Zurich Esposito has plenty on his plate. The executive vice president of AIA Chicago has been helping plan the 2014 AIA National Convention for almost a year. The popular annual event will bring an expected 20,000 architects, product manufacturers, and policy makers to Chicago this summer, and there are tours to map, parties to plan, and, most importantly, a city to show off.
But Chicago isn’t a hard sell for Esposito, whose glassed-in office in the 1920s-era Jewelers Building overlooks the Chicago River. He grew up in Hinsdale, just outside the city, and now lives in a 100-year-old foursquare in the historic Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. He earned a masters degree in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, serves as board president of the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association, and helped oversee the latest edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago, which will be released this month by the University of Illinois Press.
As guest editor, Esposito helped us select six of Chicago’s most inspired work spaces—most of which received an AIA Chicago design award in 2013—for our cover story, “The City That Works.” In addition, he and I met up at the AIA office to discuss the ever controversial open office concept, the rise of the linear park, Chicago’s global reputation, and much more. —Timothy A. Schuler, Managing Editor
(Throughout this conversation are Esposito’s Editor’s Picks. Hover over the images to learn more. For more from Esposito, read his responses to the gb&d questionnaire.)
PART 1: NEW AND OPEN OFFICES
gb&d: You moved into your new space in the Jewelers Building shortly after you became executive vice president. Where was the old office?
Zurich Esposito: We had a really beautiful space in the Merchandise Mart. We had been there about fifteen years, and the board felt that it was time to make a spatial change for the organization. We had done a member survey and found that a very small percentage of our members were taking advantage of the space—coming to programs, having meetings, things like that. So we thought maybe a new space would make a difference, and it really has. One of the things we did was involve our members in the design of the space by holding a young architect competition.
gb&d: Right. I read about that. How do you feel the design has stood up?
Esposito: Oddly well. I can’t say I went into that process thinking it would be easy. I thought it would be much easier to engage a firm with whom we already had an existing relationship, and we had a lot of firms willing to donate their services to design the space for us. That to me seemed like a great route because there were really exceptional firms raising their hands. But our board felt it was really important to create an opportunity for emerging architects. So we did an international competition. We had a really distinguished jury, including Jeanne Gang and John Ronan, and selected a group of four young people, a few of whom were working for HOK at the time, so HOK was the architect of record.
gb&d: Was sustainability a consideration at the time?
Esposito: Yes. Not to distill it to whether or not the space is LEED certified, but as one measurement of sustainability, it was important to our board—I think they started out saying, “Make sure the space is LEED certifiable.” Then it was, “Make sure the space is LEED Silver.” And then they said, “The space has to be LEED Gold.” So of course it is. There’s the plaque (points).
gb&d: Are there workplace design trends you think are particularly interesting?
Esposito: What’s interesting is the dialogue about the pros and cons of an open office. That dialogue just continues. An open office fosters collaboration. It just does. As a staff, I think we learn a lot more from each other, whether it’s by overhearing each other’s conversations or by being able to easily chat with each other between assignments. There’s just a lot more interaction in this space than in our old space where we all had private offices.
gb&d: We just moved into an open office too. It’s been interesting. The debate has been embodied within our own staff. As you know, in our conversation with Angela Nahikian from Steelcase (p. 116), she mentions the increasing importance of a variety of spaces—open spaces and private enclosures. Especially as work becomes more mobile.
Esposito: What I hear from employers right now, especially in our industry, is that while there are a lot of individuals to hire, there aren’t a lot of great individuals to hire. So there’s a lot of competition for the best people. When you’re a group that maybe can’t pay top dollar, you don’t have to have a high-end environment, but it has to be a well-designed environment to impress potential employees.
PART 2: TWO HIDDEN TREASURES
gb&d: Do you have a favorite place in the city? A place that you really enjoy being in?
Esposito: There’s a park I like to show people. It’s Indian Boundary Park, I don’t know if you know where that is.
gb&d: Up in Rogers Park?
