Prof. Pedrozzi & Prof. Kristoffersen: a word about the WISH project

Entrance of the mining site.
Entrance of the mining site.
Coal storage near the airport.
Coal storage near the airport.
Longyearbyen, Taubanesentralen
Longyearbyen, Taubanesentralen
The group discussing the project.
The group discussing the project.

International Relations and Study abroad Service

19 December 2021

The WISH project (Workshop on International Social Housing) is a design course of the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, conceived with the specific intention to face and investigate, through architectural design, the collective and social housing topic.

Every year, selected students from the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture and from a partner university get together to tackle the theme of collective accommodation. In 2021, the project took place in Longyearbyen, Norway, together with NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology).

A few hundred kilometers from the North Pole, the Svalbard archipelago is a land where the human footprint is limited to sporadic settlements, almost all concentrated along the coast of Isfjorden (the ice fjord). Longyearbyen, the capital of the islands, is in fact one of the cities in the world where the effects of climate change are most rapid.

The WISH studied the relationship between new possible housing models and the effects of climate change by investigating the difficult link between man and the environment.

We have asked arch. Martino Pedrozzi, adjunct professor at the Academy of Architecture and responsible for the WISH Workshop on International Social Housing, and Prof. Olav Kristoffersen from the Department of architecture and planning at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, to share with us their insights on this initiative.

Prof. Pedrozzi, the WISH has reached his 16th edition. Can you introduce us to the project and explain how WISH has evolved over the years?

WISH, Workshop on International Social Housing, is a course of the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio which investigates, through architectural design, the collective housing topic.

In the editions held so far, WISH has visited four continents and sixteen different countries: From the first experience in Tucumán, Argentina, in 2003, to the one just concluded in Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Islands (Norway), passing through Mexicali (Mexico), Nanjing (China), Johannesburg (South Africa), Tbilisi (Georgia), Amman (Jordan), Goris (Armenia), Ahmedabad (India), São Paulo (Brazil), Boston (USA), Quito (Ecuador), Tokyo (Japan), Lima (Peru), La Habana (Cuba), Bogotá (Colombia) and has involved 189 students from the Accademia and from the various universities that participated in the project. Each year an international group of students participates in this course that takes place during the summer months.

With a profound international vocation, the workshop tries every time to establish with local institutions a fruitful academic collaboration, moving by the consciousness that the architectural project cannot represent just an intellectual exercise isolated from the concreteness of a real context.

The workshop is an opportunity for students to understand more vividly the complexity of a reality often so distant from the one in which we live, and the plurality of possible solutions inherent in interpreting the theme of living.

Prof. Kristoffersen, can you introduce yourself and explain how you got in touch with the Academy of Architecture of Mendrisio?

Martino Pedrozzi contacted NTNU in early 2020 about the WISH summer school. He suggested project sites on the arctic island of Svalbard. Since I am heading the architecture education I was the first to receive his request. I am also a founding director of Brendeland & Kristoffersen and know Svalbard quite well from a project we built there in 2008. I already had a very favourable impression of the Accademia from a previous visit to the Grafton studio in 2017. I really appreciated the academic approach, ambition, and purpose of WISH and it was an easy decision to join in.

Prof. Pedrozzi, what is so special about the Svalbard islands to choose them as a WISH destination?

WISH has started with the Svalbard a new approach, focusing in a cycle of 3 editions on a specific theme of great impact: the first field of research is dedicated to climate change and its inevitable dramatic repercussions on human settlements.

The Arctic region is the emblem of change: a reality dramatically evident from the sequence of satellite photos that inexorably describe the thinning of the perennial ice and its disappearance. Therefore ​this region is facing a period of profound change, with the climate being perhaps the most striking aspect, but certainly not the only one.

A few hundred kilometers from the North Pole, the Svalbard archipelago is a land where the human footprint is limited: nevertheless, it represents one of the most extreme and intriguing cases to take into account.

Longyearbyen, the biggest and de facto only relevant inhabited settlement, is one of the cities in the world where the effects of climate change are most rapid and evident and provides a condensation of the evolutions and contradictions that have crossed and continue to cross the Arctic region.

Prof. Kristoffersen, did you have any difficulties in organizing the WISH project?

We quickly found a way to provide our students with NTNU study points that could be converted into sufficient funding. However, there was a challenge to have enough capacity to plan and contribute to the teaching as the Norwegian summer vacation coincided with WISH, and Norwegian spring and autumn terms are shifted a month or so earlier than the Swiss terms. Last, but not least: the pandemic forced us to postpone the summer school for a whole year, and still we barely managed to get all students vaccinated in time to travel to Switzerland and then to Svalbard.

Furthermore, how do you evaluate such an experience both for the students and for the cooperation between institutions?

I consider WISH to be immensely important for the students who participated. The focused emphasis on landscape and territory, on clear architectural ideas, and on architectural drawing contributes to core competencies in their training. The academic level and seriousness of the teaching is a formative experience. Also, the fact that students got to know each other and got into contact with a different academic setting is an important value in itself. The participation in WISH led to an exchange agreement between the Accademia and NTNU. For me as an educator, it has been a very inspiring experience to collaborate with eminent staff at the Accademia.

To conclude: prof. Pedrozzi, what did the students learn from this experience?

WISH studied the relationship between possible new housing models and the effects of climate change, investigating, through design, the difficult link between man and the environment.

The dialogue with the existing, together with the ambition to draw a new urban vision, where the social development of the city is in resonance with the landscape and the territory of which it aspires to become the guardian (and no longer the expression of its exploitation), were the main guidelines to draw a possible future for Longyearbyen. The study of the new conditions of the terrain, dictated by the greater instability of the permafrost, and the recovery and relocation of dwellings in areas subject to avalanches represented a further theme, together with research into the very nature of the infrastructural system for supplying energy and heating, which today constitutes one of the most striking contradictions of the city, projected into an increasingly green future and at the same time obliged to sustain itself energetically with locally mined coal.

This is the indispensable mix necessary to fully reflect on urban and architectural design, neither tying to a preconceived style nor relying tout court on technology as the answer to every possible problem.

More information about the WISH project: