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A profile of Carlo Scarpa.

FOREWORD: This paper will become an invaluable tool to me as a student of architecture; ultimately enabling me to pursue and analyse a particular field of interest within the vast, subjective domain that is our profession. The aim is to use this analytical writing to develop the way I think and look at the subject of architecture, therefore inspiring the rationale behind my personal, architectural ethos. Focusing on the theory of tectonics - the art and science of construction, I will study the small details which underpin concepts and transforms into rich, carefully considered, pieces of architectural design. The study will also give me an opportunity to learn more about the meticulous craftsman, Carlo Scarpa, and his thought processes behind the design and the subsequent construction of the beautiful, sensual staircase concealed within the Adriano Olivetti Showroom, Venice. Careful analysis of this staircase will reveal key points about design within staircases but will also highlight matters involving the wider context of architectural design as a whole.


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Olivetti logo on the exterior of the showroom.


























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Jacob’s ladder.’s_ladder_(State_2).jpg

INTRODUCTION: “Naturally any staircase is a sort of machine to climb up by or descend, but in the best Beaux Arts interpretation it is a display, it is a dance.”1

Throughout history, staircases have played an invaluable role in the creation of spatial and transitional narratives. These vertical thresholds embody a powerful symbolic dimension (Jacobs Ladder: Stairway to Heaven) around which, buildings exist. Staircases are an integral part of architectural design; they occupy a special position within a space and offer a passageway into a new area. A subtle synthesis of materials, form, tectonics, ergonomics and spatial analysis combine to create a tangible and pleasurable experience which engages the user, carrying them on a sensory journey of experience and appreciation. Staircases can embody an architect’s whole design ethos, giving indications on how they approach structure, envisage spaces, feel materials and emphasise joints - where components come together. The theory of tectonics, which concerns the art and science of construction, is a focus within this study and will form the basis of a proposition which emphasises how tectonics can benefit architectural design. 1. Berthold Lubetkin, A Commentary on Western Architecture, 1975


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Staircase as seen from the exterior.

In conjunction with the study of tectonics, the magnificent riser-less staircase within the ‘Olivetti Showroom’ by Carlo Scarpa, Venice, will drive discussion, presenting insightful analysis which aims to explore the tectonic, careful, detailed design and intricate craftsmanship employed by Scarpa when envisaging the staircase.


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Axonometric: Locating the staircase within the showroom. Axonometric drawing, Fraser Davie, 2012

THE OLIVETTI STAIRCASE: Strolling west along the northern arcade of the powerful Piazza San Marco in Venice, Carlo Scarpa’s subtly elegant Olivetti Showroom is gradually revealed to the square. Designed for Adriano Olivetti; owner of a prestigious typewriter manufacture and design company, he was a client who had “deep pockets to allow his architect to revel in the most lavish of materials”2. Scarpa was presented with an ideal opportunity to allow his design to fully flow and mature into a work of art. Carlo Scarpa was a craftsman who studied architecture but had never fully qualified. He was a meticulous man with a strong interest in materials, water, landscape and the layers of history which informed every drawing he touched. Each piece of work would have several different variations of the same idea and Scarpa was recalled as sometimes “drawing something with his left hand and at the same time, draw another idea with his right hand”3. This passion for design was especially notable within the Olivetti Showroom where every precise detail was elegant, playful and thought-provoking. Adriano Olivetti presented a difficult brief to Scarpa: a long, dark and narrow space had to be operated on; strengthening structure, and abandoning old fittings, followed by an inclusion of new windows, allowing light to flood in. Scarpa decided that he wanted the room to be 2. 3.

Murray Grigor, Writer, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 12.43mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Francesco Zanon, Metal Worker, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 10:26mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995


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Laurentian library staircase - Michelangelo

perceived in its entirety; allowing each new fitting to be read as an insertion into the existing fabric of the building. Scarpa understood the significance of the new store for Adriano Olivetti. It was a chance to showcase the fashionable and precise typewriters produced by Olivetti, fundamentally creating an intriguing space to sell them. Scarpa’s idea was simple - the space would have to reflect the elegance of the designer typewriters whilst creating an intangible space for the showroom, making it seem more spacious than it truly is. The space was relatively tall at four metres high. This however couldn’t accommodate a second floor, which would have had the potential to maximise floor area for the client. The solution was to create two low balconies either side of a magnificent staircase which would not interfere with the overall perception and grand idea of the room. The Olivetti staircase can be considered solely as a sculptural object within the space or as a new layer, underpinning the language of tectonics upon which the showroom is conceived. The stairway was created using cantilevered slabs of marble which are reminiscent of a “neoplastic deconstruction of Michelangelo’s stairway in the Laurentian library”4; flowing down from the mezzanine level above. The staircase is a centrepiece within the showroom which becomes an informal 4.

