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AIA exec Zurich Esposito living out childhood dream
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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For Zurich Esposito, the road to executive vice president of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects ( AIA ), started in the 1970s in west suburban Hinsdale.

Esposito was born in Mexico, yet grew up in and around Chicago, so he admittedly was very aware of architecture. And as a child, he befriended an eclectic Hinsdale business owner who specialized in African art, which was "super-exotic" at the time, he said.

Lavinia Tackberry hired Esposito to look after and wash her dogs—a pair of giant, misbehaving standard poodles—so Esposito spent considerable amounts of time in her home, which was the former home and studio of noted architect Harold Zook.

"It was a rambling storybook cottage with a thatch-style shingled roof, but she filled the place with modern art, zebra skins, and Barcelona chairs. I was seduced," Esposito said. "My first real job as a high school student was delivery boy for a prominent interior design group run by the late Ellen Marks in Hinsdale, where I was exposed to more design. I'm still friends with Ellen's husband, Robert, who presided over Harrington Institute for many years. I'm lucky that these individuals generously shared their knowledge and time with me at a young age.

"Later in life, I studied architectural history and earned a graduate degree in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago."

Now 50, the openly gay Esposito—whose partner is Brian McCormick, an eighth-grade teacher for Chicago Public Schools—has been with AIA Chicago for more than eight years. The Chicago chapter has more than 3,500 members, and is a leading professional association for design professionals.

Esposito also serves as publication director for Chicago Architect magazine.

"Chicago is the epicenter of architecture, [so] my job is always changing and always fresh," he said. "Before graduate school, I worked in a more conservative business and financial environment. After learning a lot and saving some money, I traded it all in for something I liked better.

"I'm fortunate to work at the center of the country's leading architecture and design community, and AIA Chicago serves the architecture community in several ways. We offer continuing education programs to architecture pros to help satisfy their requirement to be continuously educated throughout their careers; we publish a magazine, 'Chicago Architect,' that helps to promote their work and share best practices; and the AIA lobbies on behalf of design professionals at all levels of government."

Esposito's work involves collaborating with a professional staff, as well as with legions of architects who serve as volunteer leaders of the organization. "Right now, for example, we're developing a design competition for affordable housing alternatives for 18- to 25-year-olds," he said. "This project enables me to work with individuals working at organizations and agencies I'd rarely have the opportunity to work with otherwise. Fostering the success of emerging architecture pros is also a priority at AIA. Before you can call yourself an architect, you have to pass a multi-part licensing exam. We developed an effective and successful online test preparation course that has just been made the national standard and adopted into national distribution."

Esposito acknowledged that diversity in his industry, like in almost all others, is a hot topic. "While there are a lot of gay and lesbian architecture pros in Chicago, alternative sexual identity has not been a particularly noticeable aspect [of] the industry culture," he said. "As a gay person, I've always felt comfortable and welcome in Chicago's architecture community. And in the time I've been employed by AIA, I've watched the comfort level of gays and lesbians in the field increase. The profession has historically been regarded as one run by 'old white guys.' One could easily add 'straight' to that characterization.

"But, like others, our profession is changing and becoming more representative of general population. Graduating architecture students making up the profession today are, as a group, much more diverse than in the past. I'm a member of the national AIA Diversity Council, a group of AIA members from around the country focused achieving and recognizing diversity of all kinds in the architecture profession so everyone entering the profession feels welcome and will want to stay in the profession."

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