Esposito: Yeah. It’s mostly passive landscape, and by passive I mean there are no ball fields or courts of any kind—there are a couple tennis courts—but it’s mostly landscape, a lovely fieldhouse based on a residential model, and until recently there was even a small zoo. It really is an oasis in a charming neighborhood that most people would not happen upon in their own typical experience of Chicago.
gb&d: Do you remember the first time you came across it?
Esposito: I think probably around 1995—no, no, not that late. Probably around 1990. Shortly after graduating from college. And then later I was able to write the National Register nomination for it, so I got to know it a little more intimately.
gb&d: Did you ever spend time on the Bloomingdale Trail, or the 606, I guess, before they began construction?
Esposito: Yes, but really limited. That’s going to be an interesting development. It probably won’t have the impact of the High Line, but I do think it’s a great way of looking at space from a different perspective and creating wonderful experiences for the public in unexpected ways.
gb&d: Certainly. There are inevitably going to be comparisons [to the High Line], but they’re not necessarily worth making. There are linear parks sprouting up in almost every major city, and that’s only to be applauded—
Esposito: It is. And they did this in Paris a long time ago, so I was even a little surprised by the High Line’s…
Esposito: As if it’s so revolutionary. And yet the High Line is totally impressive. The economic impact it’s had in the development of the area adjacent to it is almost mind-boggling.
gb&d: I don’t remember who first told me about [the Bloomingdale Trail], but it was soon after we moved to Chicago. There were access points at Ashland and farther west that were pretty easy, and you could get up there and walk or run along it. But the closer it came to being totally open, they put up razor wire and all sorts of things, and it became really difficult [to access]. For the most part, I’ve been really excited by the plans I’ve seen, but I take the Blue Line to work every day, which passes right over it, and seeing it all torn up, there’s a certain sadness because it was very wild.
Esposito: Right, it was very natural. But then so was the High Line. What do you think of the name?
gb&d: The 606?
Esposito: I don’t get it.
gb&d: I thought the Bloomingdale Trail was a really charming name.
Esposito: I thought there had been enough recognition built up for that name. The 606? That could apply to anything.
PART 3: DEFINING CHICAGO
gb&d: I was struck by something Colin Dyer, the CEO of Jones Lang LaSalle, said in an interview with the Chicago Grid, [the Sun-Times’] business magazine. He said, “In some ways, Chicago’s got an unclear image from people who haven’t been here or worked here. New York’s the financial center of the US and arguably the world. Boston has a tremendous educational center, which grew into a tech center. San Francisco has technology and Silicon Valley. Houston has energy. Chicago needs that clarity.” Do you agree?
Esposito: I largely agree. For people who are familiar with Chicago or live in Chicago, I think our image seems fairly ingrained. I’d like to think Chicago is well known for architecture and design, but I think it’s really well known for architecture and design by people who have experienced the city. More can be done hopefully to align our image with that characteristic in the future.
gb&d: If you look at New York and Los Angeles as two extremes but also as two similar cities in terms of how overwhelming they can be, what Chicago does offer is attractive to the people who are not attracted to those types of places. But because of that, it’s almost a non-characteristic we’re looking for.
Esposito: That’s it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just hard to pinpoint what’s so great about [Chicago]. It’s just the phenomenon of being here. It’s very easy to be here.
gb&d: What about the AIA National Convention in June (26–28)? People are coming to Chicago—what’s something you hope they take away?
Esposito: Most people think of tall buildings when they think of Chicago. And that’s great. It’s an important architecture and engineering accomplishment and legacy that’s been created here. And the influence of firms from Chicago creating tall buildings in cities around the world is important and really outstanding. But in addition to showing that off, we want to make sure people come away knowing how vibrant and diverse our neighborhoods are, both in terms of who lives in them and how they look. As well as the other proficiencies and talents that exist in designing other building types. Hospitals and schools, for example. We have excellent design talent in those areas.