Santini, Pier Carlo, GA: Carlo Scarpa, ADA Edita, 1979


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Olivetti staircase.

gesture, inviting the public to touch, feel and caress the smooth structure which ingeniously splays out plinths, upon which, Olivetti typewriters are displayed. A minimalist vision of deconstruction, the staircase blurs the boundary between staircase and sculpture. This turns it into a blank canvas, bringing attention to the Olivetti products which are displayed, resting on top of the structure. Twentyeight separate components sit, support, cantilever or stand creating a masterpiece of tectonic design. This presents an honest view on how the staircase was constructed. The seemingly arbitrary nature of the staircase and showroom is part of Scarpa’s plan and narrative. Asymmetry breaks up the space but also adds a playful aspect to the showroom. This elegant, elemental piece of architectural design is however by no means arbitrary, for every single intricate detail has been meticulously considered, leading to an inspiring piece of work which can offer assistance to any architectural design.


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An original Scarpa plan drawing. Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, “La crosera de piazza” di Carlo Scarpa, in “Zodiac”, 1959, Pages 128-129

PROCESS: “A building is intensified through the elaboration of its own medium - a language of sticks and stones”5

In order to study Scarpa’s Olivetti staircase, it was necessary to source original drawings by Scarpa along with images of the staircase within the space and extract the relevant information from them. It was necessary to redraw the plan and section through the staircase as the original drawings were unclear but also due to the seemingly impossible nature of the structure. Acquiring a feel for Scarpa’s design was essential, however questioning and analysing the method of construction was paramount to the progression of the study. Precise machine-like CAD drawings were forensically extracted from the beautiful pencil drawings, with the degree of accuracy, displayed within the scanned images and booklets. This crude process was necessary in order to create exact and detailed drawings which could be then developed into a 3D computer model. Collating the vague information into working drawings was far from a simple task, as initially envisaged. The plan and section began to uncover some of the design considerations: Scarpa’s playful asymmetry and the gradual gradient of cantilevered steps which seemingly started to flow down towards the ground. Despite recreating the drawings, the whole story of the construction in 5.

Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page vii, MIT press, 2007


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Exploded Axonometric Drawing, illustrating each component. Exploded, axonometric drawing, Fraser Davie, 2012

a concise manner was still not evident. In order to test initial ideas and make sure that they were worthy, a new process had to be adopted, taking two dimensional drawings and turning them into three dimensional objects. By using 3D modelling software in conjunction with the initial plan and section, a model of the staircase was produced but the solution was perplexing. It seemed too complicated for such an elegant and aesthetically pleasing design. An exploded-axonometric drawing, separating components within the staircase was created, with the aim of simplifying the design allowing it to be seen more clearly. It illustrated how the staircase could, potentially, be constructed. Deconstructing the staircase made it easy to visualise how, on one side the cantilevered steps sat on top of concrete supports and on the other, small brass supports were placed in between the steps. However, because the details of construction were never publicised, this was only a theory - a physical model would have to be built. The aim was to create a tangible model which would become a ‘thinking machine’- an object which would develop into a platform, enabling deeper analysis into the mind of Carlo Scarpa. At a scale of 1:10, it was decided that the model would be an ideal size in order to create small details and test cantilevers and supporting structures. The material of choice for the model was plaster, allowing for the casting of exact shapes and small details drawn by Scarpa. Concrete would have been best for a larger scale model but for the intricate casting TECTONIC DESIGN OF THE OLIVETTI STAIRCASE

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Finished Plaster Model. PLaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011

of small scale components, plaster was ideal. Creating the formwork from kappa-board was laborious, which took several days to perfect and make watertight. The end product once removed from the formwork was very pleasing; not without its minor imperfections, but smooth in texture and intricate in detail making it ideal for the use it was constructed for. Due to the scale of the model there were very small tolerances when assembling the staircase. If one step was out slightly, it would affect the rest of the model, right to the very top step – resulting in a significant discrepancy. Analysis of the completed model showed it to appear too accidental, meaning that the first attempt was not perfect. After the second attempt, the thinking machine looked theoretically stronger and appeared to prove the tectonic theory of construction to be true; it stood up, proud and tall - using the cantilevered supports to transfer the mass of the marble steps to the ground. The model would become an essential device, enabling deeper inspection of the details and reinforcing the ideas behind Scarpa’s Olivetti staircase. The process of creating a seemingly simple object from a set of images was fundamental to the progression of this study. Scarpa created a mature, intellectually reasoned and well-articulated piece of beautiful architecture, which describes the expression: ‘there is more than meets the eye’. Every single detail is accounted for - it is coherent whilst also revealing the truth of the staircase. It is certainly not arbitrary or incidental. TECTONIC DESIGN OF THE OLIVETTI STAIRCASE

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Staircase rising from the plinth.

