Here is Richard Rogers, flanked by his heirs apparent: Ivan Harbour, on the right, and Graham Stirk. But when will the great man go? What will his successors do when he does? And in the meantime, can they stop Marco Goldschmied’s legal actions taking away their offices? Martin Spring investigates …

Lord Rogers of Riverside, and the practice he founded 29 years ago, have become as much landmarks of the British architecture scene as the buildings they designed. But not, it seems, for much longer. The 73-year-old baron has named his heirs in preparation for his retirement, and soon after he leaves, his name will go, too. What is rather more unexpected is that the 140-strong practice could suddenly find itself homeless as the result of rising rents and legal action launched by a former director.

The new men are Graham Stirk, 49, and Ivan Harbour, 44. Both have worked for Rogers since they graduated, and Harbour has just won the Stirling prize for the Barajas airport terminal in Madrid. Their importance to the future of the practice is reflected by its first ever change of name: Richard Rogers Partnership (RRP) is to be replaced by Rogers Stirk Harbour Partnership, to be ratified next week. It is the first step towards an even more momentous change. Rogers’ name will be dropped completely within two years of his retirement, as is required by the practice’s constitution.

At present, Rogers continues in his formal role as practice chairman – effectively, the grand orchestrator of RRP’s many schemes. The big question is when he will actually step down. Rogers says: “Within the practice constitution, every year I have to stand in front of the board and they have to vote me in for another year. And one day, they’re going to say: ‘Now you’re too old, my dear.’”

Rogers’ departure is highly unlikely before next November, when a grand retrospective exhibition of the practice’s work will be held at the Pompidou Centre, built to Renzo Piano & Rogers’ design and completed in 1976.

Meanwhile, the firm is caught up in a legal action launched by Marco Goldschmied, a former managing director of RRP and past president of the RIBA. Goldschmied has made a £10m civil court claim against the owners of the riverside site in Hammersmith that includes the practice’s offices. The site was developed, and is still partly owned, by the practice’s founding partners, Rogers, John Young and Goldschmied himself.

Although Goldschmied is widely regarded as pursuing a vendetta against his former practice, he insists that there is no action between them. “I’m not in any way pursuing RRP, as I have a continuing financial interest in the firm [he won’t be finally bought out until 2008], and in no way is there any connection with the current succession.” The legal action is an attempt to realise the escalating value of the site, perhaps by selling it on for redevelopment. This would threaten the practice’s eight-storey office building, and in the short term would raise its rent.

Goldschmied dismisses the possible rent rise as “no big deal”. He says: “RRP is the most profitable architectural practice in the UK. The rent we are paying is about 9% of the directors’ salaries and bonuses, so if the rent went up by 10%, this would only amount to 1% of directors’ salaries and bonuses.”

RRP’s directors declined to comment on the writ, but about the impact on the practice Stirk said: “Even if we got chucked out, we’d find somewhere else. It’s no doomsday scenario.”

It was Goldschmied’s resignation from the firm and the retirement of Young, both of which occurred in 2004, that prompted the current succession plans. “At the time, I had no idea that Rogers was lining up Graham and Ivan as successors,” says Goldschmied.

I’m not in any way pursuing RRP, as I have a continuing financial interest in the firm, and in no way is there any connection with the current succession

Marco Goldschmied

The practice’s other founding member, Mike Davies, 64, has been asked to go part-time, although he says: “I don’t believe that you should stop doing what you like doing.” He adds: “It’s rational for the office to pass to a younger generation. I have agreed to overlap with Graham and Ivan, as they need time to get their names circulated round the clients.”

The terms “handover” and “succession” are frowned on by Rogers. “In a sense, it’s both change and continuation,” he says. “And that’s based on the fact that I asked these two individuals, who are the lead designers of the younger generation in the office, to join me in the name of the company. It’s not a revolution: it’s a subtle change, but it’s an important change.”

Stirk picks up the story. “As the practice has a collegiate structure, open discussions about the succession have been going on for two years. During that period we went through many scenarios from a single name [rumoured to have been Harbour] to five names, and this is what we ended up with.”

Stirk and Harbour certainly have different characters, although these come across as complementary. Slight and softly spoken, Stirk is introspective and has a penchant for philosophising. Harbour is taller, with auburn hair and beard, and tends to come across as the more bluff character.

