The UK’s top practices play a critical role in the life of the architectural profession and wider economy. Who runs them when their founders move on really does matter, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

Tom Lowe wrote an interesting and important piece recently about succession planning in UK practices. However, for me, failed to touch at the heart of the issue- that it really matters what happens to the UK’s big practices. Like it or not they have shaped UK practice and the direction of the UK profession. Their future will affect ours.

It was only fairly recently that architects have had to start thinking about succession planning in earnest. Until the late 1930s the model of practice in the UK centred around the small private practitioner. Even in practices where a younger partner ‘bought in’ the retirement of an older partner would likely not have caused much consternation; regular clients would have been aware of the rising junior partner. A practice of hundreds of architects bearing the name of just one or two founders was unheard of. The scale and complexity of modern architectural practice is unknown in history- we are in uncharted territory, and therefore liable to make mistakes.

Future of the Profession

We are also in a relatively new world of commerciality. Until just a few decades ago the RIBA would have been horrified at the idea that an architect would work under a structure of anything but a full traditional partnership. Indeed, as late as the 1950s architects were forbidden from becoming directors of building companies and there was significant debate about the use of trade names, with the RIBA strongly recommending that the standing of the profession would be significantly reduced were architects to operate under trade names rather than the names of the principles of the practice.

The UK’s brief flirtation with publicly funded architects in the 1950s and 60s ushered in a new era for architects and broke the ‘gentleman behind his brass plaque’ mould. We saw the first instances of really large ‘architectural practices’ under public patronage, usually under the umbrella of local authorities. However, this experiment with public practice was dying a death by the early 1970s and barely any public architects survived the deregulatory and anti-monopoly policies of the 1980s governments.

Zaha Hadid’s untimely death caused a very dramatic debate

In 1989 nearly 40% of architectural practices were Partnerships; in 2009 just 9% were. Limited Liability Companies, Limited Liability Partnerships and Employee Owned models have all become increasingly popular structures; moving architectural practice, in common with all the traditional ‘professions’, away from a ‘gentlemanly’ pursuit and towards a commercially viable business. Denise Bennetts has written in Alan Jones’ ‘Defining Contemporary Professionalism’ of Bennetts Associates’ decision to transition from a partnership to a LLC in 1992- having learnt ‘the hard way’ what the financial risks of partnership structure involved, and their vulnerability to other people’s failure.

This increasing flexibility of company structure, combined with years of growing economies and increasing global appetite for large and complex capital projects, has made the growth of architectural practices to a size unknown in history entirely plausible and commercially viable. Put simply I think it is unlikely we would have practices the size of Foster and Partners, BDP or AHMM if the partners were fully liable – no one would take that risk on the competency of employees they were barely aware they employed.

The big name practices of today’s UK architectural scene were all founded in the region of thirty to forty years ago into the fertile atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have triumphed through multiple recessions and have grown to casts of hundreds. The vast majority of them have living founders between the ages of sixty and eighty. Most are either mid succession or have technically already ushered out their named founding partners. I would think it highly improbable that succession planning is not a key and constant consideration of the managing partners or directors of any of them.

This isn’t just architectural gossip though, this is a high stakes game

Already we have seen the first experiments in succession - some look like they may be successful, others less so. Some have been relatively smooth, others fraught with tension and controversy. Zaha Hadid’s untimely death caused a very dramatic debate over the future of Zaha Hadid Architects and Robert Adam spoke recently about the turmoil of his own retirement. No doubt there will be multiple stories in the months and years to come.

This isn’t just architectural gossip though, this is a high stakes game. It is not just the livelihood of thousands of UK architects, mine included, that depend on this; but the future of the UK architectural sector. Like it or not these large firms have defined UK architectural culture, reputation and success- domestically and globally. They have literally shaped the streets we walk down and redefined what nations look for in a ‘good’ airport, housing project, stadium or art gallery.

Some in the profession may say it is time for change, and they may be right. However, it is not as simple as replacing one culture or set of names with new ones; the pre-eminence of the UK’s big architectural names was hard won, and in very different economic and regulatory environments to the one we exist in now.

It is not simply market monopolies or entrenched prejudices that are preventing the stratospheric growth of new UK practices; the broader market and accompanying legislation for procuring architectural services is more risk averse than it was in the past. The market is not looking for new ideas, it wants safe established ones with a ‘proven track record’. It is an illogical and short sighted setup that displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what architects do… but that is another column for another day.

Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, if these big practices fail at succession planning we will all lose.