A rebellion is brewing in Chicago’s architecture community. On August 13, AIA Chicago, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, announced that 55-year-old Zurich Esposito, its accomplished and charismatic executive vice president for the last 14 years, was out. When asked for an explanation, Chapter President April Hughes replied, “Out of respect for all parties, additional details will not be shared."

The reaction from Chicago architects has been swift and strong, and a group led by Mark Schmieding of Goettsch Partners is seeking Esposito’s reinstatement. Its online petition declares "Zurich is like our statesman, building bridges with various government agencies and civic groups and dramatically raising the organization’s visibility and stature. The board's abrupt removal of Zurich demonstrates questionable and inexperienced behavior. Those actions not only failed Zurich, an invaluable advocate for all of us, but they failed the entire design community as well.” The growing list of signatories, which approached 300 after just two days, includes local luminaries Carol Ross Barney, Margaret McCurry, and John Vinci, along with younger voices like Vladimir Radutny, who was featured in RECORD’s Design Vanguard this year.

AIA Chicago is headquartered in the Jewelers' Building at 35 East Wacker in Chicago. Photo © Alvesgaspar

Esposito is not an architect, but in 2018 the AIA made him an honorary member, citing his expansion of membership, development of multi-faceted programs, resurrection of the formerly moribund AIA Chicago Foundation, and establishment of a new headquarters designed via an international competition. He also helped create Chicago Architect magazine and led the Tiny Homes Competition to benefit homeless young adults. He serves as a director of the Mies van der Rohe Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology and as a design council member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Tireless in his advocacy and commitment,” reads the AIA citation, “Esposito is a fitting ambassador for Chicago’s distinguished architecture community.” 

No one outside the AIA board seems to know what happened, and they’re not talking. But the architecture community has been steadfast and vocal in defense of Esposito. “He was a most effective administrator and a dedicated leader,” McCurry, a former vice president of AIA Chicago, tells RECORD. “Zurich made our small office feel big within the more well-established design community,” recalls Radutny. “He occasionally reached out just to check in and see how we were doing.” HOK’s Peter Ruggiero says that “Zurich understood what I refer to as the ‘Citizen Architect.’ He explored avenues for local professionals to be more engaged in the civic arena and made the AIA part of the urban conversation.”

“He brought the chapter to the table for many important city discussions,” explains Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center—formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where Esposito served as director of programs and vice president of development for 10 years prior to his AIA job. “Zurich did excellent work. Why he was let go is absolutely mystifying,” Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin tells RECORD. “The AIA’s lack of transparency in this case is deeply disappointing.” (For the Chicago Tribune, Kamin has also reported that John Syvertsen will serve as interim executive vice president.)

“I’m humbled by the overwhelming support of the Chicago design community I’ve served for the past 14 years,” said Esposito in a written statement. He declined to comment further.