PART 4: A PROGRESSIVE AGENDA
gb&d: Something you’ve mentioned is that sustainability is still being led largely by individuals or groups of individuals within firms. Why do you think that is?
Esposito: The way architecture firms in the US are set up, there are sustainability leaders within them who sort of drive the best practices of sustainability and make sure, almost like auditors, that the best practices are being used to the best of its ability. Now, “the best of its ability” in many cases involves budget. So is energy modeling used for every project at Firm X? That’s really rare.
But we do now have firms that model all of their projects and can show that statistically those buildings tend to be better performing buildings after they’re built, but that is going to happen more widely when the market demands it or the government insists on it.
gb&d: Do you have a sense of which will come first?
Esposito: That’s a great question.
gb&d: Both are pushing certain areas.
Esposito: I think the government has been a lot more responsible—I guess I’m pleasantly surprised that in Chicago there are ordinances being put in place that don’t let people off the hook. Like I’ve said though, we’re not necessarily ahead of the game here in Chicago. Cities in the US are competing to be leaders in this field, and that’s a good thing. It’s sort of a mix of government imposition and market competition at the same time, almost civic competition. But it’s the United States. The market’s probably going to dictate it.
gb&d: I want to ask about women and minorities in architecture. Architecture is still seen as a pretty homogeneous profession. Where does the AIA get involved in promoting diversity?
Esposito: In a time when just as many women study architecture as men, we’re still seeing 5, 10, 15 years down the line in the profession the number of women shrinking, [which is] self-perpetuating because, let’s face it, we all feel intimidated when we’re the only one of our kind or in a minority, especially when that minority is not often at the top in a leadership position.
I think many women leave the profession simply because the demands of the profession have not historically accommodated anything other than a very demanding time schedule that makes any outside interest, whether it’s family or otherwise, challenging. But emerging generations definitely place a higher value on quality of life, and the profession is going to have to change—not the emerging professionals.
In terms of ethnic diversity, what the AIA is interested in doing is supporting architects of all kinds, including all ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences. Even in the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen more openness in the profession. It feels less conservative than it felt to me eight years ago.
gb&d: We recently featured the work of Juan Moreno, and I know he’s involved in an association of just Latino architects—
gb&d: Are there similar groups?
Esposito: Oh, sure. In fact, we partner with Arquitectos, Chicago Women in Architecture, INOMA, which is the association of African-American architects. This year we developed a scholarship with Arquitectos whereby an Arquitectos member will be selected to take our architect’s registration training class and receive a scholarship to pay for his or her licensing exams, which can be a real burden to anybody. We plan to approach each of those associations with the same opportunity.
PART 5: PRESERVATION AND POLITICS
gb&d: Your background is in preservation, right? Is that a major mission of AIA Chicago or just one of your personal interests?
Esposito: I do have a master’s degree in historic preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s one of many focus areas that AIA addresses, so we have a committee of preservation professionals but in the same way that we also have a committee for healthcare design professionals. So it’s certainly one of the areas, and it is a very active one and one that gets involved in advocacy.
For example, when Prentice Hospital was sort of in play, our historic resources committee recommended to our board of directors that AIA Chicago be supportive of preserving and advocating for the preservation of Prentice because Bertrand Goldberg was one of our distinguished members.
gb&d: Do you think architecture is, at its heart, political?
Esposito: Yes. Especially in Chicago. It’s hard to even separate politics, on a certain level, from architecture. In aldermanic wards, the alderman often has approval for any new major projects, and not all aldermen have an understanding of planning and design. We’d love for AIA Chicago to be more involved in working with aldermen to make sure they have the support and the information that would be useful. But often architecture does come down to political decision-making. For example, there’s a recent benchmarking ordinance requiring energy-use disclosure, I don’t know if you heard about it—
gb&d: I think you were mentioning it actually.
