Projects

Skyway Monte Bianco

Stairway to heaven

The new Mont Blanc cable car complex was a major technological and architectural undertaking in which latest-generation extra-thick porcelain tiles played an important role.
Author
Mariano Amato
Photos
Daniele Domenicali
Architect
Carlo Cillara Rossi
Surfaces
COTTO D'ESTE
Year of completion
2015

“With a word she can get what she came for… and she’s buying a stairway to heaven” were the legendary words sung by Robert Plant to the notes of the equally famous guitar arpeggio played by Jimmy Page. The protagonist was a mystical woman who had nothing to do with technology. And yet it was technology coupled with an audacious vision that created Mont Blanc’s “Stairway to Heaven”, otherwise known as the Skyway, which ascends from Courmayeur up to an altitude of 3,466 metres in a natural paradise that was once accessible only to those who earned it with hard work and dedication.
Suffice it to think that Jean-Laurent Jordaney and Jacques Balmat, the first explorers to conquer Mont Blanc back in 1786, spent two years in the attempt. Although the Skyway stops short of the summit (going that far would be a sacrilege), it takes visitors less than twenty minutes to reach one of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes, cocooned inside a futuristic heated and panoramic cabin which revolves during the climb to enable all occupants to enjoy the natural scenery.
Lovers of the “magic mountain” can admire the romantic black and white photos published on the website montebianco.com. But even for those who are less passionate about the mountains, these images demonstrate how modern technology can make these places accessible to everyone and how important it is to respect them and appreciate the ethical and physical constraints behind these endeavours.
The designer of the new complex, Genoese architect Carlo Cillara Rossi – a ski instructor and keen climber – has embraced these values with the declared intention “not to limit ourselves to the technical aspect of the work, but to nurture a cultural appreciation of the mountains through environmentally sustainable infrastructure”.
The complex consists of two cable car sections and three stations with distinctive architectural forms and functions. The base station (at an altitude of 1300 metres) is the monumental Pontal d’Entrèves, where the car parks, offices, ticket offices, bar, infirmary and technical rooms are located. The midway station, the Pavillon du Mont Fréty at an elevation of 2173 metres, hosts two restaurants, a bar, a function room, a small shopping centre and a winery. Outside there is a high-altitude botanical garden. And finally the Punta Helbronner terminus stands at an altitude of 3466 metres, hosting an exhibition of rock crystals, a restaurant, a bar, multimedia information points and above all a circular panoramic terrace offering a 360° view of the legendary 4,000 metre summits of the Western Alps: Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, Matterhorn, Gran Paradiso and Grand Combin.
Naturally, the architect devoted the utmost attention to the choice of construction materials. Concrete was used for the foundations and steel for the superstructures, consisting largely of latticework of astonishing lightness and visual impact. High-performance glass was also adopted extensively for the large glazed surfaces. But another important decision concerned the choice of floor coverings in all three Skyway stations (more than 4,500 square metres of communal, transit and service spaces), the architect opting for extra-thick 14 mm porcelain tiles from the Buxy Flammé Cendre collection produced by Cotto d’Este. Installed in a mixture of various sizes, the tiles were selected not just for their exceptional resistance to foot traffic, wear and surface stresses typical of these kinds of applications, but also for their frost resistance, slip resistance and ease of cleaning. At the same time their exceptional aesthetic qualities made a big contribution to the appeal of this unique project.

Tiles
Cotto d'Este, Buxy Flammé Cendre Nat. Rett.
Type
porcelain stoneware
Sizes
Multisizes / th. 14 mm
Colours
Cendre Nat. Rett.
Technical characteristics
Water absorpion (ISO 10545-3): <_ 0,1%
Chemical resistance (ISO 10545-13): ULA-UHA6
Resistance to deep abrasion (ISO 10545-6): conforme
Stain resistance (ISO 10545-14): conforme
Frost resistance (ISO 10545-12): conforme
Modulus of rupture and breaking strength (ISO 10545-4): >510 kg/cm2 (>50 N/mm2)
Slip resistance (DIN 51130): R12 - CLASSE C
Thermal shock resistance (ISO 10545-9): conforme
Crazing resistance (ISO 10545-11): conforme
Linear thermal expansion (ISO 10545-8): conforme
Certifications and awards
LEED
EMAS
ISO 14001
NF UPEC
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