PLINTH: “Scarpa takes the traditional idea of stairs, the ‘inviting step’ ...right to the top”6

Expanding on the traditional idea of the staircase being the ‘inviting step’, Guiseppe Davonzo explains in the above quote that Scarpa elaborated on this idea - creating a staircase in which each tread becomes welcoming, cantilevering forwards. This invites the public to circulate through the showroom and experience the elegant staircase for themselves. Scarpa further perfected the ‘inviting step’ with the integration of a floating plinth, an indispensible feature which announces the staircase to the showroom. The plinth floats above a shimmering mosaic tiled floor, symbolising water whilst also intriguing the customer. This invites them to step up onto the small platform, creating a pause before ascent. This is vital to the narrative, forming an enlightened state of anticipation of the vertical movement through the space; ultimately bringing drama to the showroom, turning the elegant staircase into a light footed dance of steps. By placing two modular elements – each exactly the same width of the ‘L’ profiled marble steps, Scarpa forms a podium on which the remainder of the staircase appears to sit upon delicately. A rhythmical sculpture is born; announced to the showroom as a 6.

Giuseppe Davanzo, Architect, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:22 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995


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Two seperate elements creating the plinth. PLaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011

piece of art. This imagery is similar to the framing of a beautiful painting, focusing the eye onto the composure of lines, texture and colour. The tectonic design of the staircase allows for these analogies to be made, turning the staircase into a narrative of chapters or associated components. Scarpa reinforces the modular language by using a similarly profiled marble, unique to the plinth, for the two separate components which sit in harmony with one another. One large cut of marble for the podium would be over-scaled and certain clarity would be lost within the language of tectonics. It was therefore necessary to break it up, creating elements which sat together invitingly. Using the playful nature of Scarpa’s work, one element is rotated 180 degrees, separating the vertical extrusions at the edge of the step, highlighting the division between the profiled blocks. These extrusions also guide the public onto the staircase, creating an invisible barrier which illustrates the ideal and safest path onto and off of the staircase. The plinth is a special section of the staircase; it sets up a tectonic platform from which the staircase rises, turning into an elegant piece of sculptural art – breaking up the bland normality of symmetrical space.


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Cantilevering profile of the steps.

STEPS: Scarpa enjoyed experimenting with quality materials, creating metaphors and analogies of water. To reinforce the imagery of an “astonishing cascade of steps�7 Scarpa used slabs of beautifully profiled and rare aurisina marble which perfectly complemented the lavish yet delicate material palate of the showroom. The swirling grain of the marble reflects the imagery of Venetian waterways, creating an almost romantic vision within the showroom. A subtle, near-perfect polish to the surface of the marble allows parts of the grain to shimmer through, creating small tangible moments for the public to feel the grain which is below a water like sheen; reflecting diffused lights and shapes from around the room. The restrained yet ornate reflective surface of the marble creates intangible space, extending the showroom beyond physical boundaries, making it feel greater in size. This enables a grander space to be conceived, while ultimately adding more value and quality to the design. Scarpa designed nine different steps out of a total of fourteen separate treads, only altering the length of the extruded form. However there are exceptions; firstly where a step subtly wraps around the corner of a column and secondly with a small carving cut away from the tread - illustrating the surprisingly shallow depth of the cantilevered section. A pre-existing column from the building shell interrupts the staircase midway, creating some order before the steps splay out; flowing free around the corner. By allowing the staircase to span out after the column, Scarpa is in fact respecting the column, 7.