Esposito: AIA was actively involved in advocating for the passage of this ordinance, which will essentially require larger commercial and condominium buildings to report their energy use on an annual basis. This is not revolutionary. This is not leading the way. This is catching up to cities like New York, Boston, Austin, San Francisco.
What’s been holding it up here has been aldermen in fairly powerful wards who are reluctant to support an ordinance that’s going to be a burden of any kind or a responsibility to their constituents. It’s understandable from a political standpoint, but it is keeping bigger picture goals from being met. Luckily, it did pass, but not by a huge margin. How it shakes out has yet to be seen.
gb&d: The third edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago was just released. The last one was in 2004?
Esposito: Yes, also coincidentally the last time the AIA convention was in Chicago.
gb&d: Is that a coincidence? (Laughs)
Esposito: It’s a great time to introduce a new book because there’s a whole set of folks coming to Chicago who will buy it. In fact, they’ll be able to order it when they register. It’ll be available as an iBook as well.
gb&d: Did the process give you a sense of new building design in Chicago?
Esposito: That’s probably a question for [the editor], who was spectacular. She did her own drive-by of every building in the book. But what conclusions could I draw from the experience? That it’s an embarrassingly rich architectural environment.
gb&d: We’re spoiled.
Esposito: We are really spoiled. And the amount of information available about our architectural resources is pretty profound. You don’t include it all in the book, but it’s all out there. What’s included in the book is a great summary but really just the tip of the iceberg.
PART 6: FUTURE WORKSCAPES
gb&d: I always like to ask our guest editors when they first become aware of nature, like when you first had an experience in nature where you realized nature is powerful, nature is alive.
Esposito: Growing up I had sort of a manic interest in natural habitats. If I went anywhere or even in my own neighborhood, I was always finding places where I could find natural, undeveloped—what I was really in most of the time was a vacant lot, thinking it was a forest. But later, finding streams and ponds and really coveting that environment and experience, knowing early in my life that that was stimulating and exciting. The undesigned world. And learning over time how those two things are stitched together—hopefully with some balance.
I recently went to Hawaii, for example. When you live in cities, you tend to forget about the world outside urban environments, and you almost feel like—not that cities aren’t one of man’s great accomplishments. They really are. But at the same time, it’s easy to think that the world is developed. And overdeveloped. And in many ways, it is, but going to places that are much less developed than what we live in can be eye-opening and give you an understanding that we haven’t ruined the world yet. There’s still a lot more of it—not to ruin, but to leave alone.
gb&d: Do you think there is too much of a focus on urban environments when it comes to architecture and design and sustainability? If we’re going to try to understand where architecture and ecology meet, are we focusing too much on the city?
Esposito: I would say yes, probably because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s the place where the most change can be made quickly, starting with big buildings that impact the numbers substantially. But it would be a huge oversight to not look where more development is bound to take place and learn from places where people are living more sustainably.
gb&d: I’m sure you’ve heard all the statistics that say what percentage of the population lives in cities now—what is it, 40 percent?—but then they predict that by 2050 it’ll be 80 percent, just based on current trends. I always wonder if we’re really going to get there, or if we’ll begin to see people feeling so overwhelmed by megacities of that size. Because as people move to cities, they’re vacating somewhere else, and while my hometown in Kansas is maybe not attractive to a younger generation, there could be a change in the next forty years—
Esposito: I totally agree.
gb&d: Because everything is connected now. If you’re in a field where all you need is a space and Wi-Fi, you could move to a small town with some friends and start a family and have access to nature and still be as connected in. Maybe that’s actually a quality of life that people 20 years from now will love and seek.
Esposito: I think you’re absolutely right. I think the generations currently in the workforce are for the most part used to sacrificing quality of life for work. And I think that’s going to change. Younger generations like the one you’re in are recognizing that it’s not worth it, and I think it’s probably going to manifest itself it changes like what you described. People are going to live where they like living the most, and they’ll find ways of working and supporting themselves.