Following a three-plus-year sojourn in Copenhagen as senior project leader for international visitors at the Danish Architecture Center, Jen Masengarb, a familiar face and active voice within Chicago’s architectural community, will return to the Windy City as the newly-tapped executive director of the AIA Chicago. With over 4,000 members, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects is one of the largest in the United States. Masengarb, who was selected from a pool of over 175 applicants, will assume the executive director role during a period of transformative change for the association as it develops a new strategic plan to guide the chapter over the next several years.
Masengarb will succeed Zurich Esposito, who was abruptly dismissed by the chapter’s Board of Directors in August 2020 after serving as executive vice president for 14 years. In the months since Esposito’s firing, architect John Syvertsen, winner of AIA Chicago’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, has served as interim executive director. (AN will publish a follow-up article on Esposito’s exit in the coming weeks.)
Prior to her work with the Danish Architecture Center, Masengarb held leadership roles at the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation, for 18 years including, most recently, as director of interpretation and research (2013–2018). Before that, Masengarb served as senior manager of educational research (2010-2013) at CAC following a decade-long role as an education specialist, a position that found her authoring major publications and taking on curatorial responsibilities. Non-Chicagoans might know Masengarb from her role as reoccurring host of the Discovery Science Channel’s Impossible Engineering series from 2013-2018. She has also contributed to Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ’s Curious City podcast.
She holds dual Bachelors of Arts in Architecture and American History from the University of Detroit Mercy and a Master of Architectural History and Historic Preservation from the University of Virginia.
“I’m thrilled to join AIA Chicago and embark on a new journey with this important organization in a city so meaningful to both architecture and to me personally,” Masengarb said in a statement released by the AIA Chicago. “I believe that good leaders listen first and act second. One of my first tasks will be a listening tour to fully understand our membership’s diverse needs. That will be particularly important as we work together to develop our new strategic plan and identify ways to support members’ professional growth and development.”
In her role as executive director of AIA Chicago, Masengarb will marshal the chapter’s ongoing work on various membership initiatives, including those related to diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well as an lead the association as it places an increased focus on community outreach and “members providing an architect’s perspective to their work in the community and local government” according to AIA Chicago.
“Being an architectural ally for Chicago’s underserved communities, communicating effectively to the public about architecture, fostering connections with residents of all ages and backgrounds, and building and maintaining partnerships with other architectural organizations in the city will also be priorities under Masengarb,” explained the chapter in its announcement of Masengarb’s selection. The chapter will also “continue to take an aggressive stance regarding advocacy and promoting hope” under Masengarb’s leadership through, among other things, the climate change-related lobbying activities of chapter leaders and the involvement of many AIA Chicago members in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $750 million INVEST South/West community improvement scheme.
“The events of the past year have highlighted the profound impact that architecture has in shaping our everyday lives, the health of our communities and the health of our planet,” said Syvertsen. “Jen’s the right choice to lead AIA Chicago at this moment, not only because of her organizational and communication skills but because she can position our members to make a difference in our organization, our profession and our world.”