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'The architecture degree will be the law degree of the 21st century': A conversation with Woodbury's Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter

So far this year in Building Type we’ve interviewed the outgoing heads of the architecture programs at UCLA (Hitoshi Abe) and USC (Qinyun Ma) and the incoming dean at USC (Milton Curry). This week 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.

Can you give me a basic sketch of the student body? Where do the students come from? How many are receiving aid?

Something like 80% are receiving aid in some form. But that aid comes in a lot of different forms — loans as well as aid. We are considered a Hispanic Serving Institution because over 25% of our student body is Hispanic. We draw a lot from our local community, which I think is one of our hallmarks. We also have a growing international population, generally on the other end of the economic spectrum. I like thinking about our campus as a sort of economic melting pot.

Is that something you’re addressing explicitly, in courses or elsewhere, that economic diversity, that gap between the wealthiest and least wealthy students?

You know, it’s difficult to talk about. But the real crisis of our age is economic inequality. And less and less we have places where people of different economic levels and different experiences can actually work together on a common pursuit. I take pride in the fact that our students are coming from all of those different places and levels. I think that’s something to celebrate. And I think there are students who really want that kind of experience and see the value of it.

There are times when I wish there were a little more activism. And yet I have also realized that students today, they’re raising families, and they’re supporting their parents, or they’re far from home and coming from places of conflict. They’re here very specifically seeking a professional degree, and they’re very focused on that. And I appreciate that. My generation, it was apartheid. It was UCs have to divest from oil. These students are facing very real problems in their own lives.

You mentioned in your discussion of ethics this notion of making sure that students are employable, that you’re concerned about how much debt they’re carrying and their ability to pay it down. How do you tend to that set of questions?

Our Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure initiative is a national initiative where the schools are working with licensing boards of the states. We’re one of something like 20 schools in the nation initiating this program. We launched it two years ago. The students are starting to work on their licensing hours while they’re students. The idea is that if they complete the program they can get licensed upon graduation, which makes them that much more marketable.

Do you think the relatively high number of local students shapes the conversation or the culture at the school?

I think it does. We’re very much about place. We’re the only architecture school in the San Fernando Valley. Our San Diego campus is located in Barrio Logan, sort of the new Echo Park in San Diego. You have a very strong Hispanic population there. Our faculty tend to pick projects that are very close to them, physically as well as in terms of ideas. So in San Diego they’re looking at contested border issues; we have faculty who live in Tijuana and cross the border every day. And very often students are working in studios on projects for their own communities. I think it does become part of the collective conversation.

How much traffic is there between the two campuses?

For the faculty a fair amount. For the students, less so. I do think the L.A.-San Diego conversation is unique to schools of architecture.

American architecture has been fixated for a long time on the northeast corridor, the Ivy League axis.

We’re looking south. It does seem that a lot of energy coming from south of the border is incredibly rich.

And what are graduates of Woodbury going on to do? How many are starting their own firms?

A lot of them start their own firms right away — a surprising number. We have alumni who are launching virtual-reality companies. Many go and work for the building department or L.A. City Hall. In our real-estate development program the majority go on to build the project that they completed in that program. So they act as developers very quickly.

The education of an architect opens up so many possibilities and doors. I have students who have gone on to design shoes, or do graphic design, or set design. Some are in fashion. Some are designing business plans.

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I think creative thinking, in a business sense, has incredible value. My colleague here, Ewan Branda, has said that the architecture degree will be the law degree of the 21st century. He’s basically saying that this degree will open doors in the way that the law degree did last century, in politics and elsewhere. I’d love to see an architect in the White House.

Well, we have a developer. Not quite the same! One thing I’ve noticed about Woodbury, the school is very much on people’s lips in L.A., and there’s a sense that the school is on the rise. But nationally your profile is not at all up there with SCI-Arc, USC or UCLA.

It’s true, and that’s an area where we can do better. But don’t forget, we’re the youngest school of architecture in LA. We were established in the mid-1980s.

After SCI-Arc, even.

Right. And the university itself is so old I don’t think we often think about that. [Woodbury was founded in 1884.] Our interior architecture program is 85 years old. But our architecture program is quite new. The graduate program is something that Norman and I started six, seven years ago. It’s still evolving. And one of the things I like most about Woodbury is that we’re constantly asking, as a faculty, well, what are we about?

More than other places you’ve been?

Absolutely. No question.

And what have the answers to that question been?

A couple of years ago we had just gone through accreditation, and we were designing really good buildings, and so we thought, we’re about buildings. And we were excited about that because no other school was really taking on the building.

Again, that will strike people outside the discipline as odd, but the same has arguably been true in architecture criticism over the last decade or so. It’s great that we’ve broadened the conversation to include urbanism and politics and climate change. But writing about the individual building might be the most effective way, still, to talk about how all those things are connected to architecture.

Yes. We have never lost sight of that in the way that other schools may have, schools that are pushing the territory of what building means, actually. I think here there’s more excitement about what a good building can do — just one good building. Where the conversation gets really rich is when we can expand that idea to include interior architecture as well.

The leadership positions at nearly all of the L.A. architecture schools and departments have turned over in just the last couple of years, with you, with Brett Steele and Heather Roberge at UCLA, Hernán Diaz Alonso at SCI-Arc and Milton Curry at USC. Are there ways in which you as new leaders have common interests or goals?

Each of us became deans for very different reasons. In my case for a very sad reason. And I have to say it’s taken some time to come to terms with that. That said, I think it’s an exciting new chapter. I think it’s part of the blossoming of the creative fields in Los Angeles. One of the beauties of having so many schools, because we’re all in competition with one another, is that I think it ups our game.

I agree about the blossoming of the creative fields in L.A. But one thing that’s changed is that maybe that applies less to architects than it did. On the whole it’s still a great city to be a musician or a writer or a painter in, but for architects it’s become difficult. It’s more expensive to build. Tougher to find clients willing for a range of reasons to take risks.

I look to my colleagues in San Diego, because I think that kind of work is still possible there, though I think that window is closing as well. I think it gets back to this notion of alternative practice, that there are different ways to practice architecture and it doesn’t always have to be a mainstream way or in a conventional office structure. And that makes sense for this generation, which is perhaps more entrepreneurial but also more willing to make adjustments. It’s not a singular mind-set. They’re willing to test out different paths.

Building Type is Christopher Hawthorne’s weekly column on architecture and cities. Look for future installments every Thursday at latimes.com/arts.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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