Murray Grigor, Writer, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:10 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995


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Beautifully crafted aurisina marble steps.

demonstrating that there is an immovable object, which is a key part of the buildings structural integrity. By simply dressing the column in a clad of brass details and stucco lucido - Venetian plaster - the integrity of the column is not lost. The traditional means of stone staircase construction - placing one slab on top of the other in a load bearing system - was reconsidered and transformed by Scarpa. With great consideration of tectonics, each step slides vertically past the other; resting on top of a concrete support, while a sophisticated brass support slips in between treads to complete the structure. This theory initially seemed impossible. Tests with the plaster model proved that it was indeed, the right medthod of construction. Shifting the structural point of contact enables Scarpa to ‘float’ the steps, strengthening the impression of a series of lightly touching stepping stones. Asymmetrical placement of steps reinstated Scarpa’s desire to create a sculptural object which flowed, seemingly arbitrarily, down to the ground. This particular arrangement also turns to innovation, where selected steps are chosen to display typewriters; turning the staircase into an elaborate display shelf. This presents with pride, the magnificent Olivetti ‘objects of desire’ to the customers. By exploring additional ways of deconstructing the staircase, Scarpa analysed shadows, casting darkness onto the step or floor below. This reads as a series of clearly separated, modulated components, enforcing the grand tectonic idea of elemental design.


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Cast concrete forms, supporting the steps.

CONCRETE SUPPORTS: Supporting the smooth ornate steps from below lays a series of loadbearing concrete blocks which are in direct contrast to the treads - this creates a distinct separation between the differing object types. Cast using a large aggregate concrete mix, the rough surface enables Scarpa to make clear the separation between the supporting role of the block and the smooth marble steps - used primarily for vertical circulation but also as a decorative element. The concrete supports have been intentionally cast thicker than structurally required, thus celebrating the support, again enabling clarity between different object types. Deconstruction is part of Scarpa’s playful narrative, allowing the public to clearly distinguish the role of each component within the story. By grouping similar elements together through the use of different materials, Scarpa clearly identifies the roles and responsibilities of the steps, supports and free standing vertical blocks. On placement of the steps onto the concrete supports, Scarpa made a rule to enable further separation of components – a step must not horizontally rest against or touch the support. By shifting the concrete block horizontally along a parallel plane, a simple yet imperative tectonic detail is created, which considers how perspective changes the perception of the staircase. A seemingly hollow border is formed, surrounding the step, casting shadows and splitting elements further still. Scarpa finally completes his tectonic placement of supports by creating a staggered array of blocks underneath the dual directional, cantilevered marble steps. From certain viewpoints the concrete supports vanish, creating the illusion of a floating staircase.


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Rendered image of a cast, brass support. Rendered image, Fraser Davie, 2012

BRASS SUPPORTS: Shimmering between the riserless steps are small cylindrical supports, cast from brass. These are elegant and complementary of the ornate polished marble slabs. Delicate in form, the subtly reflective surface diffuses the polished marble surface of the steps below, in a golden shimmer of colour. Seemingly defying the laws of physics, these tiny supports succeed in bearing the weight of the solid steps above. A hollow section has been cast, horizontally through the middle of the footing, allowing a glimpse through. This is expressive, indicating what the manufacturing process is and the small delicate margins explored within the inception of the detail. Focusing on the smooth ring-less finish and replication of the same component several times, casting would be the only option. A machine lathed manufacturing process, would be almost impossible to replicate, with the same level of consistency. Viewed from the side, Scarpa plays a game with the hollow section through the support, creating a seemingly delicate object, which is surely incapable of supporting the load above. However, Giuseppe Davanzo, a Scarpa collaborator, states that the brass supports “indeed do hold up the steps”8. On approach from the front of the staircase, a different illusion is created – suggesting a solid brass element. Unhidden, the brass support becomes a decorative motif, highlighting the structural piece 8.

Giuseppe Davanzo, Architect, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:35mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995


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Slender brass supports, complimenting the marble steps.

which bears weight from the step above. While these are hidden, the staircase seems to float. Scarpa engages in a work of art which finely balances beauty and physics; where the honesty of the tectonic element gives clues about each component’s significance or existence. To complete the story of the brass supports, Scarpa delicately separates them from the steps by integrating marginal shadow gaps, clearly articulating and splitting different component types.


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Notches cut out of vertical slabs of marble.

VERTICAL ELEMENTS: Elegant vertical modules of aurisina marble contain the sculptural staircase, stepping down from the huge blocks which support the mezzanine balconies to smaller decorative elements which complete the composure and balance of the design. A notch is cut out of a marble block, framing a detail which supports the balcony. It is replicated on the adjacent block – intriguing and hoping for reason. Scarpa’s intention was that when ascending the staircase the user’s eye is initially cast upon the first notch. Then a realisation of a second notch - a direct copy of the first - occurs on the next component. This creates a feeling of enlightenment for the customer, realising that this journey has led to an appreciation of a framed joint, emphasising the essential tectonic piece, connecting and bearing the mass of the mezzanine level above. Where the first tall element meets the horizontal step, a notch is carved out of the marble block, granting the step breathing space whilst becoming a mark of respect to the tread of the staircase. As well as mirroring the stepping movement of the staircase on a practical level, the marble blocks separate space. This creates a clear path through the showroom, presenting a choice to the public to either follow the room onwards, or glide up the staircase to the gallery space above. However, at the point of decision, Scarpa offers ingenious marble planes, lightly sitting on linear marble blocks. These turn into display shelves, presenting Olivetti typewriters to visiting customers. In this single design movement, Scarpa transforms the sculptural piece of art into a working display cabinet, enchanting the customers - each individual eager to take a typewriter away as form of souvenir. TECTONIC DESIGN OF THE OLIVETTI STAIRCASE