In their different ways, both are fully imbued with the social democratic ethos of RRP. This entails encouraging staff to swap design ideas between projects, bringing in younger staff at the conceptual level, tackling a wide range of projects in type and size, and questioning accepted wisdoms.

“It’s quite interesting that you’ve ended up with the [standardised, low-budget] £60k House with Wimpey in Milton Keynes,” says Stirk to Harbour, “and I’ve ended up with the Bowater House redevelopment, which is for super des reses overlooking Hyde Park.”

“I’m fitting an entire flat into one of his bathrooms – with space to spare,” adds Harbour.

Both are enthusiastic about doing more than just designing signature buildings. “There’s no point in sniggering about the £60k house being small, cheap and system-built,” says Stirk. “There’s a housing problem to be solved and we have to bring to it whatever we can. Some people said to me about Leadenhall [an office tower in the City of London]: ‘Isn’t there something inherently dull and boring about office buildings?’ ‘Well, what would you like us to do,’ I said. ‘Let the big boys from America do them all?’”

“That said, I don’t want to turn into one of those delivery machine practices that just do larger scale commercial projects because they’re not risky,” he adds. “But being risky and responsible at the same time is what I would love us to do. We would use our professionalism, technological knowledge, whatever, to deliver something that questions established methods. That’s very, very tough.”

Being risky and responsible at the same time is what I would love us to do

Graham Stirk

Harbour picks up the argument in relation to a spec office building he is undertaking in Washington DC. “The developer came to us for the Rogers label and image, and what he got was us as a practice, and we threw all these concepts [such as transparency and internal flexibility] at it. Then the developer came back to us for a second building and said: ‘I’d like you to apply these concepts to this building as well.’ So once the relationship is there, you open the doors to do something better than commercial practices do.”

But don’t high-flying architects have to dig their heels in to ensure quality in their buildings? “Yeah,” says Harbour. “But you can do it quite subtly. The important thing is to make sure that every party involved will buy into it, that it’s a natural conclusion, and you’re not forcing it down their throats.”

Stirk picks up the theme: “In a design-and-build environment, if a contractor says ‘We’re not going to do it,’ what are you going to say? ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to pass out. Pass me some smelling salts.’” Sometimes design-and-build can actually improve the architect’s conception, Stirk admits – a view that may or may not allay Rogers’ well-publicised objections to its use on London’s Olympic stadium. Stirk cites the example of the spectacular frameless-glazed eliptical stair towers to the office block at 88 Wood Street in the City of London. “The design was made structurally stable only after the steelwork fabricator was brought in.”

One of the key generators of the smooth transition is the practice’s constitution as a charitable trust. As Rogers puts it: “We’ve always been very proud that this office doesn’t have shares. The directors get a multiple of the lowest paid architect. The rest goes to charity, and a piece will go back into profit share. So that gives the office a pretty strong community ethos.

And design has always been the key thing since we started in the Team Four days in 1963, and will be a long time, I hope, after we’ve gone.”

The practice’s charitable trust status is in stark contrast to the set-up at Foster and Partners, founded by another Team Four partner, Lord Foster. “Norman really owns Foster and Partners, other than a few shares owned by the other three main directors,” says Ken Shuttleworth, who resigned as director in 2002 to start his own practice, Make. “So I’d be amazed if there’s any smooth succession under discussion there.”

Between them, Stirk and Harbour have the perfect track records to lead a world-class practice. They show the commitment and energy to continue to produce the seminal, convention-breaking building designs for which the firm is famous. And with Rogers continuing as chairman for the time being, they will have the time to establish their names with clients around the world.

One thing the practice will lose with Rogers’ retirement is its political involvement. Stirk and Harbour may be looking to challenge established social, urban and environmental values in the projects they tackle, but they lack Rogers’ enthusiasm for stimulating debate in these areas, as in his seminal urban renaissance report of 2000, and more recently in his role as architectural adviser to the mayor of London and with his place on the Olympic design review panel.

So, unless his successors can acquire the skills and character of a political evangelist over the next few years, the practice may miss out on one of its most dynamic sources of reinvigoration. In other words, it risks losing out on what Rogers’ likes to call “continuous rebirth”, leaving the practice to slowly subside into a signature architect, pure and simple.