We sit down with Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, an architect who was named dean of the School of Architecture at Woodbury University earlier this year. What follows has been edited and condensed.


As dean you’ve succeeded Norman Millar, who died last year. How would you describe his legacy?

Norman and I worked very closely together for 13 years. Norman was really looking for multiple ways in which ethics could participate in the architectural conversation. There’s a financial and ethical component to that, making sure that our students are hireable. Then there are the larger conversations that are taking place in terms of sustainable practice, in terms of diversity and equity, in terms of inclusion, in terms of natural resources, border issues — these are all what I would call the ethical dimension that we try to tackle. Above all else Norman wanted this ethical conversation to be part of the core values of the School of Architecture.

Most people outside of the architecture world might assume that ethics is a central part of the education. In fact it really hasn’t been.

I started teaching at Cornell, then taught at Yale for five years. I taught at the Bartlett [in London]. I taught at SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture]. I’m a UCLA graduate. And I had never had this conversation before. That’s not to say my colleagues weren’t interested in it. Of course they were. But it was never a conversation about how could we teach ethics in the classroom.

Why do you think that is?

Very rarely does ethics become, for example, a selling point for a client, or a selling point when you’re talking about a studio project. Maybe selling point isn’t the right phrase. It’s very rarely the idea generator. I think most practitioners traditionally came from a comfortable or upper-middle-class [background]. It’s the Jeffersonian ideal: the gentleman designer. Architects in this country tend to have clients who are in the upper income level. And I think that has really been a problem. Our students, many of them, come from underserved communities.

Where do you hope to take the school? What are your priorities?

One of the things I’ve been focusing on over the last 10 years is our institutes. Our civic engagement institute started as Architecture and Civic Engagement. It was incubated in the school of architecture. Now the rest of the university is seeing this conversation as something they want to participate in, and it’s called the Agency for Civic Engagement, with Jeanine Centuori as director. The Julius Shulman Institute [on architectural photography] is another, with Barbara Bestor as the executive director. My hope is that as a supporter, as a rainmaker, as a resource hunter, that I can help build and make even more powerful some of these programs.