Being able to choose to sit down, to walk, to have a drink, or to watch the world go by instills a sense of freedom and engagement that no amount of politicking or Facebooking can ever replace.

(And, not coincidentally, these are the spaces I hope to one day get to design—cafes, street furniture, taverns, parks, shops: all the white spaces in my own personal Nolli map.)



This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 and is filed under architecture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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