Fallout from firing AIA Chicago Executive Vice President Zurich Esposito points to wider crisis of professional culture

Generational Lines In The Sand

Fallout from firing AIA Chicago Executive Vice President Zurich Esposito points to wider crisis of professional culture

(stephan cassara/Unsplash)

When the Board of Directors of AIA Chicago fired long-time Executive Vice President Zurich Esposito in August, it surprised many in the city’s architecture community, for whom Esposito had been a successful and effective chapter leader. Esposito’s abrupt dismissal left many questions in its wake, foremost among them what motivated the board’s decision. Some answers are only coming to light now, after the board hosted a September 25 call with AIA members. The fallout from the meeting has exposed a wider split within the membership along generational lines, pitting differing conceptions of workplace culture and ethical practice against one another.

According to several people on the call, leadership explained that its decision to terminate Esposito was based on dozens of complaints of harassment, discrimination, and bullying directed at staff over a 10-year period, and on the results of a subsequent investigation. The AIA Chicago Board of Directors confirmed to AN that the following statement—which divulges no details but alludes to the existence of workplace complaints—was presented to members on Sep. 25 :

“The board is required by Illinois law and the chapter’s handbook to maintain certain information as confidential. While we can’t disclose all the details, we can say that the board received complaints from numerous current and former employees, and investigated those complaints promptly as required by the chapter’s employee handbook. After the investigation was complete, the full board of directors determined that board responsibilities and chapter policies will be updated and improved, and also determined that improvements must also be made in the workplace. Mr. Esposito refused to acknowledge that any improvements were necessary to create an equitable and inclusive workplace. Based on the review of the investigation reports and Mr. Esposito’s conduct during and after the investigation, the full board of directors took a vote of no confidence in Mr. Esposito, which passed with an overwhelming majority.”

Nancy Temple, Esposito’s lawyer, contends that the allegations “were fabricated as a pretext to fire Zurich.” According to Temple, an investigator retained by the board told her and her client “that the allegations were unfounded.” She said she is not planning any legal action at the moment and hopes the situation can be resolved amicably. Temple also said that the real reason for Esposito’s termination is part of an “ongoing investigation,” and that she had not seen any details of the board’s probe.

Architect Carol Ross Barney was on the Sept. 25 call. A long-standing member of AIA Chicago, Ross Barney told AN that in her estimation, “Zurich Esposito is the best [Executive Vice President] we’ve ever had.” Some of the more well-established, high-profile chapter members share a high opinion of Esposito. In late August, this group signaled their support for him via a petition urging that his “role in our community should be restored.”

There is wide agreement among the membership that Esposito has been an effective representative of Chicago architects. Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design, who spoke in support of the board’s decision on Sep. 25, said Esposito’s firing “doesn’t mean there hasn’t been great work done by Zurich, which there absolutely has, but in the end, you have a board that said they’re dealing with dozens of complaints from unique individuals that could go a variety of different legal pathways. I don’t know how any firm could tell me how they could assume that risk and keep that employee hired.”

But Esposito’s success as Executive Vice President is beside the point, said Ann Lui of Future Firm, who was on the member call as well. “One thing that’s important for me is not framing the conversation about whether or not we like Zurich, but whether or not we believe that people who work with us as architects have the right to a fair and humane workplace,” she said. The relevant question, she clarified, is: “Do I believe that staff who work for the organization I’m part of deserve to work free of harassment, bullying, and discrimination?”

Out of privacy and confidentiality concerns for staff and others, the board did not disclose details of any allegations. “It’s a head-scratcher if you’re not at the board table,” said Ross Barney. She’s known the AIA Chicago staff for decades, she said, and “there’s never been any indication that there was any strife in the workplace.”

While many on the membership call spoke about the need for transparency, “for me what’s important is the right to privacy of the staff,” Lui said. This is complicated by the fact that AIA Chicago is a small organization, with only six staff members (not counting the Executive Vice President) listed on its website. Releasing details of complaints could indicate who made them.

Lui said she was most disappointed that through the course of the conclave, only one other member—Darnstadt—spoke up explicitly for staff. “Many people spoke about how Zurich had served them personally without noting that the staff had not been served personally by Zurich,” said Lui.

For her part, Darnstadt read the following statement in support of AIA Chicago staff at the meeting: “The same way your designs are not made by one firm leader, the diversity that our chapter celebrates now is not solely because of Mr. Esposito, it is because of the staff who create and run the programs, author the magazine, elevate these voices, a volunteer board that we elect and you can run for, and members who push our industry forward.”

Lui points squarely to a failure to align with the board’s professional values as the reason for Esposito’s dismissal. “The [Executive Vice President’s] role is to work collaboratively with the staff on behalf of the membership,” she said, “and consequently, if the board is bringing to the [Executive Vice President] values that are organized around inclusion and equity, and a fair workplace, and the [Executive Vice President] can’t get on board with that, I don’t understand how there could be a relationship going forward.”

Here, Lui echoed the sentiments of John Syvertsen, an architect who succeeded Esposito as AIA Chicago Interim Executive Vice President. Syvertsen told Crain’s Chicago Business, “There’s no question in my mind Zurich’s dismissal was the inescapable duty of the board.” Syvertsen declined to comment for this article.

The recipient of AIA Chicago’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, Syvertsen is widely admired by the younger generation of designers that have backed the board’s decision, as well as the older set that has been insistent about reinstating Esposito. Some senior-ranking members have explicitly cast the conflict in generational terms, saying that the relative youth of the current AIA Chicago Board has made it an unrepresentative body. As reported by Crain’s, petition-signer Margaret McCurry wrote to members: “Those of us over 40 are not represented and that is at least half of the total membership. There are instances where older FAIA members and firm partners have expressed an interest in joining the board and have been rebuked. This is an insidious pattern that has culminated in a board that has overreached its authority, acted unethically, and brought shame on the chapter.”

On the Sept. 25 membership call, 149 members rebuffed the board with a vote to have it reconsider their decision to dismiss Esposito. The vote failed, with 104 ultimately siding with the board to oppose the measure and 57 abstaining. A majority was required to force the board to reconsider.

Considering that AIA Chicago has nearly 4,000 members, a relatively small percentage of the membership pressed the board to reevaluate its actions. “There’s no majority of membership pushing for this,” said Darnstadt. “It’s a majority of a very privileged group of members who can take two hours out of their day and pay their own lawyers to look at stuff and have these arguments.”

Even so, the way this conflict transpired has signaled a wider crisis of professional culture for Lui. “I felt completely alienated by the organization,” she said about the membership call. “At this moment, of all times, with everything going on in the world, that the thing they want to organize around is defending somebody who was active in a discriminatory, bullying, and un-collaborative way—it doesn’t matter who leads. There needs to be a change in the values overall.”

With Esposito’s dismissal, Darnstadt said she saw parallels to the ways that architecture firm culture often brushes away claims of toxicity and abuse by insisting that the creative output of visionary leaders could excuse such allegations, or is more important than them. “Somebody yelled at someone, or maybe talked down to them, or was sexist, or discriminatory—but look at that building! Who cares? There’s probably a lot of firms that have similar issues, and it’s [deemed] OK because we like their buildings. That’s still an ongoing discussion in our industry.”