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Language of components and tectonics. Plaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011

CONCLUSION: Scarpa’s entire architectural ethos can be unravelled within a single joint. The intricate tectonic nature of the Olivetti staircase has led to an enlightened understanding of the morality placed on the architect to explore meaningful ways of construction, describing a narrative upon which a building is created. A language of sticks and stones – the tectonic solution of the Olivetti staircase is to separate each type of element into a series of components; read either as supports, planes or free standing objects. Through the use of a retrained material palate, supports are read using the materials of rough concrete and brass, with rare aurisina marble being selected for the decorative elements consisting of steps, planes and free-standing vertical blocks. The process of creating a plaster model through the careful extraction of Scarpa drawings was fundamental to the study of the Olivetti staircase. The formation of the model presented a chance to test theories of construction and thereafter to put these theories into practice. Once the final scale model was perfected, it became a thinking machine: an object to extract information from, whilst studying the finer details. Essentially a replication of Scarpa’s masterpiece, the model in conjunction with this paper can enable the reader to experience the details and thought processes of Carlo Scarpa first hand. Carlo Scarpa’s genius has only been lightly touched upon, but this paper covers, in depth, an element of that brilliance. Turning a TECTONIC DESIGN OF THE OLIVETTI STAIRCASE

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Olivetti staircase - Tectonic sculpture.

simple object for vertical circulation into a sculptural motif was a part of the great success of the design. Further expansion upon this notion turns the staircase a piece of innovative, unique furniture – displaying the impeccably designed Adriano Olivetti typewriters. The elegant cascade of steps and the “familiar tectonic disorder”9 placed upon the creation enables the heavy marble steps to take on a new character – a series of lightweight objects floating down the Venetian canals. This power to “liquefy materials”10 was unique and essentially due to Scarpa’s experience as a craftsman and the tectonic, playful visions as an architect. Elegant and organic, the genius of Scapa’s design sends the users on an enchanted journey of space and time, leading to a desire to create ones very own ‘piece of art’; the Olivetti staircase is a magnificent piece of architectural design, timeless and has evolved into a source of inspiration for generations of architects to come.

9. 10.

Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page xix, MIT press, 2007 Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page 5, MIT press, 2007


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BIBLIOGRAPHY: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Berthold Lubetkin, A Commentary on Western Architecture, 1975 Murray Grigor, Writer, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 12.43mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Francesco Zanon, Metal Worker, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 10:26 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Santini, Pier Carlo, GA: Carlo Scarpa, ADA Edita, 1979 Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page vii, MIT press, 2007 Giuseppe Davanzo, Architect, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:22 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Murray Grigor, Writer, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:10 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Giuseppe Davanzo, Architect, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, 13:35 mins, a VIZ production for Channel 4, 1995 Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page xix, MIT press, 2007 Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Page 5, MIT press, 2007


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IMAGES: a. b. c. d. e. f. g. h. i. j. k. l. m. n. o. p. q. r. s. t. Accessed - 10/02/2012 Accessed - 10/02/2012’s_ladder_(State_2).jpg Accessed - 15/02/2012 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Axonometric drawing, Fraser Davie, 2012 Accessed - 15/02/2012 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, “La crosera de piazza” di Carlo Scarpa, in “Zodiac”, 4, 1959, pp.128-129 Exploded axonometric drawing, Fraser Davie, 2012 Plaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Plaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Accessed - 15/02/2012 Accessed - 15/02/2012 Rendered image, Fraser Davie, 2012 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Accessed - 16/02/2012 Plaster model, Fraser Davie, 2011 Accessed - 10/02/2012


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Carlo Scarpa: The Tectonic Design of the Olivetti Staircase  

An intricate and detailed analysis of Carlo Scarpa's tectonic masterpiece: The Olivetti Staircase, Venice.

Carlo Scarpa: The Tectonic Design of the Olivetti Staircase  

An intricate and detailed analysis of Carlo Scarpa's tectonic masterpiece: The Olivetti Staircase, Venice.